“Professionalism” in academia.

Hi, it’s been a while.

I have been on a bit of a social media hiatus – nothing super drastic of course… I  still need a dose of memes every now and then.

But for the sake of my mental health, I have decided to unplug a little. It’s been really good for me actually.

However, something was brought to my attention that I couldn’t let be, especially given where I am personally on my journey to cultivating a better mental health space for myself.

A Twitter acquaintance (@timgill – who if you don’t follow on Twitter already.. you really should.. enough said) tagged me and a few other Albanian academics in an article by Balkan Insight relating to a new viral TicTok challenge called the #ProfaChallenge. The trend is in response to the unwarranted negative feedback that teacher, Lulzim Paci, from the town of Vushtrri, received on social media after he posted several videos of himself dancing valle (a traditional Albanian folk dance).

The criticism ranged from family members to politicians, who called the clips “improper and degenerate acts.”

The criticism sparked Valon Canhasi, the founder of a social media agency based in Prishtina, to make a video reply, where he posted a clip of himself dancing valle. Since the first post by Valon, several Albanians have participated in the challenge, from teachers to politicians to famous actresses and singers.

I am not famous nor am I officially a “professor/teacher.” I am just your regular, friendly, neighborhood Albanian archaeologist. But this story broke my heart a little, maybe because it hit so close to home for issues that I have been trying to deal with myself.

I don’t want this to be a sob story about myself…I am working on my issues; seeing a therapist and taking my meds. Something I highly recommend to everyone but especially my fellow Albanians who are struggling with mental health issues. Taboo as the subject is for us.

My mental health has degraded because of the perceived notions of what is considered “professional” and “successful” in academia. During my first years in school, way back in the days of undergrad, I worked non-stop, barely had a social life, sacrificed my mental, physical and emotional health, sacrificed relationships with those who were close to me, all for the glory of being a successful and “professional” academic. Was it worth it…Um, NO. My anxiety got so bad while trying to finish my master’s at Mississippi State that I started becoming physically ill – I lost 20 pounds in a month.

Still, I never blamed the system or my perceived notion of what it meant to be a successful, professional academic, but myself. I was not working hard enough, I was not smart, well-spoken, dedicated enough. And if I wanted to succeed, I had to cut out all unnecessary silly distractions, like hobbies and naps. Terrible, right? I know better now. Naps are supreme, and I won’t listen to anyone that says otherwise.

What do you think of when you see these two words; Professional academic?

An old British guy with white hair, wearing a tweed suit and thick tortoiseshell glasses? Maybe he has a large mahogany bookcase behind him?

Maybe you see a serious-looking middle-aged white woman, with medium-length straight hair, speckled with some grey. She’s got glasses, of course, maybe cat-eyed, for a little pizazz. She’s wearing a well-ironed button-down shirt with tailored trousers. Deff not wearing heels, though. High heels are not professional, they are for the club. Red lipstick? Also no.

That’s what I imagined when I was younger. These seemingly benign words, “professional academic” are anything but. The images they conjure are the product of very deep, systemic and insidious social phenomena. They are the product of all the “isms” and “ias:” racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, classism, homophobia etc.

I won’t get too deeply into this because there are many more educated and informed people who have explored these phenomena their whole lives. But I will pose a question to you. Ask yourself this, why is the accepted range of behavior for a professional academic (or professional anything, say, a teacher for example) mirror so closely straight, heteronormative, white, male characteristics (largely)?

Why are academics stripped of their humanity? They are serious, they are older, they are aloof, they work hard and are smarter than everyone else. They are diligent, regimented, able-bodied, clear-minded, and sometimes mean, but they are so smart and so much better than the rest of us, so they can be mean. They do not spend time with their families (they don’t have time), have interests outside of academia (as if they would waste their precious time on something as pointless as painting),  be silly or goofy, dress “sexy” (gasp), post bikini pictures (unprofessional), or god forbid, stray away from heteronormative monogamous relationships (double, triple gasp, quelle horror).

I am exaggerating here and being sarcastic (just to be clear). But I hope it gets my point across.

What people do with their time outside of their job is not a reflection of how good or bad they are in their career (obviously, there are exceptions like, for example, running an underground meth lab a la Breaking Bad…We can all agree, this is a no-no). But hobbies, free time, personal lives? Nobody’s business but yours.

As always, you do not have to agree with me. But I hope I made you question some of your assumptions about what it means to be a “professional” anything. So here are some closing thoughts: humans are complex, multi-dimensional creatures. We carry multiple intersecting, identities, which layer and overlap and make each one of us uniquely us. One identity does not cancel out the others we carry. And for the love of god, a profession is not an identity. Or if it is important for you, please know that you are more than your job!

So for my Albanian community, our Albanian identity does not preclude us from carrying others. You can be Albanian… and gay (gasp gasp)!! For my academic friends, being an academic does not mean you cannot be human. You can be a “respectable academic” and have a life outside of academia that is diverse and fulfilling to you. Where you pursue passions, hobbies (such as folk dance) and meaningful, enriching relationships with loved ones.

Lulzim, if you ever come across my strange little blog, keep on dancing. And to everyone who is reading this; be silly, have fun, spend time with your friends and family, doing things you love, read a book, hidhe vallen (dance). Be yourself. You’re allowed.

Although, you don’t need me to tell you so.

Peace, love and valle popullore.

You can read the Balkan insight article here: https://balkaninsight.com/2022/02/01/kosovo-albanians-join-video-campaign-to-support-folk-dancing-teacher/

Yes, I know there are typos.