enter the confessional · feminist health · risky writing

Why Can’t We Be Our Whole Selves as Academics?

man-person-woman-face

I recently had a stark reminder of how hard it is to be a whole person in academia. I was sitting in a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship review meeting, which is one of my favourite committees to be on. Banting has strict rules about postdoc mobility: if you don’t move institutions and in some cases cities after your PhD you’re unlikely to get funded. Banting’s rules are more explicit and narrow than most, though no stricter than the spoken and unspoken ones that govern many postdoc awards, advice about where to take your next postdoc, and new faculty hiring decisions.

Like many of our postdocs, the majority of whom are in prime family-building years, the person we wanted to nominate for the Banting was tied to Toronto, where they had done their PhD, because their partner was employed here and they were expecting a child together in the spring. Banting requires nominees to write a “special circumstances” document making the case for their staying in the same place for a fellowship. A significant part of the first draft outlined the financial, family support, and childcare hardships this postdoc’s family would face if they were forced to relocate for a fellowship with an infant.

The committee had a real debate about whether or not to include that information. Would it not be better to use that space to articulate the strength of our institution as a research environment and justify staying in Toronto that way? The committee, longer embedded in academic culture than the fellow or I, felt strange about letting the non-academic parts of the fellow’s life into an otherwise very scientific, research-focused document. They worried that talking about parts of the fellow’s life outside their research would be to their detriment, that they wouldn’t be taken seriously as a researcher if the Banting Secretariat knew about their child-to-be and their decision to choose stability and family support over a postdoc in a far-flung location that looked better on paper.

The postdoc and I both felt the same way about it: not only did that explicitly need to be in the statement, we both felt this would be a good moment to suggest to the Banting Secretariat that if the proposed location of research is excellent, they shouldn’t otherwise have any say in the geographic or life decisions of postdocs. Postdocs have complex lives that include lots other than just research, and they know best how to manage those lives.

The committee’s concerns didn’t surprise me. But something that happened to me recently, and relatedly, did.

Not long before this Banting meeting, I walked into my senior manager’s office and told her that my in-office hours would be a bit wonky for the next few months as my partner and I pursued fertility diagnostics and treatments. (Despite my best efforts to avoid infertility by not waiting until I had a tenure-track job to try for a kid, here we are anyway. It happens for so many people, but we so rarely talk about it in academia. I have nothing to lose by being open, in large part because I am no longer a full-time academic, so I’m going to use this platform to help destigmatize discussions of reproductive health.)

Coming from academia and having seen how pregnancy is often treated there–as a disruption, an intrusion, something to be ignored–I expected judgment, resentment, and concern from my colleagues about how this decision and a possible pregnancy were going to negatively impact my work and that of our team. Not because of anything I think of my colleagues as people–they’re awesome across the board–but because that’s the culture I’m used to.

Instead, I got delighted claps and nothing but encouragement. I was frankly shocked.

The rest of my team now also knows that my partner and I are trying to have a kid. Because we’ve all been open in various ways about pregnancy, miscarriage, and our plans for the future, I have no qualms about sharing news with them early and giving us the longest possible period to plan for my parental leave.

I know that my office, and my team, are somewhat unusual in this. We’re all women; we’re all born within 15 years of each other and all openly have or enjoy kids; we’re employed by an organization with a culture of work-life balance and staff support; we work largely with and for academics but are not full-time academics ourselves; our organization has some corporate aspects but functions most often as a hybrid non-profit/healthcare/academic space.

But I so appreciate getting to be a whole person at work, one who doesn’t have to pretend that she’s a worker and a researcher and a writer but not also a person. I can be a person who wants a kid and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work. I can be a person who is sick, or hurt, or stressed out by a pending renovation and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work. I can be a person who writes about infertility on the internet and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work.

Why can’t we have that as academics? It’s a genuine question: what does an academic culture that requires us to elide our personal lives, to treat our bodies as containers for our brains (even with broken feet), to elevate intellect over affect, do that’s useful to the academy? Does it make academic work appear more legitimate–and if so, to whom? Does it gatekeep, for the benefit of those in power, the people who cannot wholly divorce their bodily/personal/affective lives from their work? Does it make stressful and onerous academic and administrative work seem simpler, even if it isn’t? Does it delegitimate certain kinds of labour, especially emotional, so that labour doesn’t have to be acknowledged or compensated?

I’m sure it’s a combination of all of these things, and more that I don’t know yet. But I want to know, because understanding better why we can’t be whole people in academia–and still get taken seriously–is going to be crucial to figuring out how to make things different.

 

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