what do you say, follow-up

I had asked the questions in my last post because I've been reflecting lately on my own conversational patterns and what they might mean. I recognize myself in many of the comments, so I know that these concerns are not unique to me alone, or my situation.

I tend to downplay what I do, in casual and even not-so-casual conversation. I spent most of my life before college being harassed and picked on by peers and teachers for being "smart," and I'm still very sensitive to the social ostracization that accompanies any faint whiff of intellect. Announcing that I have a PhD just seems like wearing a sign that says "kick me I'm too smart for my own good."

I never say "I am a professor," unless I'm in a professional situation where it's required -- though even then I'd be more likely to say "I'm faculty" -- I don't know why, but that seems less aggressive, or less prideful. I think, too, that I am so far from being the stereotypical tweedy middle-aged white male"professor" that I tend to distance myself from the word. (This might also have a bit of self-protectiveness in it, as when I was a young-looking new professor I routinely had to defend my credentials to the staff in the Parking office and at the campus library--being told I couldn't possibly be old enough to be faculty was incredibly irritating.) I also know that when I lived in smaller towns, places where there was one college that was a significant component of the economy, geography, or identity of the place, the concept of "professor" was a more meaningful one to a larger number of people. In a "college town," the categories of "students" and "faculty" are more homogenous and more familiar than they are to average citizens of a large city which contains several colleges of different types.

I tend to focus on teaching in my response because that's something that most people understand, or have at least encountered. Yes, it does mean that some people think I teach high school, but that doesn't really bother me. Yes, I get stupid replies like "I have to watch my grammar" but I'm used to that by now. For casual conversation, it's fine.

But lately I've realized that when the conversation is extended, or the acquaintanceship is an ongoing one, the teaching-focused answer isn't quite enough. Or when someone does know something about what it means to say that you teach at a college. Like this conversation which happened to me recently at yoga:
A: What do you do?
M: I teach at Large Urban University.
A: Really? What do you teach?
M: I teach [X Subject.]
A: What's your specialty?
M: [Y Subfield.]
A: You have a PhD?
M: Yes.
A: You're a doctor?
M: Unh-huh.
A: You're a professor? (imagine the last three remarks with increasing pitch and surprise)
M: Yes.
A: Wow. That's so amazing.
M: (shrugs, feeling really awkward)

This is where my lowkey strategy backfires, somehow making my job title into more of a focus rather than less of one. Or recently, I was chatting with another woman who I'm fairly friendly with at yoga -- she knows I'm a professor, and it hasn't been an issue. Out of the blue, she says "so, do you write?" and I was left confusedly saying "Yes" but also trying to figure out what she was really asking. Turns out she knew that faculty have to publish scholarship and was curious about what I did. But that was the first time in casual conversation that anyone has ever asked about what I write about. Usually when someone says that, they mean "do you write novels."

So lately, when it's conversationally appropriate, I've been experimenting with ways to talk a little about my work, all of the different pieces of it. I don't talk about my work that often even with other academics, so this has been a real stretch, but in a good way. But it's made me extra-aware of how guarded I tend to be, how I manage my responses based on the context or what I think I know about someone's background or education level.

Our culture doesn't have a clear concept of "professor" the way that "lawyer" or "medical doctor" circulates. People don't watch TV shows featuring academics. And even though many people have gone to college, and presumably encountered professors there, sometimes it seems as though we might as well be monks or CIA agents, members of mysterious cabals with secret behaviors that sometimes impact ordinary folk. Sometimes it's fun to play with people's assumptions. But sometimes I wish it wasn't quite so complicated.