I am somewhere between Long Beach and DeKalb, 30,000 or so feet above the ground. I have just spent a week with one of my very best friends and his husband. Not only is he one of my best friends, but as I reminded him this week, he has been my longest friend, with our friendship spanning almost half of my life. We laughed about this, recognizing that we are getting older. But we are getting older together, and that gave me a sense of calm as we reflected on our friendship and what it meant this past week.
Being with my friend and his husband felt…good. These are truly people I can just be with; not something that happens with everyone. We never feel the need to put on airs, and we allow each other grace in a way that feels rewarding, comforting, and a signal of what I want from all my relationships. I begin to realize I could very well end up in California; I daydream of what that would look like, actually. The weather, the people, and the lifestyle remind me of all I loved about my time in the Southwest, and I get nostalgic for the beauty of the desert, the smell after a monsoon rain, and finding again that place where the sky and ocean merge into one as the sun sets over the water.
And yet, as I am flying home, I am contending with some feelings of loneliness. These feel sharp and visceral. I am not meant to feel this way, especially after the week I just experienced. I am not meant to feel this way when I have some of the most beautiful, loving, compassionate, and dear family. It makes no sense as I head home to see my dog and another dear dear friend, both of whom are in DeKalb. In many ways, this feeling makes no sense.
But in many other ways, it makes perfect sense. And in many other ways, I can see how this feeling of loneliness is built, maintained, and impacts various people—especially those of us with marginalized identities—throughout higher education and student affairs (HESA). While I am sure the same happens in various other disciplines, I am mindful of my own positioning and conversations I have had with some close friends about our field, which is why I situate this commentary in HESA, recognizing there will likely be carry over.
This loneliness is not new, nor is it just personal. I felt it most acutely this past spring when I went to a higher education and student affairs conference. I felt oddly focused on, and heard multiple comments like, “Oh, I saw you in the hotel lobby earlier today,” or, “Oh yeah, your work is really great,” or, “I just wanted to come meet you.” These comments make me feel uncomfortable for multiple reasons. First, as a non-binary trans* femme, hearing I am being clocked and placed in certain locations at certain times is disconcerting. Why is this important for someone to point out? All this does is make me feel like more of an oddity, and remind me how I am non-compliant with the gender binary discourse (Nicolazzo, 2016) that marks me as impossible and unexpected in HESA (Jourian, Simmons, Devaney, 2015).
As an early-career scholar, I am mindful that much “my work” has yet to be published. Furthermore, I am under no false impressions about the readership of those pieces which have been published. So what is it people are saying they have “read”? Have they just read my name in the table of contents of a journal? Is this just something people are saying because they feel like it will make a good impression? Is this the manifestation of the culture of nice that pervades our field? And if so, how does the furthering of a culture of nice actually reify and further distance us from one another? How is my work, which people have apparently read, substituted for actual human connection and conversation? Even if people have read my work—which would be nice and the whole purpose behind my writing it—why do people feel the need to lead with telling me this?
As someone who is incredibly shy, and who is an extreme introvert—especially at conferences, which is also likely a practice of resilience for me as a trans* person in a world steeped in trans* oppression—I am wary of people who “just want to meet me.” Hearing this makes me feel like an oddity again. It makes me feel like people are checking my name off a Scholar-Practitioner Bingo sheet they made up for all the people they wanted “to meet” at conference, which seems code for saying hi and not making personal investments in each other. These remarks rarely seem to lead to substantive conversation, and I end them feeling a bit hollow, as if I have been met, but I have no idea by whom. They leave me feeling like only one person between the two of us got what they wanted, which was a bit of “me,” or the me they want to know about, anyway.
In thinking about my loneliness, and the perpetuation of loneliness through (not) seeing certain people as actual people throughout HESA, I am aware that I am guilty of doing this, too. I begin to feel like shit. But I also realize I have the ability to correct some of this as a faculty member. I begin to see connections between my own experience of loneliness in HESA and a broader culture where people and experiences and identities are commodified in our field, to the detriment of those of us with marginalized identities. I recognize how my loneliness is a signal for the broader cultural effects of how we are consumed as marginalized scholars, and I feel the need to write about it. Perhaps this is to assuage some of my guilt about my role in this whole cultural phenomenon. Perhaps I am seeking some sort of absolution. And perhaps I also think that by writing about it, I can connect my experiences with others, and with a cultural phenomenon that I see playing out in our field. Perhaps this will cut some of the loneliness. Perhaps, though, it will become yet another artifact that people can tell me they read so as to create the guise of a connection when they do not actually want to “see” me. This is a risk I am willing to take.
I have participated in not recognizing scholars’ lives. I have done this recently. I have positioned some scholars as “untouchable,” and have gushed about their scholarship. Yes, I have read their work, and I have engaged with their ideas; however, the way I have equated them with their scholarship, as if this is the totality of who they are, and all they want to talk about/embody, now makes me queasy.
I have also been in classrooms where students have talked about scholars—friends of mine, some of them—as if they are their writing. I want to talk with students about not confusing one’s scholarship with their life. I want to provide a more complex narrative of how writing works, and that while much of our experiences and identities may be implicated in our work, that we ourselves are not the pages we write. I want to say this, and to talk about what it means to consume one’s work, as if by doing so, we are the “good White people,” the Tiffanies (Thompson, 2003), and we are free from guilt, shame, or further perpetuating systemic oppression. But I never know how to start that conversation, or if it is “appropriate,” or what students will make of it, and so I collude by choking back the words. I know the acrid feeling of swallowing those words is also tinged by the budding realization that, although I am just doing what I love, I may well be positioned as one of “those scholars” who people want to “meet.”
My mind wanders back to all the cisgender people who have approached me at conferences to tell me I am “so brave.” I think about the person who asked to take a photo with me after multiple sessions last year, but who did not engage me in actual conversation about my work, my ideas, or how we can work together to transform higher education environments. I become confused again by what that picture symbolized, or how the posting of it on social media marks me and that person as “having a connection.” I wonder what that “connection” means, because it feels more like a disconnection to me. I sit back in my seat and am again glad I deleted my Facebook account.
And then there are those connections with scholars that feel real. Like when I shared jokes with a well-known scholar about how we each thought the other was cute. Or when a scholar and I shared pictures of our dogs over Twitter. Or when a scholar and I talk about her fear of flying, and our shared exhaustion at “being seen” at conferences. Or when I have coffee with one of my good friends early in the morning after she comes back from a morning run before a full conference day. Or when I go off-site for a queer and trans* dinner with my friends, where we can be far from the cis/het-normative conference life. Or the every-other-week Skype calls I have had for the past three years with one of my dear friends, where we talk about the mundane nature of our lives as well as what we are grappling with intellectually.
I remember that these human connections, and these moments of humanity, do in fact exist. I have witnessed and felt these.
It seems painfully clear to me that, as a field, we have some severe confusion about who each other is. We have some idea that one’s work and life are the exact same thing, that one’s work equates to one’s personhood. We have swallowed and are performing neoliberalism. We have cultivated a celebrity culture in HESA that encourages distance rather than closeness. This celebrity culture also oozes over those of us with marginalized identities, as people clamor to “connect” with us. Sometimes these connections are real; this blogpost is not about those few connections. However, a bulk of the time, those “connections” are predicated on one’s desire to absolve one’s majoritarian-based guilt, as if someone’s being “connected” to me means they no longer collude in trans* oppression. The reality, however, is that by making these false connections, one may actually be colluding in the very systemic oppression one is seeking to “get over” by “connecting” with me in the first place.
I chuckle as I think about the scene in Reality Bites where Winona Ryder’s character is asked what the definition of irony is as the elevator doors close on her before she can answer.
So I am still here, 30,000 feet above the ground, somewhere between Long Beach and DeKalb. And now I am thinking about how my loneliness may connect to so many other people in our field who I know are also lonely. I know our shared loneliness is about a lot of different things, but I also know that going to conferences exacerbates this loneliness for many, that when people consume our time, our identities, and our experiences through their seeking proximity to us, that we leave these spaces feeling drained. We leave them feeling unseen, and used. I, for one, leave them feeling deep confusion, because I don’t even know my own place in our field, so for someone to suggest that being “connected” to me is meaningful is discombobulating, indeed.
And then I feel vain. And I feel guilty. And I feel gross and weird even writing about this, because I know I am far more than any of my identities, and I am far more than my scholarship. And then I feel angry, because when people tell me I “publish so much,” they aren’t recognizing the way that trans* and femme and trans* femme-phobia manifest culturally, which means I literally have to publish more to even have a shot at being seen as legitimate, and that the very notion of “legitimacy” is completely cis-, hetero-, and masculine-normative, and that I will never be seen as legitimate because I will always be deemed as the “angry tranny.” And then I get mad, and then sad, as I remember a conversation via Twitter yesterday with two Black women where we talked about the shared experience of being positioned as “angry,” “feisty,” and “fierce,” which we know are all code words, and that these depictions of us are rooted in a sense of our not being human enough to just have opinions worthy of being recognized on their own.
I feel this post has gotten away from me. I can see all these disparate threads coming together, but they feel too weighty and too unwieldy to hold. I am not sure what this post will do, and worry that by posting it, I will get platitudes from people who don’t see me. I don’t want that.
Let me repeat: I don’t want that.
I want to call attention to the massive problem I see in our field where we say we value human connection, but we act in ways that promote disconnection. I want to draw connections between loneliness as a feeling and our (in)actions as people in a field devoted to human development. I want to discuss how my (our?) feelings of loneliness are endemic to our very work, and cannot be easily washed away by a week with our nearest and dearest. I want to talk about how these everyday utopias (Cooper, 2013) are, by their very definition, retreats rather than escapes. We always come back from those utopian spaces into worlds and cultures and broader communities that devour our very being, pick apart our identities, and feast on who they think we are so they can feel better about their own lives.
The fall term is coming up for us all in HESA. I wonder how we will orient ourselves to one another this year. I wonder if it will be different. I wonder if conference spaces—and by proxy, our field—will continue to feel isolating to me.
I hope not. I will do my best to surround myself with family while in these spaces, and I will remember to talk with all the students with whom I teach and learn about the fact that we as scholars are all people. I will Skype people into class, realizing that this practice is not only educationally useful, but can be humanizing as well. I smile thinking about the video conferencing I have done where I have gotten silly with classes, and although I felt weird about that at the moment, I feel good about it now. I think about picking up my dog during Google Hangout sessions, and while that was so she would stop hounding me to pay attention to her, I like the glimpse into my mundane life that it gave the students on the other end of the video call.
And then I realize I am heading home to my dog—my heart—and I feel just a bit less lonely for the moment.
I shared what I didn’t want from this post, but have not discussed what I do want. So let me be clear on that point:
I want for us all to really interrogate what it means to be “connected” to people in our field.
I want for people to truly connect with each other, rather than “connecting.” If the desire to connect is not there, then just let it be. Platitudes aren’t necessary or appreciated.
I want for people to stop clocking folks with marginalized identities; we already know we stick out, and your telling us doesn’t help.
I want for people to never call me brave again.
I want for people to resist and reframe celebrity culture in HESA, and actually spend time interrogating why it is some people are positioned as “celebrities” in the first place.
I want for people to think about how identity-based consumption is a manifestation of systemic oppression.
I want to continue to focus on the people and communities who see me, and don’t suggest I am someone to be seen (with).
I feel better. As Sara Ahmed (2012) noted, sometimes writing about the hurts we experience, about the brick walls we bump up against, is itself an act of healing. Perhaps writing autoethnographically can be a form of resistance to hegemonic ways of seeing, being, and doing in our field. Perhaps this can be one way of reorienting our field toward humanity and an epistemology of love (hooks, 2000; Nicolazzo, 2016, In press; Palmer & Zajonc, 2010).
Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Cooper, D. (2013). Everyday utopias: The conceptual life of promising spaces. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
hooks, b. (2000). All about love: New visions. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
Jourian, T.J., Simmons, S. L., & Devaney, K. (2015). "We are not expected": Trans* educators (re)claiming space and voice in higher education and student affairs. TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 2(3), 431-446.
Palmer, P. J., & Zajonc, A. (2010). The heart of higher education: A call to renewal. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Nicolazzo, Z (In press). Trans* in college: Transgender students’ strategies for navigating campus life and the institutional politics of inclusion. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Nicolazzo, Z (2016). "Just go in looking good": The resilience, resistance, and kinship-building of trans* college students. Journal of College Student Development, 57(5), 538-556.
Thompson, A. (2003). Tiffany, friend of people of color: White investments in antiracism. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(1), 7-29.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.