What’s hard about my job isn’t the work, and it isn’t the people (though believe me, I have my days). What’s hard about my job is me – specifically, the fact that I have never learned how to not take things personally. Part of this is A Heather Problem: I tend to be intemperate, drawn to extremes. I love what I like and I hate what I dislike, and there is a special place in my heart for the Brussels sprout (a mean little vegetable). So, sure, part of it is me.
But I suspect that it’s also A Gender Problem. Having been “made” a woman (Beauvoir), I am now someone who acts, and feels, and responds, like a woman. What does that mean? Among other things: I want my colleagues and students to like me. That’s certainly not the only thing I want, and I wouldn’t say it’s what I want the most – but do I want it? Yeah, I do. Also, I work to make people happy. When they are unhappy, I don’t shrug it off; I work harder. Although I don’t mind honest confrontations, it upsets me to be in the middle of intractable discord, particularly with people who have no interest in working things out. Other examples: when a journal turns down a publication, I think I’m stupid. When a colleague attacks a process I’ve put together, I assume s/he speaks for everyone. When I find myself in a why-do-the-wicked-prosper moment in public, my blood boils, my face reddens, and my voice shakes. The strongest emotions – fear, rage, frustration, incredulity, resentment, envy, homicidal PMS – are disfiguring for everybody; for women, they can be professionally debilitating. Angry men are respected; angry women are shrill. Etc.
Understand, please, that this is not an intellectual problem. Philosophical disagreements?: you win some, you lose some, you change your mind on some. I am fine with the fact that we academics make our living on principle. Nor am I asking for therapeutic advice. I don’t wish to be a different kind of person. I don’t imagine the academy to be my world; my job is not my life; I know that institutions have no soul. I know all of that, in my head. But in my heart? I’ve never figured out how to park my emotions at the committee room door. I can’t seem to find a way to care less.
And here is the real kicker. The very things that make me susceptible to bruising (bruise = internal bleeding, remember) are the things that make me really good at my job. As a woman, I have developed exceptional emotional intelligence. I can read the feel of a room within seconds. More importantly, I can work with that. To tension I bring peace, to shyness I offer inclusiveness, and I ease social awkwardness with good humour. When I’m confronted by someone who is angry, or upset, or frightened, I know what to do – I know intuitively, I want to say, though what i mean is: I know because I have been made a woman.
I believe these are important skills – important to the individuals involved, but also important to the institution, and therefore important to all of us. (See “cycle of abuse.”) But these so-called soft skills play in the most undervalued aspects of our universities: teaching, meeting, mentoring, supervising. When it comes right down to it, whether by reputation, by conviction, by tradition or by culture, the university still values the disembodied thinker above all.
And that – I find enraging.
(Okay, readers: some hefty claims here, I know. Bring it!)