Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Am I In the Wrong Class?

Throughout my examination of the pressures female academics face to conform in order to “make it”, and how I (attempt to) resist or break, or simply just don’t fit those expectations, it’s become increasingly clear that a lot of the issues surrounding being a Bad Female Academic isn’t just about policing gender, but it is about class (socio-economic) expectations. When I admit that I am loud or that I like to get dirty, I am essentially signaling a lower-class upbringing.

This is important when discussing the ever-nebulous issue of “fit” when it comes to hiring and tenure decisions. During one of my on-campus interviews, one of the faculty who was taking me around campus revealed that she had attended school in Southern California near where I was currently living. We got talking about living in SoCal; the traffic, the weather, our favorite beaches, local news, going to the Getty Museum, and the like. I made the mistake, however, of revealing that I listened to KROQ, a rock-alternative station. Their morning show, in particular, isn’t known to be very progressive when it comes to issues of sexism (they have an annual Miss Double-D-cember contest), racism, and homophobia. But, to me, they are hysterical, don’t take themselves too seriously, and often take-down the self-importance of Hollywood/L.A. And, I really like the music.

Obviously, the correct answer was that I listen to NPR or a classical music station. Even if I had lied and said that, it would soon become clear that I didn’t, in fact, listen to these stations when I would be unable to offer comment on that morning’s feature story. Honestly, I hate talk radio. I appreciate classical music, but need something a little more…invigorating to start my day. I grew up in a house filled with popular and rock music. We listened to music in the mornings, peppered through with the news (sports scores were essential) and funny bits done by the DJs. I’m not sure how much of it has to do with class, but there are certainly assumptions to be made because of my favorite kind of music and what I like to listen to on the radio.

But it’s not just what kind of radio I enjoy listening to. These expectations start to permeate every decision I make, especially as a mother.  I let my kids watch TV, even indulging in my daughter’s love of Disney Princesses.  I don’t have a nanny, but instead send them to preschool, and not one that is a Montessori. These are all revelations that slowly by surely leak out as I become more and more integrated in the community. Where one shops, what kind of food or clothes one buys, it all reflects a certain class expectation.

For example, I shop at Wal-Mart. This, in many academic circles, is a sin punishable by death, or at least a good shunning. But here’s the problem. I can’t afford not to shop at Wal-Mart. For groceries and basic necessities for the kids, it’s the most affordable option available. I would love to be able to afford to drive an hour to shop at Whole Foods, or the organic co-op, but I can’t. The student loan debts my husband and I have from our educations are taking huge chunks from our income.

Here is where class really comes into play. Those of us who had to go into a great deal of debt to get their PhDs often can’t afford to play the game of being a good “fit” or embodying the non-academic values of higher education. I want to take my kids to the symphony or the ballet, I want to sign them up for culturally enriching opportunities, and not just because of the societal pressure of my job, but I can’t afford to. And that inability to pay can be interpreted as refusing to teach my own children the proper “values,” thus calling into question my “fit” in an academic setting.  We are also often the same people who came from a lower class to begin with, meaning that all of those “free” symbols of class that come naturally to some aren’t obvious, comfortable, or authentic for us.

When we talk about diversity in academia and what it means to be a “good” academic, we can’t forget the economic privilege that exists for those who have long set the rules as to what it means to be a Good Academic.

(Worst Professor Ever and I must share a brain, or at least be on the same wavelength; while I was writing this post, she published "You Stay Classy, Ivory Tower!" I encourage you to read her very similar reactions to the class expectations of higher education. I think the more voices we have talking about this very real issue, the better.)

Friday, July 29, 2011

City Living versus Country Livin'

(I know, it's late, and a bit off topic compared to what I've been writing about lately. It's Friday, it's my anniversary, and this was lying around on my hard drive.)

I live in the country. Technically, I live “in town”, but when the town in question is only about 6000 people and in the middle of a National Forrest, I think I can safely say that I live in a rural area. We are an hour from any real city, but even the cities we are close to aren’t large urban areas. To say that living here has been an adjustment for me is an understatement.

I grew up in the suburbs of Montreal. Downtown was only a bus and metro ride away. We had sports teams, museums, a symphony, concerts, shopping, restaurants, ethnic neighborhoods, everything. I’ve also recently lived in Southern California, with everything that involves. I loved having relatively easy access to just about anything and everything I could ever want.

And by relatively easy, I mean, willing to put up with the traffic to get there.

There are certainly advantages to living in a rural area. Real estate is much more affordable; the house and lot we just bought would be unattainable for us in any urban area. We live only a short walk from campus, meaning we only own one car and use it sparingly. Parenting isn’t a full-contact sport here. There is no competition as to who has the best stroller, whose child has the latest and greatest cognitive development toys, and who got into which (obscenely priced) preschool. I don’t have to worry about over-scheduling my kids because there is only a limited amount of things I can sign them up for.

Which is a disadvantage as well. My kids both love dancing, but there aren’t any classes offered for their age group, unless I am willing to drive an hour each way.  Perhaps a parent more dedicated than myself would make that drive, but two hours (and the gas) are a luxury we can’t really afford right now. I miss having options for just about everything: food, shopping, entertainment. While at a recent conference in Toronto, my mouth watered as I walked passed restaurant after restaurant, offering cuisine I just don’t have access to anymore and seeing posters for events I know my family (or just me) would adore.

Finding things for us to do here is also a lot more work. I am used to being able to just simply look online for schedules, directions, pricing, and other information. Here, most local businesses don’t have a website, and the city website is equally unhelpful and usually out-of-date. Here, if you want to know what’s going on, you have to buy the local paper and make friends with the locals. Not that that’s a bad thing, just something that I am still trying to adapt to.

We feel pretty fortunate, however, to be living (and working!) where we are. There were no waiting lists or tests or sky-high registration fees to get my kids into the best preschool here in town, which they both adore. The schools here are good, and, although not tremendously diverse ethnically (the entire state we live in isn’t very diverse), there is a great deal of socio-economic diversity.  It’s been hard to “break in” to the social circles here (we are city folk, after all), but we’re making inroads and starting to feel like a part of the community.

It hasn’t been an easy transition, but I can see the changes in myself when I do travel to the city for one reason or another (mostly conferences). I feel more at home when able to ride on public transit, more comfortable around people speaking different languages, more excited by all of the opportunities, cultural and otherwise, that the big city offers. But I also recoil at the site of the giant, impersonal high-rise condo that seem to be springing up everywhere and disgusted at the price. I am more grateful for the slower pace here, grateful for the fact that my kids can be kids here, and I can be myself as a mother. This place may not have been our first choice, but it’s now home and home for now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Grad School for All?

Worst Professor Ever alerted me to this New York Times article about how the Master's degree is the new Bachelor's degree. I posted my response on her facebook page:

I have to say I was more than a little flatter that William Pannapacker (aka Thomas H. Benton from the Chronicle) liked my response. And WorstProf wrote an absolutely hysterical Onion-esque response: "Education Secretary to Today's Youth: Stop Getting So Many Fucking Degrees." I do want to expand on my facebook comment, because it does reflect on how the economics of the universities are getting more and more screwed up.

I've written before about the economic realities of getting PhD, especially in the humanities. But what about from the other side, from the perspective of the universities that are increasingly offering MA programs. Faculty, particularly at public universities, are seeing their salaries if not get cut, then certainly decrease in purchasing power. One way to appease faculty is to create graduate programs; it's like a perk! Smaller classes! Better students! More prestige! Never mind that it's actually more work to recruit and retain these students, not to mention mentor and supervise them. From the university's perspective, they're getting the faculty to do more work for less money. And, the added prestige of graduate programs. Win-win.

Actually, it's a win-win-win. Grad students are cash-cows. You can charge more for grad programs (even though they aren't hiring any more faculty, or paying the current faculty more) and they'll pay. Plus, you can then use the grad students a cheap labor, working on campus, for professors, and maybe even teaching some of those pesky intro classes that no one else wants to. And did I mention the prestige? Rankings love grad programs. 

But does the student really win? It keeps them out of the work force longer, usually will end up putting them further into debt, and makes them over-qualified for many of the jobs they may want. And, for the most part, this will benefit the same students who are benefitting from a BA anyway; the wealthy and upper-middle-class. Applying for graduate school is perhaps even more difficult and complex than applying for university. And even more expensive. To get into the best graduate programs, you have to not only be outstanding, but also know the right people. It's a big circle jerk, and those who benefit are those who have always been a part of it. 

And do the professors really win? Soon, College Misery will be devoted not to the under-qualified and entitled undergrads, but to the under-qualified and entitled grad students that the college accepts because of the money and prestige. The MA will be the new BA, insofar as students will feel entitled to their degree on the basis of having a) been accepted and b) paid for it. The best and the brightest will continue to go to the "best" schools, while everyone else will move from one mediocre program to another. You'll be able to say that you supervise grad students, but at what cost? 

To reiterate, I hate it. We're fooling ourselves within the academy into thinking that what we are doing is in the name of social justice and equality, when really we're just providing excuses to governments and corporations to compress salaries, benefits, and cheapen our students' educations, not to mention out own value as academics. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Slightly Progressive Parenting

My daughter was physically precocious when she was little; she was crawling before she was six months, walking by the time she was ten months old. She also loved to climb and would scale the jungle gyms at the park meant for children much, much older than she. It also meant that I had to be on the lookout for a tiny person who didn't understand that it wasn't a good idea to crawl right off the edge of the highest point of the structure. She dug for bugs, rolled in mud (well, sand, as she loves the beach), and generally challenged herself to any and all physical challenges. 

Imagine my surprise the day we were in the store and she lost her mind over a princess shirt. 

This wasn't a Disney Princess shirt; it was pink and sparkly and had a picture of a girl with a crown on it. I had no idea that she even knew what I princess was. She didn't go to school, and at this point didn't really have very many friends who could teach her about princesses. We were very careful about what she watched on TV, and while I own a lot of the Disney Princess movies, she had never shown any interest in them. But that day, something took over my daughter, and she became obsessed by all things princess. She was barely two years old.

My son, on the other hand, can't pick up a stick without turning it into a weapon. He hunts dragons, kills bad guys, and imagines he is a super-hero. He dreams of owning a dump truck and a motorcycle. 

My last post about being myself, I mentioned that it was hard for me to allow my daughter, in fact, both my children, to be themselves. As a professor (ok, instructor) in the humanities, and a feminist, it grates on my nerves that my daughter is all about pink and sparkles and princesses. I worry about my son's "aggressive" behavior, but at the same time, try not to come down to hard on either of them. They are being themselves. It would be hypocritical of me to punish my daughter simply because she enjoys different things than I did, just like it would be to punish my son for liking (ironically) the same things I did when I was little (seriously, I dreamed of becoming a part of G.I. Joe). 

Being an academic, I am supposed to know better. If it wasn't hard enough to be a mother in academia, it's hard to be a mother who isn't perfectly progressive in every way. A recent post, How to Remain Sane Among Alpha Moms, really struck a cord with me because it reminded me of so many academic women, both mothers and non-mothers, who judge the parenting of their colleagues, judgements that bleed over into decisions of whether or not to hire or award tenure. I let my daughter play princess and my son play superhero. I let them watch movies and TV shows...from Disney. 

But my daughter also imagines herself as a superhero and wants her own motorcycle. She still loves to climb and is much more physically adventurous than my son. My son calls all of his stuffed animals his "babies" and is always taking really good care of them because they are "sick." I try to embrace all of the facets of their personality, the ones that are engendered and the ones that appear transgressive. I want them both to be whatever they want to be. If that's a "pilot and a mom" (as my daughter says), then so be it. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Where is the Intellectual and Creative Capital?

I know I've had two reposts this week, but I'm up to my eyeballs in my more "academic" writing and research. Next week, I'll be back to my normal schedule. At least until school starts.

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

This TED video is powerful reminder of how one man with a vision can fundamentally change a school or school district. But it is also a sobering reminder of the importance intellectual and creative capital is in that change. How do we attract talented and motivated individuals to more rural and isolated areas? How can we improve rural education when there has been years of brain drain?

I think videos like the one I link to above are important to show otherwise urban (or suburban) bound professionals the potential of working in smaller, rural communities. There are opportunities for real, meaningful change. There is space to work, to create, to think. And there is untapped potential in the people who live there. And, cheaper real estate.

There is also the danger of being distrusted as an outside who will come in, try to change the world, get discouraged, then leave. The blogger, workprogesslife, writes about how she has been seen as an outsider in her small community as a urban transplant. Until my husband and I announced that we were buying a house nearby, we weren't readily embraced by our neighbors. There is an attitude that people from outside of the community either aren't in it for the long haul or are only there to impose their ideas and values.

But I also think there is more work to be done in teaching and training those people who do stay and who choose to get an education and go back to their small communities. I do not think that we, in higher education, do a good enough job preparing future teachers for the unique challenges that rural schools, communities, and students face. Why can't we awaken the potential in these local future (and current) teachers in order to develop and nurture the talent that is already present, but untapped?

We have to be willing and open to working together in order to improve and inspire these rural communities, respecting their local culture but helping them thrive in 21st Century.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Mysteries of the Administrative Structure

In light of the recent firestorm over the new book: The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, I'm posting this today. See the discussion going on at Inside Higher Ed.

This post originally appeared on So Educated

"How will the Emperor maintain control without the beaurocracy?"

"The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line"
"What of the Rebellion?"

In higher education, we are currently in the midst of an elaborate game of whose-to-blame. When the economy was booming, faculty didn't seem to care what the administration was doing, even as the number of contingent faculty rose while the amount of tenure-track lines decreased. Grad students were funded, technology was being put in place, and shiny new buildings were attracting the best and brightest students and faculty. But now that the economy has tanked and cuts are being handed out left, right, and center, the faculty are rising up with fingers pointing at the administrators for all that ills higher education. Administrators (and some members of the public) are quick to lay blame on "lazy" and over-indulged faculty for their high salaries and low productive output.

Let's be honest; we're all to blame. Administrators and faculty. We, as faculty, have remained purposefully ignorant of the inner-workings of our institutions. We stare in the face of the bureaucracy and shrug our shoulders in a collective act of defeat. What can we do, we ask? It's too big, it's too powerful, and we're just a lowly professor. And professors show little to no interest in becoming a part of the administrative structure in order to change it. Administrators are increasingly professional bureaucrats, not academics. The two worlds are existing simultaneously within the same institution with seemingly very different missions and priorities.

But when we say we blame administrators, do we really know who we are blaming? Our chairs? Our deans? Our president? What about the mountains of layers of administrative structure in between? Do we know how budget decisions are made within the institution? Do we understand the process, or just the results? We grumble at the shrinking budget numbers and lines, but do know how to change them?

Professors are increasingly losing their voice in how their institutions are run. Faculty members who have unionized are finding that their institution punishes them by removing them further from the administrative table. And while the few professors who are left rightly complain about the amount of administrative tasks/committee meetings they are expected to participate in, I wonder if it isn't just busy work that has little to no impact on the big picture and just gives the illusion of participatory governance, hence my example above from Star Wars. What if some overly-ambitious university president or board decides that it is cheaper and more expedient to eliminate much of the bureaucracy, meaning meetings and committees? Fear would, in fact, keep the professors in line, much like it already does, fear and ignorance.

But what of the Rebellion, that tiny band of idealists who manage to take down the all-powerful Empire? So far, there doesn't seem to be any real effort or ability for faculty (all faculty, on and off the tenure-track) to come together and form some sort of concerted effort to rebel against what we perceive as the dismantling of higher education. We cannot organize ourselves to counter from without, and we steadfastly refuse to change it from within. So we remain fragmented, hopeless, and ignorant.

Ironic, isn't it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Urban Bias?

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

What do you think of when I say that I am currently living in rural Kentucky, in the Appalachian mountains, not far from West Virginia? Do you hear banjos and think of Deliverance? So you hear a thick Southern drawl? Do you picture mega-Churches and born-again Christians? Be honest. And when you hear that I am teaching students from this area, do you applaud my efforts or feel sorry for me?

One of the biggest hurdles that we have to overcome in order to improve rural schools is people's attitude towards rural populations. Teaching underprivileged children in an urban environment is heroic, and you get to live in or near the big city. Moving out to the country, to the middle of nowhere, to teach a bunch of hicks? More of a punishment to most people.

Big cities offer a lot of advantages, I'm not going to lie. But one of the scariest things for parents and future parents who are thinking of moving to a rural area is that their kids will be going to the same school as everyone else. In urban areas, you usually don't live in the underprivileged area where you are working, and you certainly don't send your kids to school there. You live in the nicer neighborhood with the better schools. Out here, there's one school. There is no better school district or area to escape to. The kids you teach are the same kids your kids will be going to school with.

This, of course, is a major issue when it comes to convincing people to move out to rural areas to help failing schools. Another obstacle is the idea that the rural areas aren't worth the trouble. Making it in America used to mean conquering the frontier, but now it means conquering the big city. How many narratives do we read or see where the small-town, rural person moves to the big city in order to "make it." Or, to put it differently, we believe in the phenomenon that the best and the brightest leave their rural homes for the larger centers, leaving behind...the dumbest and least motivated?

There are so many stereotypes of rural people that essentially excuse not doing more to help them and their education system. Why bother, right? They don't value education, they're not interested in a "better life," and they are unwilling to learn what we want to teach them. You might try to say it in more politically correct terms, but think about your attitudes towards people who still live in small, rural towns and isolated farms, trailer parks and mobile homes.

I'm not saying it's perfect out here; far from it. There is drug addiction, racial tension, crippling poverty, and a lack of resources to provide effective services, including education. But before you dismiss rural education reform, ask yourself if you really think urban kids are more deserving of a quality education than their rural counterparts.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Getting Sucked In or Putting Myself Out There?

I've written about this issue before; that I'm a Bad Female Academic for having administrative ambition, but also how it's a difficult position to put myself in because I am not on the tenure-track, thus it doesn't "count", nor am I afforded the same protections. Nonetheless, and despite being warned, I volunteered to be an "Early College Mentor." What does this mean? Well, our college offers early college credit courses in the high schools and I will be mentoring the teachers in the high schools who are teaching these classes. 

The question is, why? 

I have often written about the "exploitation" of contingent labor in academia. And I am acutely aware of my own position, trying to make sure I don't put myself in (or get sucked into) a position where I will either be taken advantage of or made a scapegoat out of (or both). But this mentorship role seems to me to be a relatively safe compromise. 

For one thing, I'm doing it for the money. The mentors are getting a significant amount of professional development money for every teacher we mentor. I can use the money on conferences, books, research trips, whatever. This is not an insignificant reward for me because I am an instructor and therefore don't have the same level of support for these activities as those on the tenure-track or have tenure. 

I'm also doing it because I like the idea of mentoring teachers and creating a community. It's one of the reasons I co-founded #FYCchat on Twitter. We should be more active in helping one another be better teachers, for ourselves and for our students. I really am hoping to facilitate a learning community for the teachers I will be mentoring using social media. I also hope to encourage (inspire?) these teachers to use social media in their teaching. 

Our university's service area is largely (exclusively) rural and mostly poor. Many of these students come to our college underprepared and have a lot of difficulty completing a college degree. If I can help high school teachers better prepare students for college, then I think I am doing a great public service. These students are just as deserving of a good education as anyone else. This is a concrete way that I can help. 

And I look like a good university citizen. Hopefully not too good, however. I am only supposed to be mentoring five teachers, but it looks like I'll have at least three times that many. I am also scheduled to teach five classes in the fall. Something has to give, so I am not afraid to stand my ground to make sure that my students don't get short-changed, either. Or my family, for that matter, and my research. I've been warned by those who have participated in this program in a similar capacity in the past that the university is all too willing to keep pushing the number of responsibilities. I'll push back. 

Or, I'll just walk away. If I have to chose between a conference or my sanity and dignity, I know which one I will chose. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Getting Dirty

Last week, my kids and I were watching videos online of dinosaurs. After every 1-2 minute video, we would have to sit through an ad for "Camp Dirt." It's another example of grown-ups getting to relive their childhood, but this time it is targeted specifically for men. At the camp, you get to go off-roading, do mud-sliding, and other really, really cool stuff like that. Yeah, that's right, I like to get dirty, and all could think of while watching the commercial over and over again was, that looks like so much fun.

I was a tomboy growing up. I used to spend hours in the garden digging for worms. I was always the first person to touch the slimy, seemingly disgusting animals when we went to zoos. My mom would send me to school in tights, and I'd come home and they were ripped and dirty with blood and dirt from trying to climb the fence (and failing). When I started my undergrad degree, there was a...bonding event that involved, among other things, participating in an obstacle course which required us to roll in a pool of mud. I gladly volunteered to do it three times.*

As females, we are told over and over that we shouldn't want to get dirty, literally or figuratively. It might be one of the reasons why female academics are discouraged from displaying administrative ambition, or why we talk ourselves out of it; we don't want to get dirty, or appear like we are. We also are encouraged to avoid too much controversy when it comes to our research. Being clean is such a powerful metaphor for girls and women. We can only have a certain kind of fun, take certain kinds of risks, accept or excel at certain kinds of positions. Even for those of us who do take on the "dirty work," there exists a double-standard to how dirty a woman is allowed to appear; we have to make sure that we continue to uphold a certain standard of cleanliness.  

I've never really bought into that. It is one of the great advantages of being really, really naive; I grew up being told I could do anything I wanted to, and I grew up as "one of the guys" on the swim team. It is one of the great advantages of an individual sport where you train collectively; it didn't matter if you were a guy or a girl, it only mattered how fast you could go. If you kept up with the guys, you trained with the guys. Also, at one point, there was something like 18 guys (all older) and only 3 girls in the elite training group. Even as I got older and was repeatedly told (explicitly and implicitly) that I shouldn't want to get dirty, I asked, why not? When no one could give me a good answer, I went ahead and did it anyway.

On a related aside, it may also be why motherhood, specifically, but not exclusively, birthing, is still a taboo topic; have you ever been to a live birth? Dirty work, I tell you. Sex, too, for that matter. Nikki Finke, founder of, and someone who isn't afraid of getting her hands dirty, lamented the popularity of the movie Bridesmaids because:
I couldn't believe that this is why generations of women fought the feminist revolution: to ensure we had the same opportunities to watch our sex make the same raunchy movie stuff as men.
Actually, this feminist is proud that there is an appetite out there for women getting down and dirty about sex, about bodily functions, all of it. Being a woman is not "clean" as everyone has been conditioned to think. If the message is out there that it's ok for us to be literally dirty, then maybe we can start seeing that it is ok to be figuratively dirty as well.

Good Female Academics stay clean. They do nice, clean, safe research, and know they place. But I'm a Bad Female Academic. I can't say that my research is particularly controversial, but I do what I want, how I want to. And, I'm not afraid, in fact I relish the opportunity to get my hands dirty. 

And if you want to sling mud at me? Bring it. 

*Once upon a time, this was called an initiation. But before everyone gets all up in arms about hazing, know that alcohol was involved (remember, drinking in Quebec is legal at 18), but in no way forced upon us. I didn't drink beer then, and I didn't have to. Just as there were a few girls who refused to get in the mud, so I volunteered to take their place. I still remember that day quite fondly. I won best frosh. Ah, memories...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

More Thoughts on Coaching, the Humanities, and More Things We Can't Measure

If you read this blog regularly, you know I used to swim and coach swimming. I received news the other day that one of the swimmers I coached in the past got a head coaching job. This past year, a girl I used to coach (when she was, like, 6) qualified for the the World Championships. I felt a tiny little bit a pride in seeing these two swimmers succeed in swimming. Here are two very, very successful swimmers in two different areas of the sport.

But, looking at it, that's two swimmers out of, how many? A couple of hundred? By that measure, I've been an absolutely horrid failure as a coach. I guess no less of a failure than I was as a swimmer; I've never came anywhere close to making Nationals, let alone a national team. My parent and I spent thousands of dollars on training, equipment, swim camps, and trips to swim meets. I don't even want to count the number of hours I spent in the pool, at the gym, in the weight room, training. For what? To what end? And all the time I spent on pool deck as a coach, breaking down video, planning workouts, organizing swim meets, and holding swimmers hands through nerves and disappointment. 

These two swimmers are not the only swimmers I take pride; I am friends with many of my former swimmers on Facebook, and they are all successful people in their own right. They almost all do something other than swimming, although some have gone on to become lifeguards and coaches themselves before embarking on their chosen career. Many of them still swim, for fun, or run, or cycle, or play soccer, or some other form of physical activity. I'd like to think that their success is, in part, because of my influence as a coach. 

I feel pretty confident in this assumption because despite my "failure" as a swimmer, I wouldn't trade my experience for anything. I learned so much more than just how to swim from one end to the pool to the other over and over as fast and efficiently as possible. I learned how to be a part of a team. How to deal with failure. How to persevere. How even the smallest success can be overwhelmingly satisfying. How important health and fitness are to my well-being. These are lesson that will stay with me the rest of my life, that I can call on when I need them. 

While I teach writing, which is possibly the most practical and necessary of skills in this information age, my "training" (ugh, I hate that word) is in comparative literature, often seen as one of the most superfluous and decadent of majors. I don't miss the days of going to undergrad recruiting fairs and answering indignant parents when they ask, "What can you do with a degree in comparative literature?" While I never appreciated the question, "Are you going to the Olympics?" when I revealed I was a swimmer, I was never asked, what are you going to do with that? The (gag) return on investment on my years of swimming is negligible if you use any sort of objective metric (my best times, success of the swimmers I've coached). But no one expects those sorts of returns. So why are we so resistant to seeing the biggest picture of the value of the humanities?

The skills and experiences I had studying literature will also stay with me, regardless of my career. There are books that have literally changed my life, and books that have also literally saved it. In the same way that I can go to a pool, throw on a pair of goggles, dive in, and immediately feel better, I can pick up a book and have the same experience. My life is richer for having swam and for having studied the humanities. But only I have to explain and justify one of them. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ed Tech Savvy?

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

I have a confession to make. I don’t know how to use a smartboard. I’ve had one in my classroom for the entire fall semester, and I never used it beyond as an overhead to show students things on the computer. When it comes to class discussions and (yes) lectures, I use good, old-fashioned chalk and blackboard. Or whiteboard, depending on the classroom.

I have no idea how to fix the rss feed for my blog. In fact, I only have a vague notion as to what an rss feed even is.  I don’t subscribe to any feed; I wouldn’t know how if I wanted to. I find out what’s going on or if there’s any new posts, once again, the old fashioned way: I visit their website. 

These luddite-lite confessions may come as a surprise from someone who blogs, encourages her students blog, is actively engaged on Twitter, and is generally open to new forms of technology that can be used to teach, do research, learn, and share knowledge and information. But in the race to stay technologically relevant and on the forefront, I often feel overwhelmed and overmatched. Between teaching, my own (traditional) research and writing, my family, my blogging, and my hobbies (I swear, I’m going to start swimming and reading science fiction again this semester), and, you know, sleeping and eating, I can’t keep up, let alone catch up on all the things I missed while trying my best to be a “traditional” academic.

I often admit this to my students when talking about the magic bullet that some claim education technology to be. How do we help and encourage educators at any level to learn, use, and embrace education technology? I’ve heard some complain that this is yet another education fad that will pass, so why bother learning it? Others wonder why they should bother when the skills they acquire will probably be outdated in six months. And still others, like me, have enough trouble staying up-to-date in their field, let along the ever-expanding field of how to teach my subject matter.

Before we accuse teachers of willfully staying in the dark ages and thus robbing our students of valuable skills and opportunities, we need to make sure that we have provided an environment for them where they can learn and grow their knowledge about educational technology. We also need to understand that every teacher is different, and thus will see different types of educational technology as useful with regards to their styles, goals, and students.

I don’t have any easy answers. We have a whole office at our university devoted to helping faculty use the technology (albeit mostly hardware and proprietary software) available to us. But most faculty don’t use those services.  How can we get teachers to a) take advantage of the professional development opportunities and b) integrate it into their courses?As one fellow higher ed blogger points out, one of the reasons faculty don't learn about the technology available to them is that the format and content of the training methods (the workshop) just don't work.

I think it comes down to really involving faculty and teachers in developing opportunities to learn about education technology and to be involved in the decision on what types of education technology the institution or school district purchases. If we can find a way to work together, faculty, staff, and administration, in order to make education technology meaningful and useful.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Bad Female Academic: I'm Loud (and not Funny)

Have you seen or heard about one of the sitcoms on NBC, coming this fall? It's called Whitney, and while it's a show about "relationships" (shudder), the title character is described as "loud and/or obnoxious." The boyfriend, of course, endures and seems to love her in spite of, not because of, this particular character flaw. 

Loud women are a difficult breed. As Rosanne Barr (probably the loudest of the pack) recently opined that for all of her attempts to receive proper recognition and respect on her show, she was labeled a bitch, a diva, and crazy. Loud women are either obnoxiously outrageous side-kick (think Karen, from Will and Grace) or promiscuous (think Samantha, from Sex and the City). When a woman speaks out, it is "obviously" a result of some other "character flaw." Could it be that the "character flaw" is a result of the message that it isn't ok for a woman to be loud?

Often women who are loud turn to comedy to use their voice, but in my mind also that comedy softens it. The message is softened to a certain extent when the loud woman becomes the butt of the joke. Rosanne avoided this; her humor was dark and so grounded in reality, she wasn't the joke, the rest of us were. But often being "the funny one" (and thus taken less seriously) is a way for women to deal with the label "loud."

(Note that this isn't a criticism against those women who do succeed in comedy, a notoriously male and chauvinistic profession. I'm just observing that being loud is softened by also being funny. Now satire, on the other hand...But note there are very few female satirists, too.)

I've always been loud. My voice carries, as they say. When I first started teaching, one of the criticisms I received was that I didn't need to yell (I wasn't yelling). You can hear my laugh from a mile away (almost literally, depending on the acoustics). But just because I'm loud, volume-wise, doesn't mean that I've always used my voice to speak up and speak out. 

I do not get intimidated easily. I speak up for what I believe in, and while I am open, I have the courage of my convictions. I walk into my classroom like I own the room. My class is not a joke. I do believe that you have to earn your students' respect, but I carry myself like I deserve that respect from the first moment they meet me. I speak up in meetings, I speak out, and I make sure that I am not talked over or ignored. 

This, of course, is problematic when you're a Female Academic; we're supposed to be seen and not heard, apparently. I have had numerous people passive-aggressively suggest that I am too loud when I teach. I can't imagine them saying something like that to a male professor. I've had others gently suggest that I keep quiet or keep my head down, for my own good, like I need to be protected from myself. I've stuck my foot in my mouth on more than one occasion, but I also know that it's a risk I'm willing to take in order to make sure that I'm heard. 

And to show that I'm not a joke. 

You May Also Like: