The Americanization of a Scholar
When I get together with my academic friends and colleagues who grew up in the British Commonwealth (a conglomeration of very different countries bound by shared histories of empire and yet strange affection for things British nonetheless), we often talk about how much we love living and working here, but also how we have had to acculturate to American norms.
I came to America when I was 25, having completed my undergraduate and master’s degrees in history at The University of Cape Town. I lived for some two years in the United States before embarking on graduate school. I felt almost as foreign the day I went off to the University of Michigan for my Ph.D. as I did the day I arrived in the U.S. I had, of course, by then gained an appreciation for bagels, maple syrup, pancakes (and bacon—at the same time? Who knew?), apple butter, and hot apple cider, all served up with great love in Gambier, the home of Kenyon College, where I lived for the first few years. But I did not feel American.
Graduate school changed that. After my first day in the history program I realized things were not going to go well if I heeded the gender (and no doubt race and class) injunctions of my South African upbringing: be very modest; don’t be too clever for a woman; don’t try too hard because it will look like you are being too serious or thinking you are better than others. And if you actually liked fashion, you had to hide it if you had any hope of being taken seriously: sackcloth and ashes were the only proper dress for a female academic.
It soon became clear to me that at the University of Michigan, which truly changed my life, things were very different. I was actually expected to show that I had thought deeply and was expected to put myself out there in prose and in person in ways that were very new to me. And I could even wear interesting clothes (I bonded with Becky Conekin, author of the recent biography Lee Miller in Fashion, who also loves clothes and has a much more fashion forward sense than I do: I aspire).
In talking to my female friends from India, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, I saw that I was not alone in graduate school finding myself lacking in the assertiveness department. While many women report similar feelings, we seem to have experienced multiple challenges as we wrestled with both different cultural expectations relating to extraversion as well as more universal issues relating to women’s experiences of entry into male dominated professions. We all seemed to struggle with writing proposals and grant applications and applying for jobs. Did we really have to say that what we were writing was a major contribution? Did we even dare think it? While we have all to some extent embraced our new American academic identities, there are still things that seem odd, even though there is much that we love.
We all seem to appreciate the ability to just do our job for the most part without being reminded that we are “clever for a woman.” (Although the October 3, 2013, New York Times piece on why there are so few women scientists in the U.S. gives one major pause: maybe it really is better to be in the humanities, except perhaps for philosophy—see the September 3, 2013, New York Times article on women in philosophy.) We also like the fact that most American academics have a wide sense of the world. This might be because academics travel to conferences all around the world and talk to people who see the United States from a variety of perspectives.
But there are things that still strike at least some of us as very odd, perhaps the oddest being the American tradition of the recommendation. Do we really have to write pages and pages citing our dear students’ accomplishments, even though they might not yet have navigated Saturn? What happened to that nice little paragraph written by our professors back home, which went something like, “Dear Professor X, I recommend Dr. Y. Her work is solid. She is trustworthy and honorable, and I hope you will consider her application. Yours sincerely . . .”? Short, sweet and accurate. I have come to think that there are only two sentences that are really worth reading in American letters of recommendation: “I [highly, very highly, most enthusiastically or not] recommend Dr. Y.” and in conclusion, “Dr. Y is in the top [1 percent, 2 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent—it never seems to go below that] of all the students I have taught.” Seriously, can’t we just all cut to the chase?
I write this with great affection for my life in the United States. I have now been here for decades, and it is my home. When people ask me where I am from and I say Atlanta, it takes me a while to figure out that that is an unsatisfactory answer; then I say South Africa, and people often go, “Oh, really? I thought you were from England/Australia/Denmark.” Of course, I now think I sound right at home, right here. People ask me if I like living in the U.S., and I always reply with some version of, “I don’t know if I really live in the U.S., exactly, but I do know I live in American academia, and I love it!”