Where marketers would never want to tamper

Here’s the thing: English professors don’t usually get asked to test drive and review cars. I’ve reviewed books, grant proposals, even web sites. Never cars.

Ah, this blessèd plot, this Internet.

Granted, I’m not an “English professor” — I have a Ph.D. in English literature, which means that I trained to become an English professor, but I’ve never made it even to the interview stage at the MLA convention. When people ask me what I do for a living, I often reply, “I have a Ph.D. in English literature.” Which is dodging the question. If I feel obliged to say what I actually do, I reply, “I work in various capacities on various projects having to do with technology and the humanities.” Or, of course, I describe my current project and position.

Really, I think, people expect an answer to the question of what I do that identifies who I am, an identity marker: “I am an assistant professor of English.” Honestly, even when I had a one-year teaching position at North Carolina State University with the words “assistant professor” in the title, I never claimed that as an identity. I’d say, “I teach English literature at NC State,” because I didn’t have a tenure-track position. What I am, professionally speaking (besides perennially underemployed, which condition applies to at least 50% of people with Ph.D.s in English literature) is still undefined.

Sometimes this lack of definition is decidedly stressful — I’d certainly like a permanent job with a permanent job title that I and others can immediately understand — but at other times, times like these, it’s actually kinda fun. I’ve never liked being categorized. (“Don’t LABEL me, man,” she said with a beatnik sneer.) I’ve been called a “poet” and a “musician” and a “singer-songwriter,” and those labels never feel right, either. Those are just things I do sometimes, and they don’t define me. “Grad student” was my label for a long time. I got used to that one, comfortable with it — too comfortable. Recently I’ve claimed “digital humanist,” though that term is arcane and hard to define. I define it as “someone with a humanities degree who’s interested in computers.”

Most recently, I earned another label: “blogger.” Someone named “Blogger Amanda French” was frequently cited in February’s hoo-hah about Facebook’s Terms of Service. Facebook, by the way, has since asked its users to vote on the new Terms of Service, and they (or some of them, anyway) approved the new ones. Gotta be honest here: I don’t much care. This was a good thing for Facebook to do, I think, and I’m especially glad as a former teacher of Intro to Composition that the new Terms are written in much clearer English. But who cares about my opinion? Not me. No pundit, I. I just like keeping up with technology news, and I do think that it’s important for us all to keep an eye on the tech companies (and all companies), especially as regards intellectual property and privacy.

What interested me about the controversy over Facebook’s Terms of Service was simply whether or not it was justified — whether or not the Consumerist’s claims that the Terms of Service were scary and horrible were true. That’s what led me to blog about it. I concluded that yes, the Consumerist’s claims or implied claims were pretty much true, and the hullabaloo therefore just.

I have reached, by the way, exactly the opposite conclusion about the swine flu hullabaloo, but fortunately there are already plenty of rational people protesting this particular viral mania for misinformation.

One label that I secretly like a lot and hope to deserve is “scholar,” and that’s what scholars do, I think: find out and tell the truth. Journalists do that too (ideally), but scholars get a lot more time to do it than journalists do, and scholars can seek out the truth about stuff that very few people care about at the moment. We scholars, bless us, can be as verbose and sesquipedalian as we like, and we can duck the current daily frenzy and spend our days humming through frenzies long turned to dust. That was my very favorite part of graduate school. While I was writing my dissertation, I got my investigation on, big time. Such fun.

And then I also had fun finding a way to write the truth in a way that was accurate, fair, compassionate, and interesting. The trick is always to balance the desire to be witty or shocking or alliterative or otherwise attention-grabbing with the mandate to be correct and thorough and just. Get out of balance one way, and you’ve got a tabloid; get out of balance another, and you’ve got a 1040 form. As a scholar, I want to be, oh, let’s pull a phrase out of the air, “engaging and authentic.”

All of which is a very long-winded way of getting around to telling you that since I’ve been christened a blogger, I am apparently entitled to receive e-mails such as this:

“I see that you like to write and tweet about social media, teaching, and blogging, and I am wondering if you would like an opportunity to document the experience of test driving a roomy and sturdy Ford Mercury Milan or a sporty yet stylish Lincoln MKX for a few days? It’s usually the car journalists who get to test drive the cars, but we’re looking for fresh perspectives and feedback, something a little more engaging and authentic. What do you think?”

I think I love the Internet. Hee hee.

Ah, well. I told her that I was tickled by her offer (it still cracks me up), turned it down (politely, I hope), and warned her that I was going to write about her e-mail. I ought really to have sent her a link to technology journalist Rafe Needleman’s Pro PR Tips and a link to Merlin Mann’s correspondence with a hapless marketing intern. Merlin Mann, who’s one of the hilarities behind the podcast “You Look Nice Today,” is neither a journalist nor a scholar and can thus pull out the snark bazooka.

Analysis of this e-mail? First, the sender (or her boss) doesn’t understand social media and should at once read the Cluetrain Manifesto; second, she doesn’t understand who I am, despite the presence of copious information on this site suggesting that I am not at all interested in cars or car reviewing; third, Ford might want to look for a new New Media marketing firm; fourth, she’s being disingenuous to the point of dishonesty by writing that they’re looking for “fresh perspectives and feedback.” What led her to e-mail me, I know as surely as if I were kicked back with my feet up on her frontal lobe, was the fact that I have those 2,000 followers on Twitter and got those 30,000 views on that blog post about Facebook. Hey, look at me, I’m an influencer! Who needs a tenure-track job in an English department?

Marketers, beware. I like what I like, and I write what I want to write, and I write it on my own schedule. I cannot be bribed. I cannot be persuaded. I have internal tenure, and you cannot take it from me. And I am not the only one, out here on this Internet.

8 thoughts on “Where marketers would never want to tamper

  1. I also love the word “scholar.” Assistant Professor might be a good job title, but it’s not a vocation. Being a scholar seems to me, after all these years and even from the other side of the tenure line, like a noble responsibility and a rare calling. I’ve met full professors who aren’t scholars, and I’ve met people without years of formal education who are. Scholarship is the thing I commit to when I’m weary of the politics and the endless striving toward promotion and recognition. It’s what I want to be when I grow up.

    Thanks, Amanda. It’s a great post.

  2. Thanks, Steve: you’re a gentleman as well as a scholar. Have you read any Czeslaw Milosz? His autobiographical books are so wonderful — one of them, I think The Captive Mind, has a truly moving account of a classical scholar who persists with his research in throughout WWII and in post-war Soviet Russia. I need to find and read that again.

  3. Loved the post. A Parisian contact of mine tells me the French consider it extremely rude to ask “What do you do?” in an introductory meeting. I like this. In America it seems to be one of the first “ice breakers” employed and it manages to stereotype a person from the beginning. Why does a person’s identity have to center around what she gets paid to do? That’s why I love the “scholar” idea. I want to be known by what I love doing rather than what I happen to do daily. Thanks.

  4. I wonder what the French do ask in first meetings? I’ve certainly fallen back on “What do you do.” Be nice to have an alternative. I suppose “Read any good books lately?” might work. Or “What’s your superpower?” à la Google Profiles.

  5. Great post, Amanda. I struggle with these things myself. I hadn’t thought about in these terms before, but the Captive Mind is a *fantastic* source for issues of scholarly identity … though Milosz’s problems were, let’s say, somewhat more serious than ours. Thanks for the reminder. My long love affair with Milosz dates back to my Freshman year when I unsuccessfully endeavored to learn Polish and toyed with becoming a Slavic Studies major.

  6. Dear Amanda French,

    Really enjoyed your literate and informative blog. FWIW I think if you tightened up a couple of the colloquialisms (“gotta”) and edited for length, you’d be a good contender for Newsweek’s “My Turn” column. FWIW.

    In my opinion you articulated the plight of us who were at or past the hump of the Baby Boom in terms of finding suitable employment in academia. And you were funny! Much harder to do than bitter, as I’m sure you’re aware.

    Thank you for providing a sincere pleasure to this early Fiftysomething, who has at various times called himself a “college teacher,” “instructor” (I despise the term “educator”), “community scholar,” chair of “The Reading Group” (I’m not crazy about “salonista” either); and who has been called “Independent Journalist,” “Germanist,” “Freelance Journalist” [or reporter or writer], “Youth Leader,” and, most improbably, “Mr. Chicago” [a travel piece that ran in a limited circulation weekly in Miami — don’t blame me!]. And don’t get me started on the law-firm titles.

    I stopped out from Northwestern with an M.A. in “Germanistik” (as if you couldn’t tell); then about ten years later went to a local [UCC-affiliated] seminary and got a perfectly meaningless liberal-arts degree in religious studies (as opposed to the “ordination-track” M.Div., which would have required at least another year).

    It was really enjoyable reading the blog, and thank you again.

    Yours gratefully,
    Allen Smalling (Rogers Park, Chicago, IL).

    PS: I drive a Ford Focus and would jump at the chance to evaluate a Mercury Milan, which as you probably know is just a slightly more attitudinous version of the “family-sized” Ford Fusion (the Linc. having far more attitude — and weight).
    To each his (or her) own! – a.s.

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