When a person buys a house, something funny happens. Suddenly, that person becomes more obsessed with the tiniest things that he/she has literally never thought about before. This happened with me when I bought my condo several years ago (note to other grad students--It's actually just cheaper to buy in Rochester than it is to rent. Rest assured, I am still mightily poor and remain in povertarian solidarity). Seemingly overnight, bathroom faucets became the most fascinating thing I'd ever seen. I spent hours upon hours at Home Depot and Lowes comparing models and styles, for a remodeling project that would not happen for at least a couple of years (if at all). Weird.
Branding a website, I've learned, is similar. I never thought I would ever have a "professional website" and I certainly hadn't thought much about what I would name it. Much like the faucets, I spent hour after agonizing hour weighing the options, and decided that "Blue Collar Scholar" would be the perfect name, for reasons that I will explain below. One problem. Someone else had the idea first. So now my blog is called "Blue Collar Scholar" and the site is called "TheRenaivalist.com"--with the latter being a conflation of "Renaissance" and "Medievalist" as a result of the fact that I work across that particular line (in other words, I still heart Stephen Greenblatt, but I won't read The Swerve). TheRenaivalist won out over "Scottspeare," a short-lived nickname I picked up in my first year of the program at U of Rochester (one of the better nicknames I've been tagged with, joining the decidedly less fun "Shaq," "April," "BeamMeUp," and an unfortunate nickname from my undergraduate fraternity days that will never be spoken of again).
But why "Blue Collar Scholar"? Before the name was taken off the table due to the realization that it was already spoken for, one of my dearest friends actually cautioned me about it. She noted that, while people who knew me would get it, people who didn't know me might make assumptions. Assumptions about that farm country background, and whether it put a chip on my shoulder. Assumptions about whether or not I might be a hick and have a raunchy sense of humor (I don't. I do love horrible puns, however). She noted that she knew none of those things were true, but that she worried about what "someone who doesn't know you might think."
She was being a true friend and looking out for me, but I was still reluctant to part ways with this moniker. Not because it rhymed, but because I think it is important to hold on to where I come from. I was raised in farm country in NE Pennsylvania by a single mother who went to work immediately after graduating high school (who is also one of the smartest people I know). People from my hometown--people from my socio-economic background--didn't really think about going to an Ivy or striving for an academic career. I struggled to get where I am now, not only through economic and family concerns, but also mostly through my own misguided sense that people like me weren't "welcome" in prestigious academic settings. Melissa Scholes Young explains this feeling brilliantly in her May 6th 2016 article in The Atlantic:
"When the College of Arts & Sciences at American University organized a
first-generation faculty meet up, I hesitated to join. Who would be in the
room? Would I be outing myself and confirm their suspicions that I really
didn't belong? Instead, I found administrators, department chairs, and
accomplished scholars sitting around a conference table unpacking their
brown-bag lunches. We talked about the masks we often wear with our
colleagues and how even our achievements still feel unmerited."
Owning that "Blue Collar Scholar" moniker is about owning that anxiety. Even Facebook quizzes seem to recognize that anxiety--in a recent quiz that would reveal my Hogwarts house, wand, favorite class, club, etc, it notified me that I was a Hufflepuff who was also in the Slug Club. You can try (and fail) to hide it, or you can own it. Marcus Belby or Ginny Weasley. I choose the latter.
What that means is that I always try to write and speak in a way that reflects those roots. James Shapiro, in an interview included in the post-script of the paperback edition of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, revealed that "The intellectual confusion I had often experienced--in high school, college, even graduate school--made me a lot more sensitive to students and readers who feel lost, and had a profound impact on what I write about and how I write. I don't have a lot of patience for those who condescend to readers (or students) or write in an impenetrable style." I don't want to speak for professor Shapiro, but I'm reasonably sure that his lack of patience for those scholars with impenetrable styles is not because HE finds those scholars difficult. He simply wants to be the kind of scholar who writes for the kind of student he was. That's what I want as well. I don't always succeed, and I get honestly terrified when I see myself slipping into that dense, field-specific jargon with a potential audience of a few dozen people. To me, that doesn't mean I'm succeeding. It means that I'm restricting. I'm restricting my work to a handful of people, and I think the work that we do is too important for that. If people from farm country Pennsylvania can't latch on to some part of what I'm writing and make sense out of it, I think I'm doing something wrong.
That attitude shows up in my writing (I once explained the humor in The Merry Wives of Windsor by comparing it to the comedic structure of the Schwarzenegger film Kindergarten Cop--you might also recognize the subtitle of this blog post as a gem from that cinematic masterpiece, haha). I utilize common sense metaphor in my writing classroom as well. That's how people operate where I grew up. In my hometown, if I stopped and asked someone for directions and that person gave me longitudinal coordinates, I'd look at them like they had horns coming out of their head. It doesn't matter that it's more accurate. In my neck of the woods, "directions" involve turning right by the Pump 'n Pantry and then hanging a left right after the big rock that sort of looks like fat Elvis if you squint.
The reason my blog is named "Blue Collar Scholar" is that, despite my dear friend's very well-intentioned and considerate advice, I can't present myself as something that I'm not. It does a disservice to me, my co-workers, and most especially my students. Melissa Scholes Young passionately lobbied for first-generation faculty to be open about the struggles we faced along the way, noting that it "doesn't hurt our credibility. It helps build it." She argues for this openness to show our first-generation students that there are people who have "navigated similar paths" and succeeded. She said that one of the benefits to her "not knowing the rules" was that "in college and my career, I didn't know not to knock so I learned to knock louder." That's where I'm at right now. I'm at the beginning of this blog. The beginning of my career. The beginning of the perilous academic job market. And I'm not going to try and pretend to be someone I'm not. I'm proud of those blue-collar struggles. I use them in the classroom, where I feel I'm at my best working with student populations who might also feel a little out of place: first generation college students, international students, military veterans, etc. I try to help my students thrive in this new and unfamiliar setting, and realize that the best person they can be in college is themselves. I own the fact that I'm an unlikely Shakespeare nerd from the depths of farm country because I need my students to see that I AM a Hufflepuff in the Slug Club. Despite my anxiety about that fact, I DO belong here. And I'm going to knock louder.
Welcome to the site and my blog.
Welcome to the "Blue Collar Scholar" blog at TheRenaivalist.com (i.e. Scott O'Neil's personal and professional blog).