A while ago, I have been sitting at a conference dinner, eating amazing food, speaking to fantastic people. During that dinner, we started to talk about our „academic crushes“ and, subsequently, about idols and role models. Someone said that it is usually better not to meet one’s idols. At that point, I had to intervene and tell the stories about the various times I have „met“ Judith Butler. I told the four people in this conversation that not only do I have three autographs, but also a picture with Butler – and that I have written a blogpost about idols in academia. Of course, they wanted to see the picture, so I took out my phone and searched for it. Suddenly, the person in front of me began to laugh – I had forgotten, that my phone case says:
I have already read
so you don’t have to
Naturally, I became the Butler-person of the conference and those who had been part of the conversation that evening couldn’t help themselves but had to smile during my presentation the next day – in which I obviously also used Butler’s theories.
In the days following that conference, I wanted to write another blogpost, another take on and about the necessity of role models. But, as it goes, life happened. Too many things happened. Academia was a place in which most people do not qualify as role models, some not even as people I want to spend my time with or see in the office hallways.
However, today during lunch a colleague „criticized“ the work of my supervisor. Even though I also have some critical points about his work, I got the sudden urge to defend him. Why?
It was not because his work is infallible. Rather, I did not want to lose the positive view on one of the few people in academia who I think can help to make it a better place. But should he, or idols in general, be uncriticizable? Definitely not!
Being criticizable, even encouraging people to take a critical stand against one’s actions and teachings, is what makes a role model such one.
In my last post on this topic, I said that being an idol is part of one of the three things I love about academia:
„In my opinion, there are three aspects of working at the university. I think you should like two of them, or better still, love two of them, but I do love the three of them:
1. researching, 2. writing and 3. teaching.“
And exactly this third aspect, that of teaching, must be embodied by any of my role models. By this I don’t just mean giving „classical“ seminars or lectures and thereby „teaching“ or even „explaining“ something to others, but the will and enthusiasm to generate new questions, perspectives and points of views in exchange with others. This is the only way to question existing knowledge and develop new ideas. For this reason, points 1, 2, and 3 are actually inseparable and (should) be interwoven and reflected upon in academia.
Being open to criticism and change is exactly what I meant by „teaching“. It is only through conversation, discussion and exchange that we grow. In relation to what I have written in another post, the one on imposters which got a lot of feedback, I want to stress the fact that looking at idols like this, widens who we consider as idols.
It can be our supervisors (old ones and new ones), people we meet at conferences (thank you for making me write this new post), our colleagues (especially those who, after reading the post on imposters, reflected upon their own behavior), students (thanks for those wonderful seminars), even authors of fictional books or their characters. On this point, I have to give a shout out to the wonderful book by Emilie Pine: „Notes on Self“ (2018), which I have found in my favorite book store in Dublin on my last visit. It is a must-read! (Maybe I am biased because Emilie Pine noted exactly the same three points on why she started to work in academia as I did … this cannot be a coincidence, right?)
We do need role models!
Without them, this place would (only) be grey, plain, depressing, and not the right place to put any of our emotional and intellectual labor and effort into. If we chose to be a part of the machine – and it should stay a constant choice! – we need to look for idols. Not in order to strive to be like them, but to be inspired by them. Let them influence our way to work with one another, for others.
For this, they do not have to be perfect, but far from it. Real role models also see you as theirs.
Which brings me to my last point…
The most important role model – at the risk of sounding like a neoliberal motivational card – have to be ourselves. We might think of ourselves as imposters, as not being good enough, smart enough, pushing enough, nice enough or professional enough. But the will to become better is what should inspire us.
Sadly, it is the real imposters (as I use it in my other post) who think of themselves as idols – for others. They would never consider others as role models. And it is those who think of themselves as imposters who would never consider that they already are a role model for others.
A big thank you to the latter ones! You are what makes academia a better place.
If you want to be inspired by people in academia, check out our En-Gender Conversations podcast series. Season one is already out and we are currently recording season 2. It has been so wonderful to virtually meet and speak with so many amazing people – so please share and be inspired!
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