Kayla Meyers (@commausagerules) is a teacher and writer based in Austin, Texas. Her research examines the intersections of race, visual culture, and political rhetoric of the 20th Century U.S.
As far as selfies go, this one is uncontroversial. I’m in front of Oklahoma City’s Skirvin Hotel brandishing my conference badge with a “Trust Women” pin on the lanyard. It was the week of the Kavanaugh hearings and I was determined to announce I was at a gender studies conference. Besides, I work from home and rarely get dressed up – my hair and eyeliner needed documentation. But this tweet made obvious my white lie.
“The College of William & Mary” is written under my name, my affiliation. Or it was. I applied for the conference soon after graduating with my masters and listing it seemed natural, like muscle memory. But a year later, it felt shameful because I am now unaffiliated.
But that’s a lie, too. Because I am affiliated with a school. I have been teaching primary school for all of the years bracketing my graduate school experience. History, essay writing, creative writing, ESL – I’ve taught it. I’m just not in academia.
Okay, but I won’t accept that either. In the year since I left my affiliation, I had a conference paper and an article for a peer-reviewed journal accepted. Wasn’t that what an academic was? Someone who produced research, put it out there, and taught simultaneously? So what if none of it was gathered under the umbrella of a higher ed. If it didn’t matter, why couldn’t I just say that I was unaffiliated, for clarity’s sake? Why does my mouth get dry when I say “independent scholar”?
We like to pretend that affiliation doesn’t matter, our subconscious rejection of the ivory tower. When my undergraduate advisor and I first sat down to talk about graduate schools, he insisted it didn’t matter where I went. That I could do great work anywhere. But anywhere should at least be somewhere. Because affiliation does matter – it wouldn’t be a constant requirement when applying for a conference or journal if everyone agreed on its universal unimportance. It wouldn’t have been printed on my badge.
My penance for this lie would be rhetorically circling the drain for the entire conference, trying to explain my real affiliation. I turned conference smalltalk into a live existential crisis, each following the same pattern:
“William and Mary? Isn’t that in Virginia? You are a long way from home!”
“Oh yeah, but I – uh – finished my masters a year ago.”
“Moving on to your PhD?”
“Yeah? Yeah. In the future, you know? Now I am just teaching in Austin.”
“Oh at UT?”
“Haha I wish! No. Just teaching primary school and writing on the side. Anything I can do to afford tacos!”
I took every opportunity to turn the conversation to tacos, which in retrospect defeats the purpose of networking, even if it makes for more heated debate. I felt that the longer I had to talk about my life and how unaffiliated it was, the less seriously anyone would take me. I wondered if people would think me an imposter.
While much of this hand-wringing is a result of my own existential panic, my own nervousness about whether applying to PhD programs is right for me or whether I’d even be accepted, there are real boundaries that excise the “unaffiliated” from academia. I won’t be the first or last to say that there are serious financial hurdles in attending conferences that block graduate student attendance, let alone the unaffiliated. I recently found myself unable to apply for funding because, as the administrator put it, I was not an affiliated graduate student, nor was I affiliated at a two-year or four-year institution. These are delimited bounds that silently insist on who is part of academia.
It isn’t silly to feel like being unaffiliated, as the standards define, makes you an imposter who has the audacity to infiltrate a sacred space. So I don’t think it is misguided to want to put on sheep’s clothes when walking into such a space. But knowledge doesn’t eliminate guilt. On good days, I think, “I paid tuition. I’m going to milk this affiliation as long as I can.” On not-so-good ones, I feel like the dropout who keeps coming back to high school dances.
I don’t think an affiliation will remedy this imposter syndrome. In fact, I know it will shapeshift into another identity crisis. You don’t need to look far on twitter to see the different manifestations of imposter syndrome in academia, and I hear it constantly from my friends in graduate programs or on the job hunt. We console ourselves: “fake it until you make it!” I’m just taking that advice literally.