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Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

The three things I learned at the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women: on being a radical scholar

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The kiddo is asleep for the night. My husband and I sit on kitchen countertops, facing each other.

“We should get back to work.”

“Yeah.”

We sit another moment, shoulders slumped, dark circles under our eyes.

“I don’t know how I’m going to get all these grants done,” he says.

“I don’t know how I’ll get all these manuscripts drafted,” I reply.

We sit some more. We talk some more. About how we can’t compete against people with kids but a stay at home spouse, about how we can’t compete against our peers without kids at all. He is in a department where people show up early and stay late. You can find a third of the faculty in the department at any given time on the weekends. I’m in a department where folks work from home as often as they work from the office, but they are still getting stuff done. And it feels like they are all getting more done than me.

Pile the ubiquitous Mommy Guilt on top of this, the culturally conditioned guilt that says not staying at home hurts my child despite the intellectual knowledge that good daycare, and the kind of quality investments I make with my daughter, are hugely beneficial, and there are few hours in my day to sleep.

We talk some more. Someone cries; it’s usually me. We head to the couch and pull out our laptops and work until our eyes blur the lines on the screen. Then we go to the bed. I fall asleep while my husband reads several articles on his tablet. I wake at five the next morning to go to work early.

This is the more raw side of my life, the harder side that blog readers and Twitter followers seldom see. But it has become harder to hide in the year of my third year review. I am at the halfway point between the start of my job and going up for tenure. And I wonder if this track I have fought so hard for, the one where I lead my life the way I feel is right and has the most impact, is the one that will earn me tenure, or earn me a handshake and a wave out the door.

* * *

It was in this frame of mind that I headed to the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women on September 22nd-23rd, feeling terrible at what a mess I was making of my wifely and motherly duties, and how I surely would never be able to get my act together enough to get tenure at the prestigious R1 institution where I am employed.

The conference did not lower my panic, or my tears, and judging by the other attendees, I was not alone. I heard a lot of women talk about how much they yearn for tenure, about their ambition to be a leader in their field, and then only minutes later their voices would break as they would finish, “But I am not a bad person if I don’t get tenure.” A lot of us talked about the babies we left at home to be there, the fights for lactation rooms, the women who pulled up the ladder behind them instead of reaching out a hand, the men who sneered at the idea that a conference for pre-tenure women was even necessary. And we talked about our allies, the men and women who had our backs, explicit mentors as well as the people we admired from afar.

The conference was transformative. I feel like those hundred or so women that I went to that conference with are my posse now, and it is exciting to imagine that in six to ten years, we could, all of us, be tenured. I felt supported and appreciated by the folks who ran the conference, and was simply amazed at the fierceness and brilliance of both the organizers and speakers (Katie Pope and Beverly Davenport Sypher now rank among my Favorite People Ever). I finally got to meet the great Alice Pawley, and was struck by her warmth, her intelligence, and her strength. I came away with several concrete ideas to improve my chances for tenure… and a lot of unease about this process that will not leave me until I hear final word, a few more years from now, about whether or not I get it.

So I want to share the three main points I learned. The first two are things I was taught last week, and the last is what I infer is necessary for us to change the way we understand tenure and promotion.

1. Bring your whole self to your job.

Dr. Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner gave the opening plenary talk, entitled “From Farm Labor to Academic Labor.” Dr. Turner was a farm worker and lived in a farm camp in California throughout her childhood. She gave a moving account of her own childhood experiences, her parents’ support of her love of reading, her life of “firsts” at her institutions – first tenured woman of color, first full professor woman of color, and embedded these personal experiences in a broader narrative about what this job asks of us.

Dr. Turner encouraged us to push against a job that forces us to “constantly abstract ourselves,” that we should bring our whole selves to the table because of what we offer but also because it makes us whole.

How many of us publicly admit the side of us that yearns for more childcare, but not also the side of us that yearns to turn off our computers and snuggle our kids for an afternoon? How many academics hide who they love, or what they love, for fear of not fitting in or not seeming serious? And no wonder; Dr. Turner describes academics of color in particular as being “guests in someone else’s house:”

“Like students of color in the university climate, guests have no history in the house they occupy. There are no photographs on the wall that reflect their image. Their paraphernalia, painting, scents and sounds do not appear in the house. There are many barriers for students who constantly occupy a guest status that keep them from doing their best work” (Turner 1994: 356).

I tend to bring what I think is my whole self, or most of it, to the table, but then a significant part of my brain is occupied by overthinking what I’ve done. What will they think of me if they hear I’m crazy about my kid? What will they think when they find I devote hours and hours to roller derby? That I have a blog? Are they judging me right now? And all those thoughts harm my interactions with colleagues, they limit my productivity, they mean that I only bring a fraction of the warmth and intelligence I’m capable of bringing to my job.

So no more. I’m bringing everything that I am to my job. This isn’t just about loving my kid, or being an athlete, or writing a blog, though it’s a start to fully embrace these things. This is about wanting to push the boundaries of how anthropologists and doctors think about female reproductive physiology. This is about the intersection of feminism and evolutionary biology. And this means that I need to more explicitly make this passion my primary scholarly interest.

2. Have a plan.

This point was largely inspired by a breakout session led by Dr. Mary Dankoski. In it, Dr. Dankoski asked us if we were the type of academic who lived by Plan A: did what we were asked to do and hoped we would have a rewarding fulfilling career while also meeting the promotion and tenure expectations, or Plan B: were proactive, developed a plan and negotiated responsibilities to be sure we will have vitality, find real meaning in our work, and meet promotion expectations.

You can probably guess which type most of us were, and which type Dankoski encouraged us to become. The Plan A academic says yes to most things because she is directionless and is trying to meet expectations, whereas the Plan B academic uses her personal values and interests to define and express her scholarly worth.

Related to Turner’s point about bringing your whole self to the job, Dankoski asked what we cared most about in order to create a career plan around it. She created a great handout to force us to write a Career Development Plan. The first step was to write on the following prompt:

“It is 5 years from today. If you were wildly successful in your work and personal life, what will you have achieved?”

It was powerful to hear women’s answers all around the room. They gave bold answers: to become a leader in their field, to embody social justice values, to raise a family, to be on the path to becoming a provost, to have several federally funded grants. Like many women, I have been chastised in the past for daring to say that I want to lead a big life. But here was only encouragement and excitement.

Next, we filled in a blank table on our handout. The rows were labeled Values, Passions, Strengths and Challenges, the columns labeled Professional and Personal. This gave me a sense of my strengths and where I should be focusing my scholarly attention. Why, if I am so passionate about changing sexism in science and medicine, am I not doing scholarly work on it? Part of identifying these issues is to help us get our strengths to “count” in a traditional tenure process (which I will get to later).

So, have a goal and make it a big one. Make a plan, ground it in your personal values. Dream big, form actionable steps towards those dreams, and put some thought into how your dreams and the mission of your institution intersect. Any time you can convince your employer that your dreams are good for them will make it easier to make them happen.

3. Be a radical.

At the conclusion of the first day, Dr. Sypher pointed out that simply getting one hundred women through the tenure process was a pretty darn radical act in and of itself. In many ways she is right. It is a radical thing for us to stick it out, when so many don’t. And honestly, thinking about all of the women I met last week getting tenure is something that is going to carry me through a number of rough days.

To be clear, it’s not that academia weeds out the weak. The research on attrition for women and people of color indicates it’s not that women who leave are not confident, or are weak, but that they know their self-worth and have decided they’d rather take their toys to another sandbox where they’ll actually be appreciated.

But those of us who insist on playing with our toys in the academic sandbox need to be radicals. And I do think a lot of the ways we need to be radical involves how we perform our job: we need to set boundaries so that we aren’t always doing the service work no one wants, we need to make our passions our scholarly interests in the face of some who would invalidate it, we need to perform our confidence in front of people who might undermine us. We need to get tenure.

But I think it also means reflecting critically on what it takes to get tenure, and whether the way it’s done is the way it should be done. There are two problems with the current criteria for tenure: they don’t reflect modern, interdisciplinary scholarship, and they don’t include metrics to evaluate influence and perspective beyond peer-reviewed publications.

More institutions are recognizing that interdisciplinary scholarship is a good thing, and some are even able to hire people with joint hires among the social sciences and ethnic studies, or biology and engineering. Yet these institutions that know they want their faculty to be twenty first century scholars use the same metrics to evaluate interdisciplinary scholars as they use to evaluate traditional ones. From conversations I had at the conference, they don’t know how to retain these scholars, or support them, and so many feel adrift, or don’t make it to tenure. And these faculty are very often from underrepresented groups – every one I met at the conference, in fact, was a woman of color.

Then there is the added issue of measuring influence and impact in a twenty first century society. At an R1 institution like mine, the criteria for tenure are to publish ten papers (thereabouts depending on the discipline, a book and some papers if you’re in the humanities), have teaching that doesn’t suck, and more or less pull your weight in terms of service. It doesn’t seem like much, until you consider the weeks, months and even years of work that go into each of those ten publications: writing and getting the grants (a near-impossible feat these days, with both NIH and NSF funding rates around 5%), advising the students, doing the research, analyzing it, hitting innumerable dead ends, drafting and revising, submitting and resubmitting. Publishing ten quality papers is hard work, and is in many ways a fine way to demonstrate one’s contribution to a field, perspective, and the beginning of one’s trajectory as a professor.

But are peer-reviewed publications, read and cited by only by a select group of those peers, the best way to assess influence and importance? They are certainly no longer the only way. My 2006 paper on iron-deficiency anemia and menstruation has been cited by six other papers; my 2011 blog post on this paper has been viewed tens of thousands of times and received almost sixty comments between its two postings. Some anthropology blogs have been responsible for starting entire new branches of the discipline, others show an applied side of anthropology that helps us see the impact of this field in our everyday lives; some ground their writing in a historical and evolutionary approach or move us with their perspective on war and poverty, where still others are not only influential, but regularly get more hits than the website for our main professional association. Some use their blog as a service to the discipline, and a newcomer is dispelling myths about milk (full disclosure: both of those blogs are by collaborators, kickass collaborators in fact). This is by no means an exhaustive list.

I’m not saying every academic needs to be interdisciplinary, or every academic needs a blog. But some of us are committed to thinking about scholarship in a different way, or being public intellectuals. We want to put time and effort into influencing our fields but also inspiring lay scientists and future academics. That is its own kind of professional impact.

So how does one be a radical when radical scholarship is hard to measure with current tenure criteria?

Be that radical anyway. Be the scholar you think you should be, bringing your whole self to the table, finding your passion and making it your scholarship, and having a plan that will help you become a leader in your field.

Every single female academic I have ever talked to about tenure has admitted to having a back-up plan. If I don’t get tenure, I’ll be okay because I can stay at home with the kids. I can go back to school. I can get back into my art. I can write. I can consult. If we’re going to all have these back-up plans (which, true to our impostor syndrome, are often better-defined than our actual plan to tenure) why not put it to good use? Live our lives, do our jobs the way we think they should be done, and try to get tenure that way. We already know what we’ll do if it doesn’t work.

And for goodness’ sake, don’t pull up the ladder behind you. That shit just ain’t cool.

 

p.s. For two important posts that deal with radical scholarship in a way specific to anthropology, read Daniel Lende’s and John Hawks’s posts over at Anthropologies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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