inventing a college persona?

Check this out: I overheard a student (a new first-year student, I think) and her mom shopping at Fred Meyer here in Corvallis this afternoon.  I was looking at the travel mugs, and they came up behind me. The mother asked something like, “And do you need a travel mug for class?” And her daughter replied, “Yes, that would probably be smart, given my penchant for hot milk with various spices added.”

For a split second, I thought she was kidding, that she was being playful somehow. But no, she was just talking to her mother in her normal voice, as they shopped at the grocery store. And I got the quote down almost verbatim; the only thing I’m not sure of is what she said she liked to add to her hot milk (it was spices or SOMEthing). She definitely used the participle phrase “given that…”, and she definitely used the word “penchant.”

Talk about “inventing the university” — even outside the university! This was more like “inventing my college persona.” [For anyone not familiar with that first phrase, it’s from David Bartholomae’s seminal article “Inventing the University”]

When I was 19 or 20, I actually did the “inventing the university” thing, big time, in my first English class. I got papers back with comments like “excellent vocabulary but too abstract.” I was worried about sounding academic (hence my fancy word choices and my over-abstract style) more than I was about vividness, clarity, or even simple communication. Fortunately, I got over that pretty quickly.

The whole “inventing the university” thing is an undeniable phenomenon, that’s for sure.  AND it seems students may also negotiate or “try on” an academic or “cultivated” (ooh! the connotation of that word that I do NOT mean in my blog title) or “educated” voice in their everyday verbal lives, too. I mean, obviously, for some students, they feel the pressure to sound mature at home as well as at school.

And hmmm, that reminds me of Alfred Lubrano talking in “The Shock of Education: How College Corrupts” (2003) about how middle-class homes encourage and support their children for college in ways working-class students rarely benefit from. The former use language explicitly, the latter implicitly. Basically,  he’s saying that in middle-class homes children become more conscious and skilled with language because various views/opinions are explored and because things are talked about/analyzed more, and thereby children become more conscious and more fluent with language and with thought.

Many working-class students definitely do not have their parents there to support them at college (either financially or psychologically). I can attest to that from my years at community colleges (as student and staff).

Anyway, I’m still amazed that young woman could speak that way to her mother and that her mother thought nothing unusual about it. On one hand, it’s great (talk about hyper-consciousness about language!) but whew, talk about a persona!

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2 thoughts on “inventing a college persona?

  1. I think it might be unfair to assume that this was not the way the girl normally spoke, especially if you noted she used what sounded like a regular voice and her mother thought nothing of it. I have used “penchant” or “given that” or “given my” many times in regular speech, and I don’t really consider it part of being academic. If this were a paper where “penchant” and “given that” weren’t called for, it might be easier to assume some kind of persona being assumed, but i don’t think those words even when talking about hot milk and spices necessarily indicate affectation. She may have just been making fun of herself if she reallllly likes those drinks and has to have them every morning. It’s too easy to assume, I think, and perhaps even unfair. It seems as though a judgment is being made about the girl when her background and personality aren’t known. To me, what she said doesn’t sound so much academic as wry. Maybe it’s all in how you hear it. I just don’t think it’s fair to label it as persona without knowing the person. We’re all so very different after all.

  2. Hey, Marjorie.

    Of course, you’re right: anything is possible since we’re all different. And of course, I am basing my opinion on my experience. And I have seen this trying-to-sound-educated phenomenon a lot — too many times not to suspect it in this case. I could just tell.

    Maybe the distinction that needs to be made here is between the “voices” one uses to play with, to try on new perspectives, new viewpoints, new feelings, new experiences, or just simply the entertain oneself, and the “voice” one adopts for an extended period as if it’s one’s own natural non-persona voice. I am assuming that this young woman was using the latter, not the former. You, Marjorie, are masterful at doing the former. But I’ve never heard you adopt any of these “persona” voices as if it were your core voice, so to speak. I could always tell you were adopting a voice, temporarily. And I don’t mean you were faking anything, or that the voice wasn’t “you.” They very much ARE you. They are PARTS of you, but not the core you — maybe that’s what I mean. I think of adopting voices as a needful and creative thing, a way to deepen understanding, to explore life, or just to entertain one’s self. But I do mean that if you used one of those play voices for months or years at a time, without breaking character, as if it were your natural voice, then I would suspect you were really trying to convince yourself you WERE that voice: whether it’s a voice that’s educated, funny, the highest divinity, or whatever. ;-)

    But, oh sure, I’ll concede I could be completely wrong. I did, after all, hear only a couple snippets of conversation between this woman and her mother. But I really think I’m right on, in this case.

    It’s not such a horrible “judgment”, anyway, even if I am right. I did the same thing twice in my life (as a teenager and as a college student). Heheh, maybe that’s why I feel confident to pick it out when I hear it.

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