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Pivot Point: Mid Career Feminist Academic

Sometime between earning tenure and right now, something important shifted. Instead of asking for signatures, I began to provide them. Instead of putting my name on the ballot for the committee, I became its chair. Instead of asking for orientation and guides to processes, I am now providing them. Instead of standing up for my principles in someone else’s meeting, I am setting the agenda for everyone. Instead of paying to go to conferences, I am invited to present. Instead of responding to CFPs, I am responding to invitations. It has become the case that I am teaching grad courses where half the assigned readings are by people I know personally, and some of the pieces cite work of my own. It’s weird.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and I’m surprised to see my 42 year old face looking out at me. I feel like a fresh young upstart, a rookie. Like a grad student sometimes. I feel like I’m starting out, still trying to figure out how everything works. An outsider.

This is all bullshit, and terrible feminism, to boot. Such a perspective enables me to avoid acknowledging the actual privilege and power that have attached to me over time. It’s flattering to my self-image to see myself bravely storming the barricades around the Ivory Tower. The truth is that at some point, I became an inhabitant safely ensconced on the protected side of the moat. The truth is that I guard the gates now.

This is a pivot point. The point where I acknowledge that while I’m still reaching for greater heights, I’m kind of holding the brass ring, and while still reaching as ably and confidently as I can manage, I need to release my grip a little so that others can grab a little piece of it too.

I’m not sure how to do this. I’ve climbed the Ivory Tower to the position I currently occupy by some combination of luck, timing, doggedness, self-promotion, faked confidence, and an always upthrust hand waiting to grab the microphone. It has taken a certain amount of tenacity and single-mindedness. But now, I have some small measure of power and control not only over myself but over others. My core values have, if anything, become more radical, and my critiques more pointed–I’ve had a lot of time to get smarter. However, it needs acknowledging that my relations to others–to people, to structures, to institutions, has radically shifted over time. This will necessitate some changes in how I act. It will also necessitate some changes to how I understand my own academic subjectivity–I’ll tell you frankly that it’s ideologically expedient to see myself as a rebel outsider rather than an agent of the institution of power.

I do know I need to acknowledge my own power and position not so much to seize it more fully (I was always already leaning into it, from junior kindergarden forward) but to wield it more lightly. To fight less hard to take up space as a the dragon-slaying rebel, but learn instead to use my dragony fire breath to make the clearing a little larger for more rebels to set up larger and better camps, use my wings to shelter them. I’m kind of discovering what that means, in practice.

I would love to hear from other mid-career faculty: what are your pivot points? How do you cope? What are your strategies for wielding power and influence for the cause of equity, or justice, or change from the inside rather than the outside?

3 thoughts on “Pivot Point: Mid Career Feminist Academic

  1. Uh oh Aimee, if you are mid-career then I must be (gasp) senior! I have a couple of initial thoughts. One is that you're mid-career too early. That can happen because your research career is taking off (and it is) but it can also happen because budget cuts and the failure to re-hire at the tenure stream creates the need for more junior people to do more senior things. Often, those more junior people are women.

    We do not talk anywhere about what it means for women in the academy to move through the mid-career stage, although I have read some good things about motherhood and mid-career work, the glass ceiling, and the problem of mid-career burnout coming earlier and earlier. Some of these issues are structural and are about our universities adopting neo-liberal approaches to academic labour and education. Some of these issues are personal. Some are social. Anyway, it's good to even talk a bit about these things.

    You asked about pivot points, and about strategies for working inside a system for justice. For me, I don't think that I was ever mid-career — I went straight from junior to senior because of unusual things about my institution, my research career and admin. I was so outspoken in my department that even as my research career became “senior,” my admin. career stayed junior, but just at the dept. level. It was not until I became a Grad Chair that certain people in my dept. realized that I was competent. That would be last year! I think that if I could do it over again, I would understand my dept. culture better than I did, around year 8. So I don't have a pivot point for mid-career, and now I'm having to take some responsibility for that.

    My strategies for working for justice in the academy are: dedicating myself to one project at a time, getting mentored/supported by others above my career stage, listening to progressive ideas and pledging to help deal with them, doing a positive project especially after I fail to make change, and knowing that I do have power, lots of it, and I can make a difference.


  2. I'm not sure I'm up on what you young 'uns nowadays are talking about with your pivot points and such. But maybe this is in the right ball park for the kind of thing you're asking about when you ask for strategies for trying to advance equity and justice on campus.

    Judging from the description in this post, you're now reaching a career stage where the biggest difference you can make is often going to involve working behind the scenes, and where public pronouncements are likely to be perceived by people you're working with as grandstanding. It's taken me some work to get used to the fact that even if the people who were also part of making something good happen all realized at the time that you were central to the process, most of them will have moved on from the university a few years later, and basically nobody will remember your role. But it just would not have happened if everyone had been scrambling to make sure that the whole world knew what s\he was up to—because the change required quiet negotiation, or whatever.

    So … what matters more, making a difference or getting credit for it? Even if you convince yourself that it's the former, sometimes it'll bug you when people act as though something you worked your buns off to help bring about has always been that way, or that someone else did what you did, or whatever. On the other hand, there are few things more counterproductive when working for justice and such than insisting on getting your share of the credit. It's not really a career-building activity.

    Secondly, I think you're on to something by pointing out that more radical ideas won't usually go together with more radical behaviour. (Showing my age here: “Of course, super-radical ideas usually go together with being completely ineffectual. So there's that.”) Actual change rarely happens because of shouting. But … this is something that I've found myself saying when people in various organizations say things like “never compromise your values”, and I'm the stick in the mud who asks “what are you planning to do your values conflict with each other when you try to apply them in practice, as they surely will?” … if you really want to make change, it's requires more than just clearing space for others to share the stage. You need to shift your focus of activity, too, I think. With new power comes the opportunity to negotiate, to work together with people who also have power (typically, more of it), and sometimes you end up settling for an improvement that somebody is going to shout at you about and call you a sell out. That's not something to feel sorry for yourself over, but it is something to prepare yourself for.


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