Category Archives: Writing

Gendering Brilliance

Writing specifically about merit and gender in academia, Linda A. Krefting, a professor of business at Texas Tech University, notes that stereotypes of women often “put competence and likeability in opposition.” What happens, then, is that competence appears as a problem for women, but not for men. Being too competent is coded as aggressive and assertive while appearing too feminine becomes a marker of incompetence.

Joan C. Williams, author of What Works for Women at Work and a law professor at the University of California at Hastings, describes that same phenomenon as “the tightrope” that working women have to navigate. It is a pattern of bias, in which women who appear and act too feminine are judged incompetent but women who appear and act too masculine are judged as lacking necessary social skills for the workplace. In particular, academia prizes brilliance and originality. For men, assertiveness can signal brilliance and confidence in one’s work. When women act assertive, we’re not brilliant, we are just bossy or lack social skills.

When I talked to Joan last year about her book, she specifically mentioned the gendered nature of “brilliance” in academia. She asked me, “How can you [a woman] be brilliant, deferential, and nice?” I admitted that I never mastered all three simultaneously.

How can academic women meet traditional gender norms in the workplace while also taking pride in our work, promoting our accomplishments, and showcasing our original scholarship? To be more blunt: Can academic women ever appear “brilliant” if that term — used to showcase high-level intelligence — is understood as a masculine trait?

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Task Force

First comes an email. A senior colleague in your field needs your opinion on contingent labor. You message back with your opinion. You also send links to posts, articles, and thinky pieces. Senior colleague responds, “Can we talk about contingency more?” You agree, but admit that you are no expert. Senior colleague is contacting you because you wrote a piece about your experiences as an adjunct and a full-time lecturer. You’ve also written about the challenges of the faculty job market and your attempt to walk away from academia. You realize that this makes you a voice on this issue. You are not sure how that makes you feel. You are writing to learn to live with how your life turned out, but you aren’t sure you are an activist. People keep calling you an activist. You wonder if speaking up is the mark of activism. It makes you sad to think that’s the case.

Next come the phone calls. You have a lovely chat with the senior colleague, who heads a prestigious committee for a learned society. He wants that society to take action on contingent faculty (finally). You agree wholeheartedly. This has been one of your frustrations with the learned society that you’ve been a part of for 12 years. Almost every year, you send money to this group for dues and conference fees. A quick calculation reveals that you’ve paid thousands of dollars on plane tickets and hotels to attend its annual conferences — all in an attempt to build an academic career.

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Notebooks

I keep a notebook for my ideas of what to write. Actually, I keep notebooks (plural), virtual (Evernote) and physical. Fragments of what I write rest in so many places. I cannot corral my words even when I try too.

None of my notebooks are even close to full. Blank pages dominate my frenetic handwriting. Each notebook represents  different moments in my life as a writer. They are evidence of my contradictions, my successes, and my failures.

There’s a black and white floral one that had plans for chapter five of my dissertation. I’m unsure whether I followed these plans. There’s a magenta notebook that feels like it is made of suede. It is not.

There are many black notebooks. One of which I cannot bring myself to open because I’m afraid of what I will find. That one is an anguished journal, in which I try to make sense of where I am at and where I have been. There are previous selves that I am not quite ready to encounter (again). There are moments I am not proud of.

At least one is repurposed. It is small and spiral-bound. The cover is green and brown. “Wine” is hastily written on the cover. Years ago, I thought I would get into wine because people I knew were into wine. I decided to document my favorites and their tasting notes. I quickly discovered that I don’t like wine that much. I feel outclassed by wine drinkers, and my tasting notes are shit. I ripped out the wine pages with much prejudice. Now, that notebook contains my thoughts on Joan Didion’s essays on self-respect and others from Slouching Toward Bethlehem, possible columns for Sexism Ed, and some colorful drawings by my daughter. Since I wrote in the notebook, she did too. A purple whale and a pink snake rest between my jottings on kindness and my summaries of episodes of The Leftovers. Writing and motherhood intermingle. Her whale makes me smile every time I thumb through that notebook. Continue reading Notebooks

Academic Writing Month: Bring it On!

This week, I have written something everyday: pitches, blog posts, drafts, and lists. I managed to finish an agonized column that I’ve been writing off and on for two months, and I should finish a review essay by early next week. I even sent off a pitch for a personal essay on tattoos, which is a topic that I tend to not be forthcoming. Last week, I finished a column and hit “publish” on two blog posts that had been hibernating in my Evernote files for at least nine months. There are more of those to come.

More importantly, I sat down with my files on my zombie manuscript this morning to strategically plan how to finish the damn thing. I’ve done more work than I thought I had (good), but there is still so much more to be done (not bad, exciting even). I feel like I am finally back in the writing groove after my slump this summer and early fall (also good).

Here’s the thing: I like writing. I actually enjoy it. Yes, it is often hard, but I am much happier with myself when I write. I feel productive. I process what’s happening in my life. I push all my torturous thoughts onto the page to get them out of my head. When they linger, they only do do damage. On my desk I keep a note that I wrote months ago. I keep trying to throw it away, but I can’t bring myself to. My frenetic scrawl reads, If I write them down, maybe I can let them go. It is my reminder to write out the thoughts, emotions, and things that trouble me. I follow, no more agony over what could have been. This is good advice that I often don’t take. Writing saves me from myself. Continue reading Academic Writing Month: Bring it On!

When It Hurts To Write

Almost all of my scholarly life, I’ve researched, written, and taught about depressing topics: the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacy, doomsday prophets, apocalypticism, religious intolerance, horror, and zombies. I spent more than six years of my life analyzing Klan newspapers; too many hours to count making myself familiar with the construction, deployment, and privilege of white supremacy.

Friends, acquaintances, and random strangers ask how I managed to write about people that unsettle us. I shrugged the question off with a smile and a flip comment about my sense of humor and inflated sense of optimism. Sometimes, I would say with conviction: “I write about these people and these topics because someone has to.” This was a burden I claimed to demonstrate the importance of my work. The research was unpleasant, but it was also intellectually stimulating.  I needed to figure out why the Klan appealed to white men and women. I could bracket my own discomfort for my research projects.

My students wondered about my mental health because of my areas of research. “You’re so pleasant and friendly,” more than one of them noted. My affect didn’t match my scholarly interests. I explained to my students that we don’t just study that which comforts us. Instead, we need to look at what unsettles us and why. Much of my pedagogy rests on confronting students with things, topics, and people they find unseemly to show that history and religious studies is as much as about horror, violence, depravity, and harm as they are about anything else.  We can’t fix our world unless we confront what haunts and horrifies. Looking away doesn’t solve any problems.

I work on depressing topics; it is my niche, I guess.

It is terribly unsurprising, then, that I now write about sexism in academia for Chronicle Vitae. By pointing out gender bias (explicit and implicit) in higher education, I hoped I could do something to make the academy a kinder place for women.  I started this new project wondering how much data I would find about gender bias. Soon, I was overwhelmed by the evidence of bias against women. I ended up with a huge stack of articles, studies, and opinion pieces. Originally, I feared my column would run dry after six months. Now, I fear that it might never end: pay gaps, citation gaps, mommy bias, leaky pipeline, sexual harassment, rape, hazing and bullying, rescinded offers, contingent labor, enlightened sexism, implicit bias, and uneven mentoring and recommendation letters. The list could go on and on.

I didn’t realize the extent of the problem and its enormity. The portrait of women in academia appears bleak. I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and sad. There is too much to cover. Too much to dwell on. Too much that makes me want to cry.

What I quickly learned is that researching and writing about sexism in higher ed hurts me.

Do Babies Matter?  proved to be my tipping point. It sort of broke me because I couldn’t read it without reflecting upon my stalled academic career. My life appeared in its pages. I became just another data point about how marriage and children impact the careers of women academics. Chapter after chapter, I became convinced that I was doomed from the start of graduate school without ever realizing it. I read and cried. I was sad, frustrated, and angry. This book was too much, so I had to put it down.

My visceral response startled me. I write about depressing topics all the time without too much mental anguish. My reaction to sexism should have been no different than my reaction to white supremacy, right? No topic ruffles me, or so I thought.

Yet, sexism in higher ed hits too close to home. I don’t have the luxury of distance from my topic. I see myself in every damn study, and it hurts. This research is like salt in a raw wound. It stings, burns, and irritates. Mostly, it forces me to think about some of my most unpleasant experiences in higher ed. I get to relive things I would rather forget every time I work on a column for Sexism Ed.  It makes me weary. I feel hopeless.

But, I can’t stop writing either. Column by column, I document sexism, misogyny, and gender bias in the academy because someone has to. I can’t stop writing. I just wish it hurt a little less.