When I arrived at my first job out of grad school, I became an Assistant Professor. I participated in New Faculty Orientation, sit on division meetings, attend faculty meetings, etc. Yes, I am a full faculty member. But I have something unique about me: I am the youngest faculty member. And, aside from some of the coaches, I’m about 4-6 years younger than the other professors.
Thus far in my career (and I know it won’t last long), I have always been one of the youngest. I was the undergrad among masters students in my two internships; I was a 22-year old graduate assistant in a department where most people were thinking of retirement. I’m used to being the youngest.
Most of the time, it doesn’t matter.
But the age difference between myself and others of my rank can cause interesting reactions and interactions at the university.
- I’m sitting with another librarian and one of the college’s IT professionals at a faculty barbecue. One of the teaching faculty comes to sit with us and asks my partner and I, “How old am I? You look like students!”
- I’m at yet another faculty barbecue and a professor I work with asks me when I graduated from Oberlin College. I tell her. The shock and realization is slow and very apparent on my colleague’s face.
- I enter a classroom, ready to teach, and the students say, “There should be a librarian here.”
- I enter the dining hall in order to go to French Table; as a professor, I can sign in without paying (if I’m going to a language table). The person monitoring the desk says, “Honey, you need to swipe your card.” She goes pale as I pull out my faculty ID.
I always spin these interactions in a positive way: I’m successful in ways no one expects from someone in my age group; I remember well what being an undergraduate is like, so I can teach to them and develop systems that cater to them.
I do realize though that I may be challenged more, as I am exposed to more people in the campus community. Because I’m young.
And then, I think of all the people (women especially) who are not in the same predicament. I think about my colleagues who are considered “old.” They exist in a world that thinks they don’t have much use after 55. They have younger generations demanding that they step down, to make jobs for younger people. Women especially become nagging crones or harmless grandmothers after a certain age; when they’re angry, they’re going through menopause (because they couldn’t possibly have another reason for anger or stress).
Society holds age against us, no matter what our age is. Some of us are young, naive, inexperienced, don’t know how the real world works. And the rest of us are old, curmudgeon-y, have outlasted their welcome.