I don’t think I need to go back over for any readers of this blog the push in education, both K-12 and higher education, towards standardization, concrete learning outcomes, and return-on-investment. One has to look no further than what is currently going on in Texas to see that what we do as professors/instructors/educators is under some heavy fire. Increasingly, my job is about counting and measuring.
Before I begin this post, I want to draw your attention to what’s happened to Rumana Monzur. She’s my age. She’s a wife, a mother, an academic, just like me. I feel incredibly privileged that I can sit here and blog about gender issues here and elsewhere, without fear of physical reprisal. It is for her and the women like her who are too afraid or too oppressed to even attempt to go to university that I write these Bad Female Academic posts for. At the end of the day, in our own ways, we are all Bad Female Academics. If we ever want equality, that has to change.
I’m still in grad school, so I don’t know about the job part of it, but part of the problem from where I am is that in addition to being socialized as scholars, graduate students are also socialized to standards of personal care. Don’t look tired enough? Talk too much about going to they gym? You’re probably not serious enough about the program. It’s not overt, but at least at my uni there’s a culture of “you have time for that later” but it may just be creating new faculty who believe they can’t take care of themselves to get ahead.
I’ve heard and read advice that says that you shouldn’t “Friend” your senior colleagues on Facebook lest they read your status updates and see that you aren’t spending every moment of every day on academic matters, thus threatening your position. As a wife and mother, these two roles are seen as incompatible with being an academic because they are a “distraction” from the task at hand (which, again, is what?). While the rest of the world seems to have this image of us as being lazy, it’s almost as if within the Ivory Tower, we want to prove the exact opposite by over-asserting our devotion and seriousness.
After four years of my PhD, my husband was accepted to do his own PhD in Southern California. My supervisor told me to get out and go with him. I luckily had a dissertation fellowship so the time off on my C.V. was justified, but truth be told, I was burnt out. I had been miserable in my program, a sentiment that I often read and hear online and in person from others in graduate school. My life got infinitely better when two things happened: I met my husband and I decided to join the Masters swim team on campus. I didn’t care anymore if people thought I was unserious or unfocused or frivolous, I needed something outside of my studies to sustain me.
Our first year in SoCal, I took a much needed break from everything having to do with my academic work. And, I started to coach swimming again. No year off to find myself in some exotic location, no volunteering for a worthy cause, no, I coached swimming again. When I started teaching again, I still coached. After having my daughter, I still taught and coached (I would wear her while coaching). Swimming was the one thing that I had for myself (my husband can’t even swim). I adored watching a swimmer’s stroke on tape and breaking down what was wrong with it and working with them to try and improve it. I love to get in the water myself and just swim back and forth, back and forth. If you ever want to really see me geek out, ask me about swimming.
I will not apologize for this, nor do I hide that I love swimming. Or science fiction. Or Disney movies. Or any number of things that have absolutely nothing to do with my academic work, or have much culturally or socially redeeming qualities. When did we decide that academics (or mothers, for that matter) aren’t allowed to have interests and a life outside of the institution? There are other jobs as stressful and demanding as academia, but I can think of no other job (again, other than motherhood) that demands complete and total subjugation of every other facet of your being.
You want proof that I am a dedicated academic? I could have become a coach, but I chose to become an academic. But, alas, I am a Bad Female Academic.
- You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
- You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
- You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
- You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.
It has been almost impossible for me to “hide” the fact that I am mother during my academic career. When I moved to the States and began my first job as an adjunct instructor, I was quite visibly pregnant. It was a strange and wonderful experience to discuss the book Manliness while 7 months pregnant, talking about gender roles. When I was looking for tenure-track jobs, I had my husband and infant daughter in toe for the MLA interviews, made noise about being able to bring her for on-campus interviews, requested time for pumping, and always asked about on-campus childcare options. When I started my tenure-track position, I was once again pregnant, and had to take maternity leave at the beginning of only my second semester. And in my current position, I have often had to wear my son on my back while teaching because there was no one else to look after him.
Yeah, a break.
I went back to work in part because I had to for financial reasons, but also because I wanted to. No, that’s not accurate; I needed to. Good Female Academics choose: be a good mother or be a good academic. I didn’t. Or, I did temporarily, by giving up my tenure-track job. But I won’t apologize for loving my job as an academic, on or off the tenure-track. Not to mention those parts of my identity that have nothing to do with my kids, my husband, or my job.
I was talking on Twitter last week about how the competitors are often reduced to tears during their rehearsals but then come to celebrate the growth they’ve achieved. As one of my Tweeps points out: Any goal I’ve achieved is fraught w/ tears, exhaustion, happiness. If it’s easy, it wasn’t worth it.
A few nights later, I was watching a documentary called Run Run Revolution. A trainer takes 10 ordinary high school students and trains them to run 10km at the Boston Marathon. It’s a fascinating look at how much you need to sacrifice and be willing to do in order to achieve a goal. As the trainer tells the kids on one of their first practices: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Why is it that we embrace pushing ourselves (or others) physically, but shy away from pushing ourselves intellectually? I was taken to task on Twitter for, in one person’s mind, encouraging teachers to make their students cry. I don’t want to humiliate, belittle, or insult my students, but I do want to make them as uncomfortable as possible. And sometimes, challenging students leads to tears.
The harder we work, the more satisfied we are with the results. But we also learn more, achieve more, and grow. I’m not saying that if we don’t cry then we haven’t worked hard enough. But we need to engage our minds in our educations the same way dancers push themselves to become better or runners push themselves to become faster. As a graduate student, I wrote on the most challenging works we read in class, to push myself. I recently wrote an essay on a novel that I’ve struggled with for years. It bugged me that I didn’t get it and I looked for a reason to finally sit down and figure it out (I think I did). And it felt fantastic.
I’m all for making learning engaging. And, yes, it should be ultimately enjoyable. But that education should always be fun every step of the way I think is ultimately false and dangerous; as soon as it stops being fun, students will give up. In the moment, it will be hard, it will be uncomfortable, and not a lot of fun. In the end, it will be fantastic. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
When my husband and I got engaged, I figured out that we were 256 times more likely to get divorced. More likely than whom? Two people whose parents didn’t get divorced, didn’t live together before marriage, and didn’t have a whole pile of advanced degrees, and who didn’t intend on becoming professors. You know, “average” people. I kept reading these stats that said that people who had divorced parents were twice as likely to get divorced themselves. Or people who lived together before marriage were twice as likely to get divorced as well. Basically, I found enough “twice as likely” stats to figure 256 times (two to the power of eight).
Math people, lay off. It was a joke.
Or was it? I knew that my husband and I had the odds stacked against us. I also knew a lot of academic couples who lived far away from one another, and I vowed that that wouldn’t be me, wouldn’t be us. I was getting married because I wanted to spend my life with my spouse. I can’t say it’s been easy, but I don’t regret giving up my tenure-track position, even though I am ambitious. But I think it’s unfortunate that I now have to deal with the gendered expectations that come with my choice.
I am far from being a Good Faculty Wife; I’m not a good cook, I hate housework, and while I am a fabulous companion at university events, I don’t demurely take a back seat to my husband’s (and his colleague’s) opinions. There is also an assumption that because I have willing moved to the middle of nowhere for my husband’s job that I have given up on my own. My husband is expected to be able to go to conferences or last-minute meetings because I’ll be there to cover for his duties at home. Or, worse, the assumption that he has no duties at home because he has a Wife.
At the same time, I refuse to hide the fact that I am married and that my husband is a professor at the same institution where I teach. It’s a small town and a small school, and I’m even using his last name. Let them think what they want about how I got my job; my C.V. speaks for itself. My mom told me it’s not who you know, but how you use them, and I am not above using my husband’s position as leverage in order to improve my own. But even before we started working together, I never shied away from the fact that I was married, part of a package. I would always carry a copy of his C.V. to on-campus interviews and ask the dean/provost (when it came time) what, if anything, they might have available for him. I refuse to conform to the expectation that one cannot be a dedicated academic and wife.
And that’s just how I am treated as a wife. As an academic, people think I have given up. I can’t be ambitious and be a wife at the same time. It’s not true, however, that taking a step back from the full academic grind means that I’m cut off forever from it. Or at least, I hope not. Many people, though, hear of my choice to follow my husband as a tacit admission to having abandoned my academic career. I’m “just” an instructor.
I resent that I am seen now as mostly a wife and just an instructor. There’s a lot more to me. Including my role as mother. But more on that next week. Because if there’s one thing worse than being an wife in academia, it’s being a mother.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I am talking about education reform with my advanced writing students at the rural state college I teach at. At the beginning of the semester, while going over the syllabus, when I mentioned that we would be talking about education reform, I felt the air go out of the room, saw eyes glazing over, and realized I was quickly losing my class on the first day. What was I going to do? Rebrand the section of the course. We were going to talk about why high school sucks (academically), and what could be done about it.
When we came to the unit on education, I started with a free write asking them the first part of that question, reminding them to focus on the academic parts of their high school experience. And, if their high school didn’t suck academically, explain why. Most of my students wrote more in that free write than the entire semester thus far put together. I received spontaneous and passionate reflections on their experiences, many filled with anger, frustration, and regret.
A few themes emerged from their work. The curriculum was too easy and too repetitive, not to mention irrelevant. Teachers weren’t demanding enough of the students and inconsistent in how they distributed grades. For example, if you were on the football team, you got good grades regardless. Teachers didn’t know their material or weren’t engaging (human tape recorders, as one student put it). Students were taught to the test and nothing else. In other words, the students were forced to memorize, but never shown how to contextualize or apply the information. There was too little choice, too few opportunities for students to learn about what they were interested in. And, most significantly, they arrived at college wholly unprepared and ill-equipped academically.
Over and over, I read the words “pointless,” “a joke,” and “boring.” Many of my students probably only realized this once they reached college. Looking back now, they remember most fondly those teachers who pushed them to be their best, and not just on a standardized test. Out of the forty or so students I had answer this question, only three came back with positive experiences. Each of them had gone to private or magnate school with high academic expectations and excellent teachers. Each one of them also attended school in or near an urban area.
When we talk about school choice, what is forgotten are the large numbers of students for whom the only choice is the local school that serves the entire county or region. The teachers often attended the school themselves, left for a few years to get a teaching degree, then returned home. Because of the decreasing number of students, lack of resources, and lack of expertise, these schools can’t offer students very many academically challenging courses or optional courses. Some of these schools are in areas where there isn’t even high-speed Internet access. When talking about education technology, one of my students pointed to a preschool teacher using a CD player that she had recently seen. For some, the CD player and VCR are the only education technology available.
None of what my students said will sound particularly groundbreaking or revealing to those seeking to reform and transform the way we educate students. The challenge becomes how to solve these problems in rural areas. How do we offer these students choices and variety, or ensure that they have excellent teachers? How can we relate and contextualize the curriculum to the world around them, both preparing them for college but also relating it to the only reality they know? If these schools are ultimately “punished” through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, where are the students going to go?
Many have already (rightly) criticized the film Waiting for Superman along with the image it presents (one hero to swoop in and save us all). For rural students and schools, it is even more telling: Superman left the farm to go and save the city. For these students and schools, the message seems to be clear: you are on your own.
There is a pernicious belief in higher education, perhaps even more dangerous than believing that if you are a good researcher than you can’t be a good teacher and vice-versa. That belief is that good academics don’t want to be administrators or can’t be good administrators. Especially for those on the tenure-track, administrative responsibility is often the kiss of death, because of the politics. Being a position to make decisions very quickly can made friends into enemies. And once you get tenure? Well, why bother?
Another reason that administrative ambition is met with distaste is that faculty are increasingly disillusioned by the university administration and administrators. As an increasing number of classes are being taught by part-time, underpaid adjuncts who are off the tenure-track, the number of full-time administrators is growing even more, and beginning to outnumber the faculty. And the relationship, through budget cuts and skyrocketing administrative salaries, is causing an increasingly adversarial relationship between the faculty and administration. A good academic doesn’t want to do anything with the increasing corporatization of the university.
When I was a PhD student, because of various organizational difficulties, I decided to become president of the Graduate Students’ Association. And, I loved it. Maybe it’s because I was lucky enough to be at a university where the students (both undergraduate and graduate) were respected and an integral part of the decision-making process. Maybe it’s because I was in Canada, where presidents are academics and not from corporations and we don’t have high-profile/high-money sports. And I know that I was following a long line of serious, highly effective GSA presidents who set up a wonderful set of expectations for me to fulfill. Regardless of the reason, I came away from the experience motivated to move up the academic ranks with the goal of eventually going into administration in order to work to try to make the university better.
But even before my PhD, I would get involved, usually through student government. I was taught that if you didn’t like how things were going, you figured out how best to make them better. So, I did. And I always liked it. I figured that academia would be a great opportunity for me to do research, teach, and…be an administrator.
Yes, I am a bad female academic.
My dirty little secret. I have ambition, and that ambition involves moving up the administrative ladder. This, as I have outlined above, can be a dangerous thing to admit. Between the idea that true academics shouldn’t aspire to administrative positions and the idea that, as a woman, it could be seen as threatening to express any sort of ambition, I’m pretty much waving the white flag. I’m either going to be taken advantage of on the lower rungs, make too many enemies, or burn out. Or maybe, just maybe, prove that you can be a good faculty member and a good administrator.
The major roadblock to my plan? I’m not on the tenure-track. By choice. But that will be for next time.