The Academic Feminist: Megan McRobert and Isabel Porras on “Bringing the Smize to Higher Ed”

Welcome back, Academic Feminists! For this issue of the Academic Feminist I am thrilled to present Megan McRobert and Isabel Porras, the masterminds behind the tumblr AcademicTyra.  For those of you who haven’t seen it yet (after all, it is fairly new), AcademicTyra drops academic feminist knowledge in GIF-sized Tyra-esque bits,  tackling everything from students’ classroom antics, to relationships with supervisors, to the recent Forbes article that named “university professor” one of the “least stressful jobs” in America. Their posts are funny, smart, and true-to-academic-feminist life – in other words, they are seriously “bringing the smize” to academic feminism.  I came across AcademicTyra via a good friend at UC Davis (shout out to Jo Hale), where Isabel (pictured on the right above; Megan is below) is currently a PhD candidate, and have followed their delightfully clever updates on academic feminist life ever since.  After reading this, you will most definitely have them on your follow list, too.

1) Tell us how AcademicTyra came into being.

Isabel:  AcademicTyra has sort of always existed in the conversations between Megan and me, but we physically set it up last fall while the ANTM college edition was wrapping up. GIFs are a loud gesticulator’s bff. They allow us to add facial expressions and emotions to what can otherwise be dry. I’m basically rolling my eyes and doing jazz hands anyway, so GIFs help get that across. (Shout out to the other Academic tumblrs that inspired us, like AcademicCoachTaylor and AcademicTimGunn!) Megan and I have been good friends for like a decade and have nerded out with feminism and pop culture before through our college zine “Popped Collar” and our musical revisions with “Dykeappella” at Smith. AcademicTyra gives us a space to be in touch while we are far apart and to feed our snarky appetites. In my mind, Megan and I are like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

Megan: This was Isabel’s brainchild. The most recent season of ANTM was the college edition and she had the stroke of genius to pair up Tyra GIFs with tales of academic woe. I guess a more “holistic” origin story is that Isabel and I have been friends for over 10 (!!!!) years and we’ve always bonded over a shared love of pop culture and cultural deconstruction. In a way, the tumblr has created a way for us to be in regular contact with each other and to continue to have these kinds of conversations. So, I guess that’s the question of how, logistically, AcademicTyra came into being. But Isabel also reminded me that AcademicTyra emerged from this larger conversation that she and I have been having for years. We’re both serious, unabashed consumers of culture. We like our tv and internet. We like talking and writing about tv and the internet. But why Tyra/ANTM?

Yes, ANTM relies on specific notions of beauty. Yes, ANTM is competitive and kind of mean and glamorizes wasteful spending and conspicuous consumption. But it is for those very reasons that it has weight as a cultural text and is so well-suited for a discussion of academia. Watching a young woman literally contort her face and body to try and win a challenge based on arbitrary and constructed standards serves as a fitting narrative upon which to project our own struggles as young women in the world.


Isabel: Then there is Tyra herself. I mean here is a shrewd businesswoman, someone from a “frivolous” industry, and a black woman telling everyone what to do. On top of what Megan has said about the similarities between grad school and a modeling competition, for me there is a real pleasure in seeing Tyra be unapologetic about her success—she’s such a cocky bitch! In academia, grad students and women of color internalize feelings of inferiority and become apologetic and meek. The feelings of inferiority, of not belonging, lead to doubt, like, 23:59/7. There is a minute of cockiness in there, though. AcademicTyra helps me flip that off and embrace my swagger.  I tried to capture it in posts like how I feel when I update my CV, fellowship mantra, and student evals.

Megan: Yes! Tyra is a master performer and a savvy lady. Sometime, ANTM is just fun to watch. There is def a part of me that unapologetically luxuriates in and revels in the pleasure of consuming pop culture. But there is also a part of me that is critiquing and deconstructing what I’m watching. And those two tendencies don’t necessarily have to contradict one and other. It is possible, even necessary, to participate in mainstream trends even while also seeking to change the inequitable systems that lead to their creation.  I am an organizer as well as an intellectual and I am deeply invested in questions of social justice. Within radical social movements, we’re talking about story telling as a way to make meaning and using that as a strategy for social change. We can’t use story telling as a strategy if don’t know what narratives are circulating and how they function. And television’s not all bad. Narratives of resistance have always been embedded within or projected upon mainstream mediums. 

Isabel: The founding principle of AcademicTyra is that pop culture love and pop culture deconstruction are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact, deconstructing and critiquing pop culture IS an act of love. Look, we’re nerds. We can’t watch reality tv without a critical lens, but that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy it! I love pop culture so much, it’s part of my course syllabi. To me teaching is also a form of organizing, and I use pop culture to connect to my students and get them to care about social justice. Trying to get students to understand queer theory or whiteness can be difficult. After all, not everyone loves jargon as much as we do. Rather than rely solely on academic texts with their multisyllabic prose, I might use Tyra as a way to discuss gender performativity and intersectionality. When Tyra says “I’m a drag queen in a woman’s body” or when she tells the media to “kiss her fat ass” she is embodying some of the things we are learning about in the classroom.

2) AcademicTyra takes questions from followers – I fell in love with AcademicTyra when I saw the response to a question about SNAP. What has been your favorite question so far?

Megan: OK, full disclosure: the food stamps (SNAP) question that we got was actually submitted by me after a friend posted the question on Facebook. But it was really a question for AcademicTyra! I think it’s one of my faves because it gave me the opportunity to sit and think through an argument, but also make it clear and accessible and interesting.

Like Isabel said, using GIFS and pop culture refs can make something boring and dry (ex: policy) engaging. It’s also a really interesting challenge to try and break down a complex argument into, essentially, sound bites. I also really loved Isabel’s gay marriage response for that reason. It accurately reflects an opinion that I hold but often struggle to articulate.

And the response Isabel gave to the question about having kids. It still cracks me up sometimes because I can just imagine Isa’s face and thought process.

Isabel: Of the posts I’ve done, my faves are the same-sex marriage one and the guide to emailing TAs and professors one. The former helped me condense queer theory into GIFs, which is fun. We welcome more queer and feminist theory questions! Students respond well to this kind of GIF ‘cliff-notes’.

I’ve also gotten a kick out of the professionalization posts. Posts like the email guide are less a result of questions posed on the tumblr than of the general complaints of academics everywhere. I originally created this to blow off steam but it has been making the rounds as a PSA. I’m thinking of linking to it in my syllabi. Turns out some people don’t really know how to send emails, which is RIDIC. YOU ARE IN COLLEGE. [Editor’s note: FOR REAL.]

Megan’s SNAP response is super-duper amazing and is therefore my fave of her works. Haha!– the kid one– yeah, that was a random question! That really was my face.

3) Would you do us the honor of creating a special GIF just for the Academic Feminist?

More about the proud parents of AcademicTyra:

Megan McRobert (the east coast half of AcademicTyra):
Megan is in the final stages of writing a master’s thesis for a degree in Community and Regional Planning through the University of NM in Albuquerque. Her research focuses on right to the city movements and contemporary urban social justice organizing. She graduated Smith College with a BA in the Study of Women and Gender (OK, technically the degree is in Women’s Studies, but the program name was changed that year). She is currently based in Brooklyn and works for a company that installs commercial and residential solar power systems. Isabel says: Yes, the dept name was changed (in part due to Megan’s campaigning) to SWaG!

Isabel Porras (“currently-on-the-west-but-always-repping-the-east-coast” half of AcademicTyra):
Isabel is a PhD Candidate in Cultural Studies at the University of California, Davis. She graduated with a BA in Latin American Studies from Smith College.  Her love of popular culture extends to the classroom and her dissertation, where she is writing about (among other things) Sofia Vergara and the sitcom Modern Family.  Isabel is currently an Associate Instructor in the Women and Gender Studies program at UC Davis and teaches courses including Feminist Theory, Theory and History of Sexuality, and Sexualities in the Americas. Megan says: I’ve sat in on her classes and I think that Tyra would be proud of Isa’s balance of humor, attitude, and outfit fierceness. Also, do the reading future students!

Some of Isabel and Megan’s Favorite Resources (in addition to Feministing, duh!):

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

Read more about Gwendolyn

Join the Conversation