The student who had an appointment was waiting outside my open office door as I came back from the mailroom.
“I would have gone in,” she said, “but …” She gestured towards the minefield of unsteady book towers blocking off the door from the chairs, one sideways glance away from toppling. And toward the chairs, one spilling over with rogue transparencies, the other covered in dirty tupperware, my wallet, a child’s leotard, and other personal effects I had dumped out of my purse while looking for a (lost) flash drive. A laundry basket by the window overflowed with computer cables of all kinds, and yellowing newspapers.
“I’m so sorry,” I apologized, shepherding her through the maze and clearing her a seat. “My daughter is just starting junior kindergarten and we’ve had no daytime child care for three weeks. So my husband and I have been taking care of her while still working full time, and this is the kind of office you get when that happens. Now! Let’s talk about your plans for grad school … I’ve read the documents you sent me and here’s some feedback I have for you …”
And so on. Looking back later on the interaction, I was appalled that I had talked about my personal life in that professional context. Am I making excuses for poor performance? Am I oversharing? Am I having boundary issues? Am I being, in short, unprofessional?
I have always imagined that being a professional means being competent and impersonal, manifesting that kind of demeanor, focus, and restraint called to mind by the phrase “she is a real professional” or “she acted very professionally.” But who exactly was it that decided that being a professional means omitting all traces of the rest of life from the workday?
To return to the theme of mentoring, I think that drawing down an iron curtain between what happens At The Office and At Home can be artificial, misleading, demoralizing, and crazy-making for both professors and students. First, if I remove all traces of my outside life (I’m married! I have a kid! My pipes are frozen and I have to wait for the plumber! I went to school thousands of kilometers away from my family!) from my interactions within the university I risk setting myself up as some kind of model of superhuman perfection and accomplishment: a featureless fembrainbot with obviously very nice hair asserting frictionless agency on the world. Ooooh. Not true. Second, sometimes a car accident, or lactation, or a move, or a spouse’s job change, or a death in the family, or a yoga injury can materially impact anyone’s capacity to do her (or his) job: why not be up-front about it, seek a reasonable and temporary accommodation, and model for everyone the practice of muddling through a tough bit only to shine all the brighter once the crisis passes? Life isn’t always a bowl of cherries; what’s the harm in acknowledging the pits?
If I admit that trying to be a stay-at-home mom (with equal help from dad) for three weeks means I haven’t been able to do my job optimally, am I setting the sisterhood back? I don’t think so. It’s not like I’m canceling classes or ducking out of reference letters or student meetings or peer review. I’m just having a harder time answering emails quickly, or cleaning my office, or getting November’s readings up on the website. I’ll get there, I want you to know, but I’m having a bit of a struggle now.
What might happen if I bring a little bit of my personal life into my work, asserting my competence and my challenges all at once? Maybe incorporating the personal into the professional in this way might be a feminist act: I am a fully-fleshed-out human being, just like anyone, and a pretty good professor, at the same time. Shit happens, even to female professors, and so long as the challenge isn’t fatal, I have the will and the capacity to get on with the shoveling. Maybe to get ahead a woman, I might no longer have to pretend I’m not a real person. Hm.
One of my colleagues, popping her head through my door earlier this week, said sympathetically, “This is not the office of the Aimée I know.” And it’s not. Next week, it will be neat as a pin again. This week, I’m asking for a little indulgence as I burrow into the piles, trying to find that extra handout for you, okay?