Professional Distance

by Acacia

I’ve always particularly admired the other art historian in my department. She is slim, tall and elegant. She appears at ease in any situation and carries herself with a cordial air of professional reserve. She reminds me of my colleagues in grad school who seemed to have a professorial air that they inherited from their advisors.

Dr. Albert Boime (1933-2008)

My advisor was different. He was much more casual in his approach to teaching. His lectures were enthusiastic narratives where art functioned with its social and cultural context and he had stories about all the major players. He once re-enacted the Raft of the Medusa using an upturned folding table and placing himself in the various positions fo the figures in the painting. He went off on tangents that came out of his vast knowledge and curiosity. He loved his students and enjoyed meeting his undergraduate students from the 300 seat Modern Art survey classes. He was the model for my own teaching and I tell stories and go off on tangents and love my students.

I was always proud to be part of his legacy, but it seems that not adopting the professorial air of my colleagues has worked to my detriment. While I usually have positive interactions with my students and colleagues, I’ve also been subject so a surprising about of abuse from my students and my department chair. Students will send me angry (and frankly insulting) emails arguing about grades, the difficulty of exams or challenging policies outlined in the syllabus. My chair feels perfectly free to yell at me in front of fellow faculty and graduate students and to berate and insult me in private meetings.

They don’t do this with the other art historian. Her professional distance applies to both students and faculty (including administration). She has never been subject to the verbal abuse or student anger, even though our classes are equally difficult. I am becoming convinced that it is this professorial air that discourages the same treatment that I receive. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve and to feel emotionally invested in my work and my students. This seems to leave me vulnerable or give the impression that I do not warrant the same respect as my colleagues.

I don’t want to shake off Al Boime’s legacy, but I don’t want to be treated this way either. Sometimes I really feel like I have to hide who I am in order to be treated with any respect.

Maybe I can find the secret guidebook for faking the professorial air until it becomes second nature.