Defying Classification

I’m writing this post, the first in over a month (my bad!) from a hotel room in New Orleans. I’m down here for the Southeastern Psychological Association (SEPA) conference, having brought with me 5 of my undergraduate students from Delta State. The conference seems to be having the desired effect – students are excited to see the very real possibility of themselves presenting material here in subsequent years. What seemed big, ominous, and unknown, is now something they see within reach. It means a lot more work for myself in terms of advising students, but it’s work I’m happy to do. 

The topic of this post isn’t about my academic pursuits, or the symposium that we presented on perspectives on a campus shooting. While the symposium was a success, thanks to the lead author Sally Zengaro, and my collaborators George Beals and Franco Zengaro, there isn’t too much I can say about it that hasn’t already been said. And while the academic nature of the conference has been fulfilling (I’ve seen some interesting talks, and gotten some ideas for my own research as well as my students), it also doesn’t merit my putting electronic pen to paper. My topic tonight is the one part observation of human behavior, and one part my own warped philsophy of the world. And it’s best summed up by the title, Defying Classification.

Psychology conferences are interesting places. Scores of undergraduate students looking to get their feet wet, teams of graduate students trying to be noticed on a larger stage, and professors presenting either to fulfill pre-tenure obligations, out of respect for their science, or out of love for their field (Sometimes all 3!). You tend to notice trends in how they walk, talk, and appear. Undergraduates dress in typical teenage and early 20’s style, with some (who were clued in, like my students) dressing slightly nicer and more professional. Graduate students tend to dress in the most professional attire, with professors taking a more laid back approach. Professor standard attire for men tends to be jeans or slacks, with a button down shirt or polo, and occasionally a sport coat. No suits, few ties. We look, more or less, like grown up versions of our undergraduate students. Other conferences differ slightly – the business school crowd dresses more formally, and I assume other professional schools clean up a bit more than us ratty PhDs. 

Today I was wearing my standard professor uniform: Khaki cargo pants, black shoes, dark blue Carhartt t-shirt covered by a black polo shirt. On my belt I had my camera in a case and my cell phone in a holster. I like to keep my pockets open during conferences to (a) have a place to put my room key without depolarizing it and (b) have a place for business cards and my conference name badge. After the last session tonight, I went out in the same ‘uniform’, adding in a black 2600 hat. I tend to shy away from logos, but I make an exception for brands I like to show support for, and 2600 is a publication I feel is important to the technology community.

Anyway, I proceeded to ‘take myself out on a date’, (because I’m awesome and I’d date me if I were single). I hit a few shops, watched some dueling pianos, caught the sunset over the Mississippi River, and picked up a gift for Karey and a birthday gift for a friend. On the way back to the hotel, I decided to get some food, but didn’t feel like having anything fancy. When you’re alone, sometimes all you want is something simple. Tonight I thought of something I hadn’t had in awhile: Popeyes Chicken. So I wandered over to Popeyes, walked in, placed my order, and walked back out. Holding my drink and Popeyes bag, I noticed a shorter scrawny gentleman come quickly up to me on my left. “Cocaine man, I got good cocaine”. I shrugged him off, and wandered across the street wondering if dealers with subpar products strategically make fewer promises. As I got nearer to the other side of the street, a security guard from one of the hotels spied me and asked “Hey, are they busy in there tonight?”. I replied “No, they’re pretty open” and she thanked me. 

It was then that it hit me: I looked like a security guard or a bouncer. I had things on my belt, I had a black polo on, I had cargo pants, I had a black baseball cap with some strange number on it, and I had just bought food in between two other similarly dressed gentlemen who were off to work at different places according to their polo shirts. The lady who put my food in my bag at Popeyes asked how my day was – I had replied “Busy”. She replied “The more you do the more you make, huh”. I absentmindedly agreed, despite the fact it isn’t too true for me. I am huge, a trait normally found in private security personnel. As I came into the hotel, I realized that absolutely no one on the street would have guessed I was a professor, or a scientist, or a published author, or a computer programmer. I looked like a security guard, and likely New Orleans local. 

And I’m just fine with that. The point of this long rambling post is simply that joy can be found – true, unabashed joy – in simply being yourself. If you defy classification, than so be it. If you are the epitome of who you’re supposed to be – own that too. Be the professor with the tweed jacket and elbow patches (on a side note: I hardly see those anymore). Be comfortable in your own skin, and let others think what they may. Honestly I like blending in – it means people are more likely to treat me as a peer and tell me their story (After all, that’s why I got into psychology in the first place). Others prefer to stand out, signaling to the world that they are individuals. Both mindsets are perfectly fine. And switching day to day is allowed. What you shouldn’t allow is yourself to be consumed by the tyranny of the shoulds, to use a term from Karen Horney. Be all the bouncer professor you can be.

(But stay away from cocaine, good or bad!)

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