Bad Female Academic: Being Myself

Ben Folds, who is probably my all-time favorite musician, has a song from his first album (with Ben Folds Five), “Best Imitation of Myself.” The song opens with the following verse: 

I feel like a quote out of context
Withholding the rest
So I can be for you what you want to see
I got the gesture and sound
Got the timing down
It’s uncanny, yeah, you think it was me
Do you think I should take a class
To lose my southern accent
Did I make me up, or make the face till it stuck
I do the best imitation of myself

That seems like a pretty good description of how we try to be as academics, especially women. We mould our research interests into a project that pleases our supervisor. We then contort ourselves in cover letter after cover letter in an attempt to fit what we divine a department is looking for from a brief job description. If we’re lucky, we dress in identical power suits (and, apparently, we’d best make sure they’re suits that match), and we try to fit ourselves, our research, our goals, and our values, to a hotel room of people in 30 minutes or less. Or we try to read the myriad of faceless voices at the other end of the phone in order to convince them to fly us out for a campus interview. Then, if we do get a campus interview, we spend up to three days, from the moment we get on the plane to the moment we’re finally safely back home, playing the role of ideal future colleague. If, by some miracle, we get hired, it dawns on us that we have to at least try to keep being that person who was interviewed. We also have to bend ourselves according to the wind and will of the department, faculty, and institution in the quest for tenure.

I’m exhausted just writing about it. But if you’re not convinced, here is a little Twitter conversation that took place in regards to a piece in the Chronicle on how inter-faculty conflict is your fault:

I think that sums it up quite nicely, don’t you think?

The most liberating thing that has ever happened to me was giving up my tenure-track job and ending up as “just” an instructor. I am now free to do whatever research interests me, rather than what I think will lead to tenure. As I am now place-bound, I’m not stressed about the job market or trying to be what I think people want to see. Even living in a small town has its advantages; there’s no hiding here (there’s also little competition for my job). For the first time in a long time, I’m truly free to be myself.

But this quasi-rebellious streak isn’t new. I’ve always made contrary choices (I prefer thinking of them as the road less traveled) when it comes to my education, in large part because I was searching for a place where I could be myself. I chose my dissertation supervisor because she allowed me to do the research and work that I wanted to do. Career-wise, that may not have been the wisest choice in the short-term, but what it did do was allow me to develop confidence in my ideas and my abilities. Miraculously, my first experiences teaching were ones that freed and empowered me to develop my courses myself; they trusted me, and I was able to be myself and discover my strengths in the classroom.

But my dirtiest secret is how I “won” my tenure-track job. I figured that the hiring cycle had finished. I had dozens of phone interviews, three on-campus interviews, and no job offer. We had just moved to larger place, my husband had just started receiving benefits from his job, and I found out I was expecting again. Because I had been working at my current teaching position for three years, I was eligible for a small, paid, maternity leave. When I got the call for a telephone interview, I just figured it would turn out like all the other phone interviews I had done. But it didn’t matter because I had the next academic year figured out. So I didn’t sweat the phone interview, and I answered every question as myself instead of trying to give them the answer they wanted. Imagine my surprise when I got the job.

Writing this blog, writing for the University of Venus, doing these Bad Female Academic posts have brought me so much joy. If anything, it’s really reinforced the idea that who I am, who I really am, is okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. It’s fantastic. Even if we’re living in a time of supposed extreme narcissism and unearned self-confidence, somewhere along the way, women (and especially women in academia) are told over and over again that being self-confident and self-assured in who we really are is unattractive, undesirable, and needs to be broken. To a large extent, writing these posts (and the response they’ve received) has helped “fix” me back into who I know I am.

One of the biggest challenges, however, is trying to pass that lesson along to my daughter. Especially when who she is is so different from who I am.