I am a young faculty member at a Texas university. Indeed, I am one of the youngest in my college, if not the youngest. Yet, my colleagues imagine that I am years older than I am. Actually, they seem to imagine I am years older than the university itself. Okay, that might be an exaggeration.
Still, I don’t think I look particularly old. I am in good health and have only a few grey hairs. If I am not wearing my “teaching clothes,” I am often mistaken for an undergraduate.
Why, then, do my fellow academics think I am so much closer to death than they? Oddly, completely independent people have responded the same way: “Oh, I only thought that because of your gravitas .” Who other than academics would use such an arcane word to insult someone? I suppose it conveys what they wish they could say: “Gee, you really are that young? I wouldn’t have known because you seem to suck all the life out of a room when you enter.” They can be a sweet crew.
I resisted for a few years, but have decided to embrace the gravitas. After all, I have many reasons to be grave. As a gay man in the middle of Bush country, I have never slept very soundly.
We have a delightful governor. Even as I write this, he is traversing the state promoting a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. When pressed about the obvious problems this would cause for gays and lesbians, he gave a thoughtful response. “If there's a state that has more lenient views than Texas,” he generously offered, “then maybe that's a better place for them to live.” Who says compassionate conservatism is just a slogan?
Of course, state politics aren’t the only things that are prematurely aging me. Like any junior professor I am subject to the whims of senior colleagues. They hold my professional career in their hands through that whole tenure thing. It doesn’t help that some of my colleagues hate my academic field (Mexican American History). Probably I make this worse with my annoying habit of wanting the department/college/university/state/nation/world to pursue actions that lead to social justice. A few years ago, some of my senior colleagues proposed the elimination of the department’s equal protection clauses in our bylaws. No longer, they said, did we need to offer protections that would prevent women, people of color, people with disabilities, or GLBT folk from being harassed. All that legalese, it seems, was getting in their way of hiring only straight, white men.
Maybe gravitas is just another way to say I whine too much.... Either way, I have decided to embrace it. After all, if there is a center of gravitas, I am sure I am in close proximity.