I was introduced to Prof. Amy Olberding’s 6 March 2018 Aeon piece “The Outsider” through my Twitter feed (for which, my thanks, @JonathanHsy and @mckellogs). In it, Olberding relates her experiences as an academic who grew up in a relatively poor, rural environment, negotiating the tensions associated with that specific divergent background amid the prevailing cultural narratives of academic life. She cites the example of her grandmother as an instance of successful negotiation before moving to reject the dominant narratives of academia toward those people who share her background, using another of her forebears as an emblem of her resistance to assimilation to academic mannerism and life.
I read the piece as something…less than Olberding writes it. Where she occupies a coveted position, I am on the fringes of academe. Where she emerges directly from farming country, I do so only at a generational remove–and from socioeconomic circumstances both more and less constrained than hers, for while she and her immediate family were better off than many of her kin, I and mine were not, though my parents had and have skilled-labor and white-collar jobs, and I do so, even now. Too, my “y’all” occasioned less comment than hers seems to have, since I went to school in Texas and Louisiana, and I had trained myself more or less “out” of “the accent” long before the thought of academia entered my mind. And there are the obvious concerns of my being a white cis-hetero man and the myriad ways that being so eases my experience of the world in the United States.
Yet even for that removal, I could not help but read Olberding’s piece as a testimony of things like those I’ve known. And I am glad that she holds fast to the identity of her origin as she does; I have not been able to do so. For many years, I worked to set myself apart–in part because I was set apart in some ways, the object of a transitive verb, but only in part. I relished being “the smart one,” as I have discussed before (likely to people’s annoyance when they have noticed). I enjoyed the sense of distinction, the idea that I knew more things and was better because of it. And I very much enjoyed being able to learn yet more things, equating knowledge with personal value and thus treasuring the increase.
I am more or less past that, now. (I do still like to know things, and more things, but not so I can abuse others with them.) Trying to be an academic and failing at it, as others have tried and not succeeded, has taken from me the thoughts that I do stand apart and that I should stand apart. Moving back to the town where I grew up has reminded me that I worked not to be part of the place–and now that I have a daughter, and she is here, I recall how not having the kinds of roots that my classmates had hurt. (I would spare her that pain, although I do not know how to do so.) So, for what little it is worth, I commend Prof. Olberding for doing what she describes in the piece–and I hope more will do as she has done.