It wasn’t until my second semester in grad school that I let the idea sink in: I was out of place and needed to fit in. Swept up in the optimism of newness, my first term was a whirlwind of encounters as I tried to navigate new ideas, new ways of unpacking those ideas, new protocols (some stated, some not), new seasons (I’m sorry, winter is how long here?), and, most of all, a new identity. Never in my earlier years did I imagine pursuing a doctorate and, as such, never in my earlier schooling did I understand that academia is its own circus of sorts. Performing academic—while meaningful in some contexts—was a skill I had to learn to turn on and off and I continue to question its efficacy in a time of educational ferment (for whom is education and to what ends?). The answer to that, I’ll address in a later post, but for now, I want to call attention to the weight we attach to one seemingly benign form of performing academic: the email signature.
I’ll be the first to admit that I placed a premium on my own email signature, likely more so than anybody else who happened to see mine. And when I trace its importance, I recognize that it stemmed from a mixture of jealousy (how come I don’t get to use that title), panic (I don’t have anything to show for my time involved with this group), both of which were misplaced desires that upheld the greater chicanery of productivity. I did a lot, yes, but I also made it seem like I did a lot, and now that my affiliations are about to change, I’m trying to critically reflect on how something as throwaway as an email signature participates in these quiet regimes of competitiveness.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know Yet
The axiom holds true: you don’t know what you don’t know yet, especially in the initiation into grad school. For me, the wide-eyed wonder of “what if” questions quickly switched into a series of “but what ifs” instead.
- What if I admitted that I’m clueless about philosophy? But what if I’m the only one.
- What if I started a writing collective for grad students? But what if nobody showed up.
- What if I shared a draft of my paper for feedback? But what if they learn I’m a fraud.
With each cycle of posing “what if” questions, I’d counter myself with a statement: But this is not possible. But this is not enough. But this is your burden to bear, alone, because you chose this path. The self-imposed meritocracy myth felt like entrapment until I defined success in my own terms (easy to say, harder to do, and therapy helps immensely with this). In the contemporary squeeze of fewer jobs and higher enrolment, we can add to this the externalized pressures that permeate the academy: publish or perish, teach all the courses, serve on all the committees, gather all the fellowships, win all the grants, and do so without whimpering about personal matters because professionalism. My own curiosity quickly deflated into a sludge of worry and the dread of never being enough.
Of course, this is imposter syndrome on steroids, and we already know that those who acutely feel its effects tend to have fewer privileges or resources available to them. The part that troubled me (past tense? continues to trouble me?) is our obsession with optics and signposting within the academy. To be sure, there’s value in naming affiliations and organizations/projects to which one belongs. It’s good shorthand for giving coordinates for which disciplines and which topics one takes up. But the flip side of this is the semiotic puzzle of how to present oneself—through bios, titles, email signatures—in a concise manner. Like any label, this outward messaging continues to haunt me, especially because I don’t fit neatly into one category.
I tried to make up for complexity by listing more items (ugh), as if each one pinged a different audience. To academics, I named my department and milestone in a doctoral timeline. To humanities scholars, I signalled public scholarship as a priority of mine. To prospective collaborators, I used keywords drawing on different languages and lexicons to give my work nuance (e.g., not just any fermentation, but feminist and fermentative thought together; not just any fermented foods, but also how Japanese ferments get taken up in food education and acculturation). Especially for new encounters, my email signature became a secondary layer of conversation starters. Sometimes to delightful effect, sometimes not. One unintended consequence is that I let those monikers define my worth, where the idea of fewer commitments rehashed the fear of “not doing enough.” This fear is the worst manifestation of I am my job, where output and identity are baked into one.
Partly because I was dissertating at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to untangle who I was and what I did. For instance, the astute reader will notice that, just as I did now, I separated the act of writing a dissertation as its own gerund: dissertating. This word play was enough for me to remind myself that I work on my dissertation but it is not me. How we come to understand and reinforce these identities operate on registers like this, under-examined yet plainly everyday, including the words we say, the gestures we use, and the automated taglines of our written correspondences. At the same time, I don’t want to make the tacit argument that one ought to have already figured out one’s identity and vocation (neither of them being stable concepts), because that would also usher in the uncanny ick of responsibilizing work/life balance, the moral one-upmanship of having somehow attained that balance, or the so-called “wokeness” about one’s privileges and wherewithal to critique that balance. Who I am and what I do are always ashift. And fickle. Fallible. And whatever anxieties I tack onto “not having it all figured out” is perfectionism run amok.
I mention all this because I find it funny—both funny-haha and funny-strange—that my first thought having defended my dissertation is that I want to update my email signature. Academics, we can be caricatures of ourselves, and I’m trying to both make fun of myself and poke at why we do the things we do.
Iterative Identities to celebrate over time
I’d like to think that who I am and what I do are always iterative. And at this particular moment—having just defended, but not yet graduated—I can see that I’m trying to use my email signature as a way to nail down some certainty in my life-in-transition. Like testing out a new wardrobe or a new haircut, it’s part of a greater shift towards who I want to be. (I think it’s worth pointing out the danger in letting this imperative to optimize can get out of hand, in the ever-present pressures to distinguish and “brand” oneself within capitalist markets.) Whereas in the past, I used email signatures as an antidote against impostering (I do things!), I’d like to think that mine is now a latent invitation: ask me about this.
Even better: these are the things I care about. One of the best congratulatory messages after defending was “welcome to the rest of your life” (thank you, Maha) because it starkly put into focus that my recent achievement was one notch in the long-game of growth. I care about many things, and in order for me to act on them in meaningful ways, I want to prioritize where I place my time and energy. Some people already do this in the form of individualized territorial acknowledgments (caring about the erasures of place-based histories) or notes about having different work-hours in a day or week (caring about the unstated societal expectation to respond in a timely manner). Of course, some use this space for promotional work too, which can sometimes be a laudable attempt to share knowledge (caring about audiences), other times an insufferable demo reel of horn-tooting (caring about one’s accomplishments). I don’t mean to police this space (goodness knows there’s already plenty of that in who gets to use “doctoral candidate” versus “doctoral student”) but I do wish for this space to be reconsidered in terms of self-confidence. Though it is meant for an external audience as signposted shorthand, I wish the construction of an email signature would come from a grounded place, which also means that the initial stages of any pursuits may be trying to find one’s footing. Groundedness comes with time, it’s not immediate.
And perhaps most importantly, there’s no rush. All in good time. I bet for folks outside the academy, this whole rant can be written off as navel-gazing (in a way it is) or the pinnacle of nerdom (definitely). But it is also a celebration, or at least that is my hope.
Maybe that’s what an email signature is, a celebration of my past and future selves. A “you’re amazing” to past-Maya for working so hard on a PhD, and a “you’ve got this” for the future-Maya for continuing with courage. In the end, the email signature may “look” the same in smallprint as my first iterations when I started grad school, but this time I have a better relationship to it. I see it as an opportunity to present myself in a confident but care-full manner because that is how I want to participate in the optics of self-signalling.
Maya Hey, PhD
Convenor, fff | food feminism fermentation
Fellow, Open Education Group