Friday, 21 August 2015

Diploma, Person, Power.

Yesterday, Jonathan Hsy asked:

Rather than paraphrasing the whole conversation, I'll let you read it because it's fascinating. The main strands of the conversation have been collected (along with Jonathan's summary) here. What I want to pick up on is one particular area that was mentioned by a few people: whether displaying your certificates undermines your humility. Or worse, if it's a sign of arrogance.

As a woman, I get very edgy when the term 'arrogance' is used. When applied to women, it seems to be very easily confused with any of the following, in both professional and personal contexts:
  • Rebutting a point in a debate;
  • Being quiet;
  • Being outspoken about your opinions; 
  • Failing to vocalise a dislike of your appearance; or
  • Acknowledging your achievements.
Although all of these uses frustrate me every time I encounter them, it's the latter point that concerns me here. For anyone, a PhD is a huge achievement. It's challenging (both intellectually and personally); it's difficult (both financially and emotionally).

But - and there is a but - the same outcome (a completed PhD) is a different achievement to each and every person. And for those of us who are outside of the demographic in whom academic authority is invested, this achievement means something different.

As Jonathan rightly suggests, for people who don't t embody academic authority (because it's still seen as invested in certain types of people: read white men, mainly) the display of certificates is a means of displaying that authority. It's a visual rebuttal to those who might question your worth. It's also a visual reminder of the people who shaped you.

I should disclose here: I'm a second generation immigrant. Neither of my parents completed their secondary education. No one in my family had ever graduated from university before me. And then I went and got into a prestigious university, and graduated.

In my undergraduate graduation photo, I am smiling awkwardly in the way you do if you're being instructed to hold a fake roll, and turn your body and tip your head and SMILE, LOVE! But my parents? They are there, in their best clothes they bought especially for the day, grinning from ear to ear with pride. I had never seen them look like that. 

If that photo didn't make me well up every time I look at it, I would probably put it in my office. But when I look at my certificate - when I see that achievement typed out in words alongside my [foreign as hell] name - I get a faint echo of what my parents must have felt that day. I feel grateful; I feel humbled; I feel proud of myself; I feel bemused that it ever happened. 

I don't feel arrogant. I don't think many of us do.

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