I Look Like A Professor

I don’t look like a professor, or so I’ve been told in my almost 13 years in, or adjacent to, academia. Usually, that message is sent indirectly: a casual comment in the hall, a smirk, or a nicer-than-nice question regarding my hair, clothes, or tattoos. Other times, the message is direct and clear.

At conferences, for example, faculty members and graduate students express equal amounts of disbelief and surprise that someone who looks like me managed to write the book they just read. Senior scholars, and on occasion deans, ask me what I’m studying — even though I finished my Ph.D. in 2008. With confused looks on their faces, my students double-check to make sure that I am the professor, not the teaching assistant. More disturbingly, I’ve seen members of search committees look openly puzzled that I — the body seated in front of them — could possibly be the qualified applicant that they selected for an interview.

In my previous department, when I arrived to interview for a lecturer gig, the secretary assumed I was a student and told me pointedly that the chair was too busy to see me without an appointment. I smiled and tried to explain that I was there for an interview. It took a few minutes to convince her that I was actually a job candidate. As I left the interview, I overheard her telling a faculty member that I didn’t look old enough to have a Ph.D.

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TinyLetter

I started a TinyLetter in June. I’ve written two letters so far. I imagined that I might write a letter weekly, but my imaginings don’t often sit well with the reality of day-to-day life. Part of my slowness to write these letters is to figure out how they are different or similar from my other writing. I’m not sure I have a good sense of whether TinyLetters are a particular genre or not, so I’m treating them as tiny personal essays about two topics that dominate my thinking (and writing), bodies and books.

I’m writing to you, dear readers, because I want to write more and think more about bodies and books. Also, I would love for you to write back. Let’s have a conversation. Some of you have already written to me. Thank you.

For those of who haven’t subscribed, here are excerpts from my first two letters. I hope you’ll let me write to you too.

My first letter is on writing, motherhood, and Rebecca Solnit’s Faraway and Nearby:

When I first started reading The Faraway Nearby, I adored it. I read the book while I was still rocking my youngest to sleep for two naps a day. While he snuggled close, I followed along as Solnit pondered apricots, fairy tales, leprosy, Che, Frankenstein, ice, memories, empathy, and family. My eyes strained in dimly lit nursery. My Kindle glowed illuminating his chubby face and balled fists. I was drawn to Solnit because of her essay that spurred discussions of mansplaining. I hoped to mimic the lovely intermingling of personal essay and researched explanations. The baby nursed; I read. The close proximity of motherhood and writer’s aspirations felt meaningful. I could only read about writing while he slept. I could only write while my oldest was at preschool. I was pulled into two different directions, motherhood and writing. The tension felt distinct and inescapable. 

My second letter is about my anxiety about parenting and my attempts to let my children become who they want to be:

On the drive home, fear punched me in the gut. I just agreed to let my six-year-old go to the beach without me. I imagined everything that could go wrong in intimate detail. Sunburn. Drowning. Car accident. Drowning. Jellyfish stings. Drowning. My breathing became shallow, my stomach bottomed out, and tears rolled down my cheeks. Chris could tell something was wrong,  but, I couldn’t speak without making my sobbing obvious to our kids in the backseat. I took a deep breath and tried to reign in my panic.

What if something bad happened to her?

Here’s the link to subscribe. A new letter is coming soon.

 

Writing Motherhood

While finishing an essay on the Tooth Fairy and childhood beliefs earlier this week, I realized that I’ve been writing more about motherhood than I have before. At first, I was unnerved. Why was I suddenly writing more about my life as a mother? What was to be gained, or lost, by presenting my understandings of my children to the larger world? Why was motherhood looming large in my writing? And why was I bothered that my writing had taken a new direction?

I’ve mulled this question all week because Mother’s Day is upon us. Yesterday, my son’s preschool hosted Muffins for Mom (dads get donuts for Father’s Day). E and I ate muffins and played on the playground together. We climbed on tires, in boats, and on cars. We had fun. There’s even a souvenir picture.

Today, my daughter’s Kindergarten class is hosting a Mother’s Day Tea. She was beyond excited about this event. She was up early to get dressed in a fancy red tutu because her teacher instructed all the students to look nice for today. Motherhood is celebrated on one day despite all our struggles and efforts through out the year. We tend to ignore what our mothers do for us in the day to day.

I’m ambivalent about the holiday that celebrates an idealized vision of moms and our supposed sacrificial natures. Mothering is complex, as our relationships to those who mother us. Our parents cannot always be easily celebrated in cards, gifts, or meals. Many have lost their mothers. Others have strained relationships. Celebration of motherhood is not an inherent good.

I also chafe at the suggestion that motherhood is the sole force that defines me. I am a mother, but I’m also more.

Why, then, am I writing so much about my experiences as a parent? Being a mother feels unavoidable in what I’m writing. My relationships with my kids are making me think about different things than before. I want to figure motherhood out. I want to dwell with my children’s questions and observations. It is just where I am right now. I look forward to where it takes me.

Catalog of Wounds

Fever
Sore Throat
Rash covers his face, arms, legs, and tummy.
Tears
“Nah” on repeat as he swings his arms wildly
More tears
Flinging himself on the ground in protest
To the doctor
“Rock baby,” he says, “rock baby”
He cuddles close.
“Mama, up! Up, Mama!”
Strep throat.

Fever
Sore Throat
“My tummy hurts,” she says, “and so does my head.”
She mumbles and forgets to pay attention.
“Can you hear me? Are you listening?”
Hearing loss
Everyone speaks louder and louder.
To the doctor (again)
The nurse washes the wax from her ear.
She cries quietly.
“Can I sit in your lap?,” she asks.
She climbs up and barely fits.
I refuse to recognize what this means.
Ear infection.

Dogs fight outside.
Gashes
Growling
Cuts and blood
The old dog limps.
To the vet
The young dog howls and whines.
Clean the wound.
Feel her leg.
The vet assures her leg is not broken.
Staples seal the wound.
The old returns home and promptly sleeps.

Sore throat
Headache
Tears
Anxiety
Stomach ache
Fatigue
Worry
I catalog the wounds of our week:
Bumps, bruises, bug bites, scraps
Aches, pains, and general distress.
Gashes, infections, and viruses.

Their bodies heal.
My children play.
I give motherhood a chance for one more day.

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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