Last week, for some reason, I felt the need to go into my photograph archives and find the pictures of myself performing on stage, either as a vocalist or as an actress. I used to be a very active student in the arts performances during my high school and university years. I took part in several plays, wrote a few plays myself, and sang in school bands as a vocalist, even guest starred as a vocalist from time to time in cafés and bars where my friends were playing. I loved the feeling of being on stage.
I must have been good at all of that, because my friends and family thought there was a chance I would apply to a conservatory to study music or drama. At the time, I thought that I enjoyed music and drama so much that I would be unhappy if I had to do either one to earn a living. So I opted for my second best choice, studying international relations and being an academic. I thought being an academic would allow me to still be in touch with my very artistic side. I believed that in academia I would have more time and opportunities than I would have in the private sector to get more connected with the arts. I was both wrong and right.
To me being an academic meant to teach while you are learning all the time. It equaled being a professional student in a way. It meant progress, it meant self-development before anything else. In this view of progress and self-development, a good academic would not only be an expert in her own field, but would have multiple interests and would engage herself in them. I planned on doing that while struggling to become an academic. My main area of interests lied in literature and the performing arts and I expected myself to be engaged in these fields. I thought somehow I would find a way to write non-academic books, act in an amateur company or to sing again on stage all the while I was climbing the steps of higher education.
I think I failed on that. In today’s competitive “publish or perish” academic world, we academics hardly have time for ourselves. Forget about being engaged in production of the arts and in performing on stage, it became harder and harder for me to be a consumer of the arts: I used to go see several plays per year as a student. Now I am lucky if I get to see a few. This situation brought a sense of impoverishment, as if I was deprived of a certain part of my personality for the sake of a career.
However, that is why the feeling of being on stage in my own academic activities became all the more important. For a long time, I’ve seen teaching in class and presenting at conferences as performing on stage. I feel like I am performing while I am teaching, with a room full of students as the audience. I know there are no lights, no music and no applause at the end of my performance, but still when I enter a classroom, I feel I have things to deliver to my audience and that I must do that the best way possible. I try to dress up more elegantly the days I have classes to teach, then use all parts of the stage once I am in the classroom, look the students in the eye, keep my voice in an awakening tone, even watch for the intonations of words I want to emphasize. I also feel like no matter what happens in my personal life, I must appear in front of the students and perform my class with all these details to the best of my ability. I know it does not always happen but when the students are attentive, I feel like a winner.
I feel similar when I present papers at conferences. To me this is even more personal and artistic, because I get to present a paper that I myself have written. So not only I am acting on stage and delivering a message but I am also the author of the play. At conferences I generally get some applause in the end and hopefully some feedback afterwards. I get to meet with some of the audience later on and exchange ideas. I am performing before the eyes of colleagues who do the same thing for a living who thus know what it feels like. While I am at conferences I actually feel at home, on the stage of a truly attentive audience.
I may not have found exactly what I am looking for in academic life. I definitely have not found as much time as I wanted for my artistic side. But apparently I have compensated this with something else, the feeling of being in theatre academia where I feel happy when I am on the stage of an attentive audience. That is enough for the moment to keep me in.