New Kid on the Hallway speaks wisdom:

At the same time, I acknowledge that they are no longer a real part of my identity, since I never act on them and others never see them.

For instance, am I still a Californian, when I haven’t lived there for almost half my life?

That was a bit tangential to much of her post, and to be honest, dealing with that side point is too personal even for my pseudonymous blog. But she also asks:

why do we choose the labels that we choose? Why do we decide to fix our identities in such a way? How do we determine which label is the one that really truly describes us, especially when it’s not a label we like?

I have no answer to New Kid’s questions, but I can tell you that I have embraced the identity as an academic. I’ve let it take over. I’ve said things to boyfriends like “I’m a historian. I’m always going to ask why.” I’ve given in to being the person who points out typos on menus (and as late as the first year on the tenure track, I didn’t want to be that person.)

I’m not entirely sure why—but partially it’s because there is a lot of truth in that behavior. The same things that make me an academic guide much of my life (I am fascinated by advertising today and early modern politics for the same reasons). And it’s easier to say “I analyze commercials because I’m an academic” than to really express who I am—fascinated by delusions and spins and why people believe what they believe.

But within embracing an identity as an academic, I’ve reinvented myself a few times. Now I’ve gone from being the shy one to being the social one—and that has showed me how labels can be useful, as being the social one helps prevent me from hibernating, which I’m prone to, left on my own.

And there’s other ways in which I resist. I’m proud of being the only professor I know who doesn’t listen to NPR, and I like doing random things like in-line skating, which is not the usual practice of a professor in London.

So—let me offer another possibility—I use these labels both to help me fit into my world and to encourage me to step outside of it. A label as an academic explains or excuses a lot of my natural tendencies, and then I don’t have to defend them. Yet, knowing this isn’t entirely healthy, I strive to break out every so often, and then the label makes it easier. When I am the only academic in the room, I know I have broken out of the constraining comfort zone, and that’s good. I try not to see choosing a label as fixing an identity, but rather as offering an anchor that I can drift around, sometimes closer, sometimes further.

Update: you may have noticed New Kid wrote “a screed against labels” and I argued for using labels as a tool. I’m not much on screeds.

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