Saturday, July 25, 2020

Jokes and their Relationship to Class, Impostor Syndrome, and Belonging

I’ve been writing posts here as a guest this month, mostly about my writing life - my emotional responses to writing, managing that response through my writing process, and so on. In this post I get a little more afield from the doing of writing while keeping on the theme of the emotional life of writing, tied to my being a first generation academic.

At several points while writing these posts I have written jokes or parts of jokes, often self-deprecating ones. I believe I’d edited them all out. I’ve done so because they’re not particularly funny (my oldest daughter likes to tell me “‘dad jokes’ rhymes with ‘bad jokes’ for a reason”) and because they don’t really fit with what I am trying to accomplish in these posts. At best, they are something I needed to do as a writer. Part of the task of editing is to remove things that are in a draft just for the writer’s sake, so that as much as possible what remains in a text is only there for the sake of the final piece of writing and the connection with the reader. Doing this requires being able to approximate thinking as if one is a different person; few people can do that very well, which is one of many reasons why writers need editorial readers. But I digress.

In the free writing I did for my posts here, attempted jokes clustered particularly in the openings of the drafts, for my first and second posts. I’ve felt the impulse in drafting the bodies of my posts as well at times when I’ve felt emotionally vulnerable, like in my last post when I wrote about feeling depressed after defending my dissertation. I’ve also been tempted to make jokes when I’ve worried that I’ve gotten to close to or gone over some line, as in that post when I said I worry about being overly negative. (When I say overly negative, what I really mean is unacceptably negative, relative to what I called compulsory positivity.)

My sense, then, is that I’ve wanted to make jokes largely in order to admit to some unease about not fully belonging in the profession, and to then allay what I’ve admitted to - that is, to say I do in fact belong by laughing off the idea that maybe I don’t. To a lesser extent I’ve done the same with my own discomfort; the joke says ‘I’m uneasy, but, haha, it’s just a laughing matter.’ This is in part related to my simply wanting to be liked: the particular urge to make a joke that I’m discussing arises from a gut level feeling of potential disconnect from another person. The point of the joke is to raise that potential disconnect as a matter for discussion, to do so in a way that means it can be set aside, and to do so in a way that’s enjoyable or at least socially acceptable. It’s all about trying to bridge, to connect, or rather, to find evidence of having already been connected in the first place.

By the way, I’m channeling what I recall from a class on Freud when I was in college in the 90s; I don’t recall if I ever actually read his book on jokes or just heard some of it summarized in a lecture. Early in that same class I remember a fellow student making a joke about the construction workers who were working on the building outside. This is around the first time I can remember meeting anyone who was opposed to unions. Many people in my family have worked construction, often in the unionized trades, so this experience threw me quite a bit and there was a loud social subtext about who college is and is not for.

I suspect that people like my fellow student who made that joke are more likely to become professors than people from other background, and that this pattern has intensified from the 90s to the present. I had a similar experience a few years back while reading an academic article where the author said that historians often have a grasp of their subject informed by their encounters with high art and their time working in finance and similar industries. I quit reading, shut my lap top and angrily went for a walk. I considered a more public response at the time but it felt ill-advised as someone early career and untenured. Employment insecurity silences.

Knock knock!
Who’s there?
People who really belong here.
People who really belong here who?
People who really belong here, who are not you.

What I really want to talk about in this post, though, is a different relationship between jokes and belonging, in my life outside of my job. Periodically people in my personal life learn that I’m writing a book and they ask me what it’s about. I’ve often said simply “it’s about the history of workers’ compensation law,” which typically inspires, “oh, huh” said with a polite but bored facial expression. Sometimes people ask a follow up question along the lines of “why did you become interested in that?” or “so what does the book really say?” My response then is usually something like: “The very short version is that things used to be bad, and worse than you think, but then later they became differently bad, and worse than you think,” with a pause to let the other person change the subject if they want to. If they don’t take the out, I continue with something like “it’s about people getting their fingers torn off and dying and not being helped enough, and how workers’ compensation laws that were supposed to improve things only sort of helped, and also treated a lot of people really badly in new ways.” With non-academics there’s usually a change of subject here.

I don’t make these jokes out of any plan, so much as out of habit. On reflection, my impression is that the jokes play a conversational role of allowing the other person a diplomatic out. People may well not want to talk about the content of my book for its academic qualities, or for its sad and angry qualities, or for the outlook animating the book. “Sure,” each joke conveys, “I may be a little awkward here, but I’m of good humor, see, I made a joke, and one at my own expense, so it is up to you if you want to know more about my book or if you want to change the subject, and either way, our relationship is not in jeopardy!”

I think the joke plays another role as well, which is to let myself off the hook for others’ emotional responses. The truth is that I genuinely do want to make people uncomfortable in talking about my book’s subject matter because I think understanding class and the violence involved in it - employee injury and legal injustice being facets of class as I understand it - requires being uncomfortable. But I don’t enjoy creating that discomfort, it’s just a necessary part of my goal, and I suppose I prefer to create that discomfort at a remove, via the written word, so I don’t have to actually see the reader experience it or feel accountable for that experience.

The other reason I’ve had the urge to make a joke about my book is, I think, tied to my own class background. At some level, around a lot of people in my life, I’m a little uncomfortable being an author. Now, writing matters to me, in the doing of it, as hard as I often find it. I’m committed to writing as a practice and, well, I guess I’ll say as a kind of art-making, though that sounds skin-crawlingly pretentious to put in print. The thing is, doing writing and being an author are different categories. I’m the only person in my side of my extended family to get a conventional four year degree and my partner is not an academic, so little of my social and familial interaction is with other academics or any other profession. This has meant that if people in my personal life found out that I was writing a book it tended to mark me as different in some way. (I want to be very clear here: my family has a rich intellectual life and always has since I was kid, but that intellectual life is differently organized than an academic intellectual life. I feel very strongly that it is simply false that academics are smarter than other people. My honest views  ultimately are, for one, that intelligence is largely an anti-egalitarian ideology best abandoned. I tell my students this sometimes: “I’m not smarter than you, the difference between me and you is just time, I’ve spent more time typing and reading some things than you have; there are also things you’ve spent more time on than I have. Anything I can do, you can learn to do over time. Try to set aside any ideas of smart and smarter than, they won’t help you.” I get a range of facial expressions in response.. And, for two, intellectual life is largely a matter of personal character and community: we are best selves and think best when tied to networks of ethical relationships. Again I digress.)

I think my impulse to crack jokes about my work around so many people I know is tied to a kind of variation on impostor syndrome. In typical academic impostor syndrome, the fear is that one has stepped close to people to whom one is not in fact similar - that one has tricked one’s way in to an exclusive club and will be caught and chucked out. In the settings I’m discussing, the worry is that of being actually very similar but being perceived as having stepped away.

The very worst way this can happen is for the other person to think I’m trying to be a big deal. This happened a lot when I was younger and still learning to code switch. I’d use college words, seminar room words, around friends and family members who didn’t talk that way. This is not just a linguistic difference: college education is part of the reproduction of class relationships and the attainment of positions a little higher or lower on the social food chain. (This is discussed briefly but in an illuminating way in Goran Therborn’s great book The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology. I’ll add that given the state of the academic job market and the job markets faced by new college graduates I will add that often a college degree provides the trappings rather than the substance of these higher social positions. This trend will intensify during and after the COVID-19 pandemic as it did during and after the financial crisis in 2009.) As such, to talk college around my non-college friends and family risks coming off like I’m trying to one-up, to pull rank, to act better. That is, in my experience, an incredibly painful conversational misfire. And an awkward one: trying to address it head on often just makes it worse. Hence, the jokes are an effort to close the distance, to maintain or restore the quiet humming in the social background of messages that I do in fact belong here.

I’m aware that I’m afield from my book and writing now in some ways, but in important respects the book is about belonging and class relationships, nor is that removed from our professional lives as historians: we have our class backgrounds, and they shape what it’s like to live a life within which we work as academics. So too do race, gender, migration, religion, ability, sexuality, age…. All the ways in which we are who we are shape what it’s like to live out our work as scholars and how that aspect of life interacts with the rest of life. I’d be very interested in knowing if other people - especially fellow first generation academics - have impulses like mine toward a sense of uncertain belonging and if so, how you find yourselves trying to navigate the moments of uncertainty and insecurity in both your professional life and in the interface between your academic and personal life.

Well reader, that’s another post finished. My next will be my last of these. In it I will talk about how since finishing the writing of my book I’ve been looking for new ways to organize my writing life and projects to fit life post-book. That search is still a work in progress. As usual, thanks for reading, I appreciate your time.

- Nate Holdren