broken heart · emotional labour · silence · solidarity · systemic violence · women and violence

Vulnerabilities


The semester began with the shadow of a threat. Under the username “Kill Feminists,” comments were made on a blogTO comments thread (now deleted), and captured by a reddit forum.


The University of Toronto notified the university community of the threat via email on September 10, 2015. This response has been criticizedfor its lack of specificity. On September 11, 2015, the Toronto Police announced that the threats were not credible. The investigation is ongoing.

Do my feminist friends and colleagues at the U of T feel better about going to work now? Does a discredited threat neutralize the bad affects of the threat itself?

I’ve been thinking about these questions and about the shadows that fell on my first September as a professor way back in 2004. It was my first real job and I felt enormously lucky and privileged to have it. I still do. One of my courses was a large lecture course. There were about 150 students enrolled in it. To be honest, the whole thing was terrifying. I had all the usual fears about screwing up. As everyone who has ever been in front of a classroom will recognize, teaching, in the best of circumstances, is its own exercise in vulnerability.  It was, after all, just me up there. But then the terror ramped up to a whole new level.

I started receiving emails sent from an anonymous hotmail account. The writer identified himself as a student in my class. He told me that he knew where I lived, where I bought groceries, the route I took to get to campus. He said other things but I don’t remember them anymore. I think I tried to forget them. I only remember being scared.
Suddenly, things that seemed awesome were actually awful: I lived alone; I rode my bike to work; I was starting a new job in a new city where I didn’t know really anyone; I had my phone hooked up (remember when we all had land lines?) and was fine with having my phone number (and thus my home address) published in the phone book; I had just moved into the cutest little house and had the security system dismantled because I didn’t want to feel like a prisoner in my own house; I went to the grocery store all the time.

I took these emails to the chair of my department who told me to take them to campus security. We never talked about this issue again. I wonder now if I really seemed that brave to him? I must have because he certainly never followed up. And I didn’t want to be the new girl making trouble and not getting along in her new courses.

I went to campus security. They told me that the only way to do anything about these emails was to report them to the police and to open an investigation. I don’t remember precisely how this conversation went, but I remember feeling as though it would be such a huge drag to go to the police. That it probably wouldn’t be worth my time. Or that tracking this guy down was such a huge, insurmountable problem. I don’t believe that this is what campus security necessarily meant for me to think, but the result of that conversation really was that 

I left knowing that they could not help me.

I called the phone company and told them that I no longer wanted my number to be public. I was mad that I would have to pay $4.95 a month for that privilege.

I considered doing other things, but they felt futile and silly. And that was a big problem. I felt dumb for even feeling scared. The whole thing felt weirdly embarrassing. I’m pretty sure that, aside from the department chair and campus security, I didn’t talk about these emails with anyone else.

The worst part was walking into that lecture hall twice a week, looking out at the sea of faces, and knowing that someone out there was going to leave class and send me another abhorrent email.

It was just me up there.

I would like to say that there was some kind of lightening clear resolution. But there wasn’t. I kept showing up. I kept trying not to be scared. One day, the emails stopped.
But it took me a long time to stop feeling vulnerable. I still do sometimes. A lot of the time. Over the years, things like this still happen once in a while. I used to keep it all in a file somewhere and then I stopped because it felt like weight that I no longer wanted to carry.

It was just me up there.

And I’m sure I am not alone in this.

The problem with threats is that they remain threatening long after other people tell us that we don’t have to be scared. They cast a long shadow. They leave us feeling vulnerable long after they have been declared to be nothing more than shadows.
So, what do we do with these vulnerabilities? 


We keep showing up. We find solidarities. 

We remember that it is okay to not be okay.

Or, as Sara Ahmed tells us about feminist hurt, “We are not over it; it is not over.”
Meditating on where we can go when the hurt is not over, Ahmed reminds us that the response to repugnant acts is not to stifle the suffering. “We might need to attend to bad feelings not in order to overcome them, but to learn by how we are affected by what comes near, which means achieving a different relationship to all our wanted and unwanted feelings as a political as well as life resource.”

I don’t want to feel vulnerable. But, as Wendy Chun reminds us, “we’re most vulnerable because we think we’re safe.” Chun refers to how the internet can become a series of gated communities where portals enclose us in seemingly private spaces. As Chun noted in her ACCUTE keynote address this past May, we shouldn’t conflateprivacy with security. I have no desire to live in a home where the window screens are outfitted with trip wires, and where the house keys are attached to a “panic button” that I am encouraged to keep next to the bed. That is also not how I want to live on-line, and not how I want to feel on campus.

I don’t want to feel vulnerable, but I also don’t want to be locked down against students, against the possibilities that feminist hurt allows. I’m not kidding myself. This is not a good place. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were not the case that the histories that bring us to feminism are often histories that leave us fragile? But it is the place where we are and we are going to make something good out of these vulnerabilities. It is okay and not okay.
#NSBudget2015 · academic work · broken heart

Tristesse in the Age of Austerity

I feel an agonizing sense of loss and regret when I walk out of the classroom for the last time.”

Co-founder and Editrix Emerita Heather Zwicker wrote this in April of 2011. In the full post, which you can read here, she pithily outlines the emotional connections teachers often feel when the term is over. Indeed, many of us here have written versions of our own post-term tristesse. Aimée’s  is the most recent. She writes,

Real learning is transformative–and all transformations are fraught with fear and excitement and loss and gain. The crucible of the new self is necessarily hot; it burns. Teaching, I find, is as emotionally and personally wrenching as learning is, and I need to find new ways to incorporate this reality into my work, even as I create some boundaries for myself and my students.

Yes. 

For all the frustrations–and there are many and they are legitimate–that come from teaching, I feel strongly that we here at Hook & Eye value the classroom-as-crucible-for-change more than just about any aspect of our jobs.

Except here’s the thing: since the blog founded in September of 2010 our demographic of regular bloggers has shifted radically. Back in 2010 it was Heather (tenured), Aimée (soon-to-be-and-now-tenured), and me (ten month contract). Now? One tenured professor, two PhD candidates, two partially-employed/-under-employed workers, and one alt-ac worker who is also completing her PhD. Yes, we have a semi-regular blogger who is tenured, but look at our guest posts: they are mostly coming from graduate students or members of the precariate. 

Why does this matter? It matters because teaching has changed in this age of austerity. Most of the precariously employed contract workers I know who are earning a living wage (& those are few) are teaching fifty percent more students than their tenured colleagues. And they are fighting to keep their research profiles alive and active so that they, in turn, may have a chance to keep their positions, or maybe, just maybe, apply for one of the jobs (the one job…) in their field this year. Indeed, I was one of those precariates earning a living wage, until June of last year when I moved into the severely-under-employed category. 

And the rest of us? We are either scrambling for work that pays less than Employment Insurance, but keeps us “in the game,” or we are stretched beyond the limit, shuttling across kilometres and campuses to make ends meet. 

Yet, we still care about teaching. We still care about students. Care can get warped when you’re put in the position of teaching 400+ students in a semester in order to make around $15,000 less than colleges who are tenured, yes. That care can get worn when you’re teaching classes that only fall outside your area of expertise because they are the only classes on the books for which a Dean or a VP will fund sessional labour, yes. That care can get taxed when you are barred by budgets from doing even the direct action work of the profession. 

In previous years my teaching load has been between three- and four- courses per semester. I have always taught in the spring to offset being laid off for two months. This year, I team taught one course that lasted a year but paid me only for one term of work. The class had a total for 400 students in it. It was a course I worked for two years to design with my co-teacher, whom I respect. And I will be honest, I felt detached when I wasn’t in class and with my students, because the structures that paid me for my labour made it clear my work mattered less than the work of the (wonderful) teaching assistants. 

And yet I am sad. The end of the term has come and I feel all those same feelings of loss, of concern that the students will forget, that I didn’t do a good enough job conveying vital information, that we will all forget what a privilege and what a responsibility it is to come into a classroom together to learn. 

And I am saddened even further, because when I turn on my computer I see that the fight for higher education is being taken up predominantly by students. This is amazing and inspiring, yes. I am in awe of the strength and will and solidarity that is happening in Quebec right now. But I am also acutely aware that just last week the Liberals of Nova Scotia deregulated tuition in this province, which means that my students–the savvy ones, the ones who aren’t yet aware, and the ones who don’t care–are likely going to be massively and adversely affected by this decision. As Rebecca Rose writes, the deregulation of tuition

This means that universities can increase these fees as high as they think “the market” (AKA students and their families) will bear without any government intervention. 

I would say it also means hiring sustainably at the professorial level will again be placed far on the back burner. That’s bad for the precariate. That’s bad for students. That’s bad for universities, provinces, the country. That’s bad for anything that might want, somehow, in the future, to look like sustainability. 

To be honest, this year, I am at an emotional as well as practical loss. I care about my students, I am feeling the post-term tristesse, and yet I am also feeling strange because I don’t have stacks of grading. I don’t have class prep for spring courses that start in a month. What I do have is a series of deficits. This is the first year in seven that I have no teaching lined up. I’m looking at the LSATs and thinking about what’s next not because I am disgusted so much as because I have to pay rent. My EI? It runs out in June. And I am just one person among many. One more would-be teacher. One more person who cares about students, even though they aren’t “mine” any more. One more person carrying the emotional weight of the economics of austerity.

So what do we do

broken heart

On Rejection

Yesterday, I got a rejection letter.
Now, everyone on the academic job market gets rejection letters on a pretty regular basis. I’ve gotten my fair share. I used to save them, thinking that the pile I was amassing would be an instructive stack I could share with some protégé in my future tenure-track position, while saying things like, “see, I applied for lots of jobs and research funding I didn’t get, but, in the end, all that hard work paid off. You’ll make it, too; just stick with it.”
I stopped doing that a little while ago. Currently, I put my rejection letters straight into the paper shredder. I now prefer that immediate catharsis. I think it may have something to do with the fact that I’m starting to wonder if my fantasy T-T position will simply remain just that: a fantasy. There are a lot of wonderfully talented and smart folks out in the world looking for academic jobs… and those jobs are just not so easy to come by anymore. I don’t write this from a position of cynicism; clearly, this is a reality for the vast majority of early career academics, some of who are struggling to find academic work of any kind. This leads into a broader discussion of whether on not PhD programs can or should be revised to reflect this “new normal” that I’m not going to delve into more deeply, here, but feel free, readers, to comment.
Some rejection letters hurt more than others. The one that I received yesterday hit me harder than usual. I think that when one really invests time and energy and passion into an application, one can’t help but fall in love with the idea of getting that job or that nicely funded research opportunity. Who likes unrequited love? (Answer: nobody.)
An academic rejection letter can feel like the relationship version of the “It’s not you, it’s me” speech. Despite the many times I have been advised, and have given the advice, to not take it personally, academic rejection can still be a tough pill to swallow—and I’m just not sure how useful the advice to not take it personally really is. It feels like one essentially tells another person, “…that way you’re feeling? Yeah, just don’t feel that way.” Thanks!
The fact is, one can know a thing, intellectually (e.g. “I should not take this personally”), but that rarely changes the actual feeling of rejection. I think what does help are the tiny rituals that people develop around their rejection letters. That’s why, in my world, the blades of the paper shredder will be whirling later on today.
How do you deal with rejection? Do you save your letters? Burn them? How do you find catharsis?

best laid plans · broken heart · emotional labour · having it all · jet lag · kid stuff

A conferencing we go!

I find myself in the unusual position, this week, of parenting solo while my husband is on a business trip. This has never happened. There are business trips aplenty in this household, but it’s always me traveling. And I always go alone. Solo. Like a wolf.

Well, that’s not strictly true, but the exception clarifies the rule: once, when my girl was six months old, my department sent me on a graduate recruiting trip to my alma mater, and I said that since I was breastfeeding I could only do it if my daughter came, and if my daughter came I could only get any work done if my husband came too.

Can you believe they paid for all of us? We saved on hotel costs by all staying with my husband’s parents, but really! Three of us flying thousands of kilometres to do a recruiting trip! It was crazy, of course: my daughter fussed for the entire flight, there AND back, the time change was hell, my boobs were like rocks every time I left my daughter for more than 90 minutes, my husband was solo parenting in someone else’s house, out of our collective routine. Nobody slept. I hardly remember a thing. I barely knew if I was coming or going, it was 40 below, and I was worried about everything. Good times!

Yeah. So now I travel alone.

I’ve been to Denmark, England, Alberta, British Columbia (yearly), Northern Ontario, Maryland, California, and Michigan (three times) without my family. I’ve ordered room service and luxuriated in hotel robes. I’ve done yoga on pebble beaches. I’ve plucked oranges from trees growing along the sidewalk. I’ve slept in. I’ve done audio tours of historic buildings. Of course, I’ve also cooled my heels in what feels like 50 versions of the same awful, soul-sucking airport, having my dignity and shampoo alike confiscated. I’ve sat through innumerable presentations in uncomfortable chairs with very poor coffee to sustain me. I’ve crammed myself into hotel rooms the size of my bathroom. I’ve had jet lag and panic attacks and indigestion.

I do know that I get a lot more work done, and that I’m better able to manage the various stresses of traveling when I’m alone. I know I’m freer to network, to devote myself to conference sessions and meeting colleagues, and making the most of the book fair, then getting enough sleep and alone time to do it all again the next day. But I really do wish I could share the Viking Museum in Roskilde with my husband, bring my girl to see the tulip festival in Ottawa, lie on the rock beach at Brighton with them both so we could all have the sense memory of that incredible sound of waves and pebbles ebbing and flowing. I have one particularly pitiful memory of a four hour layover in Amsterdam where I set myself up in an airport bar and closely examined all 2000+ family photos on my computer, in chronological order, a sped-up version of This is Your Life that seemed to rip my heart in two.

Academics have to go to conferences. It’s an inescapable fact of professional life. If you have a family, there are two ways to play it. Either you turn that conference in England (say) into a family vacation, bringing everyone with you, and staying some extra time before or after the working part of the trip–or you don’t. I don’t. And if I’m being perfectly honest, that’s probably the best arrangement for me and my family.

What do you do?

body · broken heart · clothes · femimenace · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail

This is not the female empowerment you are looking for

Well, the shit has hit the fan, gender-wise, at Waterloo. Again. Please go read the news coverage to know what I’m talking about, and then come back. Let me just say there are bikinis, and Formula One racecars, a dean of engineering, and some corporate sponsors.

Wednesday’s headline: UW shuts down student car team over racy photograph

Thursday’s headline: Car sponsors decry UW decision on bikini photo

My reaction to these stories is complicated. Issues of money (corporate sponsors, the charity), power (the university, the engineering faculty), academic culture (grades and teamwork and academic integrity involved in facility use), sex (she’s not wearing coveralls in the photo), gender (the discussion of expressing femininity in a male-dominated faculty), and even feminism (the university’s efforts at equity and at female recruitment and retention, successful or not) intermingle in ways that are hard to disentangle, let alone understand.

I’ve tagged this post “righteous feminist anger,” but I’m not altogether sure who I’m angry with. I’ve tagged it “sexist fail,” too, without being able to say quite who has failed.

Overwhelmingly, though, this makes me sad. Here’s why:

  • I am sad that this student needs explicitly to look for an outlet to express her femininity–engineering is still a gendered course of study, I guess, and that gender seems to be male. Having part of yourself necessarily suppressed every day to fit in can make you wiggy.
  • I am even more sad that this expression–this self-expression!–of femininity takes as its form the the most clichéd of sexualized postures/costumes for the pleasure of the male gaze.
  • I am sad that the shoot was for a charity: how awful that the best thing a female engineer can contribute to charity is an image of her own hypersexualized body? 
  • I am sad that if we’re going to celebrate our beautiful bodies, we twist and contort them (hip jutted out, back arched, breasts out) instead of showing their strength and power. By way of contrast, this is beautiful and strong together, I think.
  • I am sad that I don’t know her name: out of delicacy, her name is deliberately never mentioned in the reporting. Her body we see, but her name is veiled. Is this to save her some anticipated shame at being exposed, while we are nevertheless entitled to enjoy our collective titillation, on the front page of the paper, over our morning coffee?
I don’t know what to think. 
I do know what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominate field. I started my academic life in a male-dominated field–computer science–and I hated it. I felt alienated, and unheard, unimportant, and disregarded. Sometimes, the teachers made fun of me. I quit and moved to English, where I felt freer to be myself. How brave, how strong, do you have to be to stay in one of those fields? What kind of daily strength and perserverence might that take?
I also know what it’s like to be a young adult–a young woman–testing out the boundaries and contours of what it means to be a woman in a world where that … is second best. I think I was 25 before I felt comfortable being called a ‘woman’–it seemed to me I was more a ‘girl.’ It’s hard, growing into this role, this identity, this putatively second-best self. 
I know what it’s like, too, to test out the limits of self-presentation in this overdetermined body: in my early 20s, I went goth, and the bikinis I wore in public were made of PVC, paired with combat boots and blue lipstick. There were photo shoots. Did people stare, look at my boobs, make rude or lewd comments? Sure. And I tried to feel like I was in control of that. At 38, though, I tend to side more with Stacey and Clinton: people read you according to the scripts we share as a culture. 
Don’t get me wrong: I like bikinis. I like high heels! I don’t, however, see much empowerment in wearing them together, for a camera, while someone aims a gas-powered leaf-blower at you for that wind-blown effect. The clothing, composition, genre says object of the gaze, rather than subject of action. And aren’t we, girls reluctantly become women, finally ready to be the subjects of our own narratives, rather than the (leggy, nameless) objects of someone else’s?
bad academics · bad news · broken heart · femimenace · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail · solidarity · turgid institution

How we’re ‘celebrating’ International Women’s Day at the University of Waterloo

Today is International Women’s Day. While we have much to celebrate–and indeed, have taken to celebrating here on this blog–it remains true that women do not enjoy the full complement of human rights in much of the world. Here at the University of Waterloo, a recent spate of incidents on campus and online demonstrate that even on the campus of a research university in Canada, women are still the targets of hate for some, and, perhaps, not taken fully seriously by others.

This is a guest post by Shannon Dea, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, and Associate Chair of Undergraduate Studies in Philosophy, here at UW.

——

For just under a month, women at University of Waterloo have been terrorized by an anonymous propagandist who claims that women’s “defective moral intelligence” poses a serious risk to the planet. Starting on February 7, when student election posters for female candidates were covered by misogynistic flyers, there have been three waves of flyers (two of them attached to eccentric and disturbing email messages) and two Facebook messages disseminated by an author who has variously referred to himself as Lord Irwin, nath007, Feridun Hamdullahpur (University of Waterloo’s president), and Sylvester J. Pussycat. The rustic and syntactically idiosyncratic communications, the most recent of which was emailed to assorted students, staff and faculty members late March 1, have bit by bit advanced the thesis that women should not be educated as highly as men, and that universities should not teach gender equity, because woman’s deceptively weak exterior hides her evil interior. When women are educated and treated as equals, according to the propagandist, they pose a real danger to the planet. The poster girl for this campaign is Marie Curie, who figures prominently in all of the flyers, and is characterized by their author as the “mother of the Nuclear bomb,” as the “evil” woman responsible for the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and as the Eve leading a hapless Adam-Pierre Curie toward the apple of Nuclear weaponry.

Understandably, women at UW are frightened. The day after the first Marie Curie email was sent out, the student government (the Federation of Students) closed the university’s volunteer-run Women’s Centre and LGBT student centre (GLOW), out of concern for volunteers’ safety. And, rightly so. Both centres are obvious targets. And, while the propagandist’s misogynistic ambitions may not extend beyond distributing his paranoid ramblings, no one’s willing to rule out the terrible possibility UW might join the ranks of Polytéchnique Montréal or Virginia Tech.

Well, no one but the University, that is.

Throughout this business, the administration has had remarkably little to say about UW women’s fears that the flyers may be warning signs of a misogynist who poses a real danger to them. At first, the University’s newsletter, the Daily Bulletin, didn’t discuss the flyers, with at least one staffer there dismissing them as a “prank”. Then, when the propagandist sent an email in which he impersonated Hamdullahpur, the Daily Bulletin reprinted an official letter from the president deploring the offensive message conveyed by the flyers and assuring readers that the president wasn’t really the email’s author. Of course, no one had ever taken seriously the idea that Hamdullahpur might really have sent the offending email. This wasn’t the message the university community needed to hear. We needed to hear that senior administrators and campus police were concerned about our safety and knew that the only way to secure it was to devote all of their resources to apprehending “Lord Irwin.” However, in the various official communications since this all began, the university has remained limp.

In a discussion panel concerning the flyer campaign, audience members were disappointed to hear that the UW Police were pursuing the mystery man for charges of impersonation (of the president) and posting prohibited flyers. If they had any leads, they didn’t let on. Of course, I hope that the reason the UW Police are investigating misdemeanour charges against the perpetrator is that they know it’s important to catch him before he hurts someone and these misdemeanour charges are the best mechanism currently available to catch him. That is, I hope that the police are taking the incidents and the investigation more seriously than the charges they’re investigating would, in themselves, warrant. I hope that these charges are to the author of the posters as tax evasion charges were to Al Capone. While I hope all of these things to be true, no communication we’ve yet received from the University has warranted any confidence in these hopes. Instead, we get periodic reassurances that police are taking “appropriate action” and that all members of the UW community have the right to be safe and to feel safe.

Well, sure we do, but what I need right now isn’t a university administrator telling me “I really want you to feel safe.” What I need is a crack team of computer scientists – this is University of Waterloo, after all! – quickly tracing the emails and Facebook messages back to their author before he hurts someone.

Emblematic of administrators’ blindness to women’s fears was Associate Provost Bud Walker’s advice to audience members at the discussion panel that “You probably think everyone here is on our side, but there might be people walking through this room right now who don’t understand that women have a right to equitable treatment.” [Ok. Full disclosure: Walker has never in his life, so far as I know, uttered the sentence “Women have a right to equitable treatment.” But the foregoing is a plausible, if charitable, paraphrase of what he actually did say.] This shows just how wide the gap is between Walker’s experience and that of women at UW. No UW woman ever enters a public space on campus and assumes that everyone there agrees that she has a right to be there, and to be treated as an equal. As one after another audience member revealed in the Q & A following the panel, the climate for UW women is a chilly one at best, and sometimes it gets downright cold.

How cold is it? Well, cold enough that weekly flyers railing against the evil that is woman have become a thing here. And cold enough that, within days of the scariest of these flyers, the following remarks about the matter were posted on Bill’s Portfolio, a blog authored by a self-described UW student: “Yeah, the campus is full of big bad scary monsters…. Now, most UW students that I know are intelligent enough to know that this shit is wrong…. Yes, it is wrong, yes, it is inappropriate, but get a life if you are going to fuss and cry over stupid shit like this. Because if you do, you must be living in a sheltered bubble.”

Now that’s cold.

broken heart · equity · having it all · kid stuff · saving my sanity · slow academy · women

Motherhood, Childcare, and Academia

As tears welled up in my eyes, my newly hired nanny quietly asked what was wrong. “I’m going to find it hard,” I replied. I was about to start a new academic job after 18 months of maternity leave with my three year old and my one year old twins. As I looked up, I saw that my nanny was also teary-eyed. “I miss my three kids too,” she said. A wave of emotion flooded over me, including feelings of guilt for my privileged position. Here I was, about to leave my three little ones with my new nanny and travel 150 kms back and forth to and from work. Here she was, about to look after my children, thousands of miles away from her home in the Philippines. She wouldn’t see her own children for a full two years. What a crazy world, I thought. But I took the leap of faith. The next day I drove to work. My nanny started her care for my kids. And that was the start of a difficult but wonderful thing.

It was one of a series of moments of letting go that I think are essential to the kind of motherhood that I endorse: the kind in which children are cared for not by a “mother” but by “mothers,” including fathers who take on traditionally more motherly roles. Over five years ago, as a new mother, I sat in a mom’s group, listening and sharing. Many of the women complained about how they, not their husbands, did most of the work in housekeeping and caring for their newborn. A good place, I suppose, to vent such frustrations. What bothered me, though, was that while these moms voiced their complaints, they clearly weren’t willing to hand over primary care-giving responsibilities. They were hovering over their husbands, demonstrating how to hold, how to feed, how to rock the baby. Not me. If I wanted an equal partnership both in careering and in parenting, I believed, I needed actively to make that happen. It’s not easy to walk out the door when your baby is crying and you feel yourself lactating—that physical attachment. But it’s necessary. And to this day, I’m amazed at how my husband can soothe our kids. I have a real respect for how he parents, and it’s because it’s his way, not my way.

Working with a nanny involves a balance between making sure your own important parenting values are expressed and brought forth and having faith in both your nanny and your children. For instance, I’ve had serious discussions with my nanny: “too much TV is not acceptable”; “processed foods and sugar are not the be-all-and-end-all.” Cultural differences are of no small significance. I’ll never forget the look on my nanny’s face when she first saw my husband and I drinking water straight out of the tap. Evidently, she had never lived in a place with such clean water.

One day, after a few months on the job, I came home to find my nanny telling me how much she and my children had bonded. She was reiterating little details of the day, so upbeat and happy, and I could tell that she really loved them. Jealously reigned and I heard myself reply to her gruffly. But ultimately, I knew it was a good thing. I knew that I needed to let my children really have more than one mother. We are two mothering women: one working and living for the dream of bringing her family to Canada; the other working and living for the dream of being both a mother and a career-woman. My husband is building his own career while also not hesitating to engage in what is typically deemed “women’s work.”

Having a nanny and an involved husband has relieved me—to a certain extent—from what Mary Ann Mason and Eve Mason Ekman call “The Second Shift”: coming home from a day of work to an evening of housework. Freedom from housework also results in more time with my kids. But it’s still a crazy and very busy life.

We mothers need to share the care-giving responsibility in order to have equality in the home and at work. This may seem obvious, but clearly it’s not a done deal. Here are some statistics for your contemplation.

Tenured Faculty Married with Children: Women, 44%, Men, 70%
Tenured Faculty Other Family Configurations: Women, 56%, Men, 30%

The Road to the Ph.D, Tenure, and Beyond:

  • Women with babies 28% less likely than women without babies to enter a tenure track position.
  • Women married 21% less likely than single women to enter a tenure track position
  • Women 27% less likely than men to become an associate professor
  • Women 20% less likely than men to become a full professor within 16 years

Women Fast-Track Professionals with Babies, by Age:

  • Doctors: 27% have babies between age 32 and 37 (the height)
  • Lawyers: 25% have babies at age 32, going down to 20% at age 35 (the height)
  • Tenured Faculty: 18% have babies between age 32 and age 36 (the height)

Note: having babies at all other ages for these professions is pretty rare, at between 5% and 10%. Of the three “fast tracks” mentioned here, women tenured faculty are the least likely to have children.

(Stats gathered in California and discussed in Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers, by Mary Ann Mason and Eve Mason Ekman.)

By Laura Davis

broken heart · grad school · job market

When should you break their hearts?

It’s convocation week, and the young woman in front of me is 22, well awarded, radiant with success and flanked by three proud parents. “Yeah, I’m pretty excited,” she says. “I got into my top choice MA program! I don’t know where I’ll go for my PhD, though – everybody says it’s a good school, but who knows – maybe I can go to England, or the States? I just, you know, I really want to be a professor.” Charming blush.

And here I am again. Do I say, “Oh, that’s wonderful news: congratulations! You must be so proud.” Or do I say, “Sweetheart, I’m begging you, do not make that tragic life decision. Graduate school will steal your soul and eviscerate your self-esteem, and at the end of six excruciating years – if you’re fast – you’ll realize that the only job you’re trained for doesn’t exist. From then on, your life will be an interminable grind of underemployed misery punctuated by periods of paralyzing anxiety, all in the service of a vocational delusion.”

She smiles; I smile, lie. Not the right moment to break her heart.

Maybe the right moment is lunch with our promising MA student and her co-supervisor. The student’s had a wonderful year: earned a perfect GPA on her coursework, taught for the first time, to rave reviews, won a major national scholarship, landed a visiting appointment at a university in New Zealand as well as the travel grant to support it. “And what are you thinking of doing after the MA?,” I ask, carefully. “Oh, a PhD,” she says, surprised by the question. “Can I ask – I don’t want you to take this the wrong way – but can I ask why you want to do a PhD?” “I want to be a professor,” she says, “like you.”

I can hardly pretend to be surprised. Everything I do for her, all the guidance and the letters and the feedback on her written work, my mentoring and my modeling, the suggestion of things to read, all of this is designed to help her achieve her goals, which include Becoming a Professor. She would be a conscientious instructor; she has the capacity to influence a discipline. I want people like her – hardworking, imaginative, smart, and kind – to be my colleagues. I want her to be a professor; I want that job – professor – to exist for her.

But that job doesn’t exist plentifully, and if commentators on the academic job market are right to describe the dearth of academic jobs as structural rather than temporary, it’s not likely to return anytime soon.

It’s easy to say that you should disclose this dreary situation to students – but when, exactly, and how?

Undergraduate convocation clearly isn’t the right time, and the whole concept of graduate education is pretty abstract in the first few years of university. Early in the PhD? Too late: they’re already committed. At the end of the PhD? Way too late: the last thing a dissertating student needs to hear is, “Your thesis needs more work – even though it won’t get you a job.” How about during the Master’s? Maybe, but MAs are short – doctoral apps are due at the end of the first semester – so you might want to practice greeting enthusiastic new students with a hearty, “Welcome to graduate school! But don’t get too comfortable.” (Of course, that might also entail conceiving the Master’s as something other than a pre-doctoral degree – but I digress.)

Maybe there’s never a good time to share bad news. But even if we can bring ourselves to break students’ hearts, I’m not convinced they can hear what we’re saying. “Yeah, I know it’s a tough job market,” said one would-be professor earlier this year, “but somebody has to get those jobs!” “I’m sure things will get better,” another one shrugged. “I’m going to be really strategic about my research,” said a third optimist. How do you respond to such blitheness?: “What’s the weather like on your planet?”?

Underneath my reluctance to break students’ hearts is a virtual hibernaculum of unresolved feelings: anxiety that I might be wrong; remorse that I haven’t managed to strengthen the humanities and turn the tide of public opinion (or, more to the point, the tide of public funding); pedagogical self-doubt; survivor’s guilt; concern for the future of my students; and my own professional and intellectual heartbreak at a future without these people in it.