age · having it all

Guest Post: Aging in the Academy – it gets (somewhat) better

I’ve been thinking about writing a guest blog for Hook and Eye and anticipated turning my hand to it next term. But Leah MacLaren’s Dec. 3rd Globe and Mail column – “Boomers’ bodies are breaking down? Cry me a liver spot” – spurred me to action, especially since it seemed to follow so quickly upon Claire Campbell’s Nov. 16th guest blog, “An Open Letter to the Baby Boomers.” Claire’s post begins “Please, when the time comes, retire” though, citing as it does folks “in their fifties and sixties,” it’s not altogether clear when “the time” is meant to be. At the traditional retirement age of 65? or maybe 55? or even 50? Leah MacLaren resents hearing baby boomers talk (and write) about the difficulties of aging, and says “When we are young, we’re not preoccupied by the physiological minutiae of youth.” Well, actually, Leah, you are. You just can’t see it. Take your column about jogging in London and being told you have a “nice butt.” Fast forward thirty years. Get it?

It’s not that you won’t have a nice butt. It’s just that your butt, and everything attached to it, will be invisible. It’s really true what they say. Middle-aged (and older) women are invisibled, including in the academy. What they don’t tell you is … that’s not always such a bad thing. You don’t have to worry about whether or not to wear glasses or power suits. Having a bad hair day? Who cares! No one can see your hair anyway. And who hasn’t always wanted an invisibility cloak? It can be pretty hilarious to sit in a high-powered meeting (say, a selection committee for a very senior administrative position), offer an opinion, and have the chair of the committee look startled. As he squints in the general direction of your voice you can see the cogs laboriously turning. Where’d she come from? Is she on this committee? Wish I could remember her name. All this in spite of the many senior positions you have yourself held, your hard work in and on behalf of the university.

So why do I say that being an older woman in the academy is not such a bad thing? Three words: you know stuff. Knowing stuff gives you confidence. It can give you the courage to take positions on tough issues. It fine-tunes your bullshit barometer. The stuff you know can make you a formidable opponent … or proponent. You want to change the curriculum, introduce anti-harassment or equity policies, find money for a new scholarship or visiting professor program? No problem! The (other) old women I know have done all this and more. Believe me, you want old people, and especially old women, on your side. Which is not to say that senior administrators are always happy to hold on to their elders. We really have seen it all before and we’re a little leery of bandwagons.

A few more good things about being older in the academy: your kids are grown up and most of them have turned out to be kind, smart, and interesting people; undergraduate students are revealed as the very young and vulnerable people they are; your research and teaching get even more interesting and rewarding. Best of all, your brains do not go flying out the window when you turn fifty. They stick around. A little more accommodating. A little less anxious.

Jo-Ann Wallace
University of Alberta

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Aging in the Academy – it gets (somewhat) better

  1. Ha! I love this, Joanne — You know, one of the things has has always really irritated me about Leah McLaren's columns is her constant sense of discovering the world as though it didn't exist beyond her own experience; that is, exactly what she's accusing the boomers of. Hey! Did you know that weddings are a big industry??? Hey! Buying property and maintaining it is kinda hard! Hey! Did you know that driving a car means you can go more places by yourself??!! Grumble.

    However, as much as you are trying to convince me that aging in the academy brings many welcome changes, I am having real trouble imagining that your bullshit detector was any less sensitive in any other period than it happens to be now …


  2. Great points. I was also disturbed by the post asking boomers to retire.

    For women, especially, turning 50 often heralds the beginning of a particularly productive period in your career. And your post provides a lot of reasons why this is so.

    The flip side of making the academy more friendly to younger women (and anyone who wants to have children and actually be involved in their lives) is that those same people might actually ramp up some of their academic activity once their kids are adults.

    As I said before, retirement (or not taking it) is NOT the main reason there are fewer tenure-track jobs.


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