I had lunch today with two of my former grad students. For both of these women I have served as their dissertation co-adviser and mentor for several years. Over that time we’ve become friends. Now, we are in the process of removing me from their committees and learning to be just friends… Partially that’s because it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that I’m done with academia but also because… I am a terrible mentor right now.
One of my students friends has a three month old baby and she is preparing to start collecting data for a dissertation. And, she’s under a strict deadline in order to qualify for a fellowship. Every time she would worry that she hasn’t been writing or describe some preposterously elaborate childcare/writing/researching/travel plans that she’s worked out in order to get some writing done in order to meet that deadline, my heart would break a little. I remember in agonizing detail having a 3 month old and trying to finish a paper that I knew I needed to get out under review that month. Just typing this sentence makes my blood pressure rise and a panicky feeling start to descend.
My other student friend is dying to have children, anxious about her future, and described how in order to collect data she and her husband have spent only 1 entire week together since November.
And, today, I had nothing helpful to tell either of them. Because what I really wanted to say is that the deck is stacked against you, if you chose to have a family you are not likely to have the career you imagine. And, time is fleeting. Babies grow so quickly. It gets harder and harder to have a kid the older you get. Stop worrying about those writing deadlines and enjoy what you have now. Don’t put off the family you desire because it may be too late when you get there.
BUT, THAT IS NOT WHAT A MENTOR SHOULD SAY. That isn’t going to make the long, lonely road of dissertations and writing any easier. And, at any rate, they know my story. They know every detail of how and why I was denied tenure. They know that I’m disillusioned with academia these days. They know that I have come to see it as a credentializing endeavor focused far too much on profit and prestige and very little on learning and creativity.
So, for now, we go out for Indian food. I smile and joke around. Maybe in my relaxed posture, my relationship with my terrific kids and my truly authentic smile I indirectly pass along the only advice I have these days: If you are not finding this path to be fulfilling and joyful, then you should consider another. If you are loving what you are doing, then keep doing it.
Remember those cute blackboards I made for the kitchen? Perfect for my countdown of teaching days… 18… 17… 16 days to go.
I decided back in January to submit my resignation right away and to use this semester to wrap things up and say my goodbyes. For the past several weeks, that’s what I’ve been doing during my work days… slowly but surely packing up my office and saying goodbyes. (Tell me, do I really have to keep paper files? The paper copy of my dissertation? My M.A.? No, embrace the digital world, right?)
One thing I’ve noticed is that while the sr. faculty are fully in the know (but decline to address the issue with me) everyone jr. to me is shocked to learn I didn’t get tenure. I don’t just mean shocked on my behalf in the sense of that’s so unfair (although I get a lot of that too). I mean, they had no idea; the news had not reached them.
I don’t know why this surprises me or bothers me so much. I know that my department and university are profoundly hierarchical and that decision-making is completely opaque. But, maybe since I am slowly extricating myself from this soul-sucking atomistic culture I see more clearly how information is tightly controlled in order to control people and maintain the social order. Since I’m on my way out, I can’t change the system, but I can break the silence by refusing to let the fact that I was denied tenure a secret. So, I have been telling all the instructors, non-tenure track people, grad students and undergrads that I am leaving because I was denied tenure. I’m not complaining or griping, but I am making sure it’s not a secret.
While I’ve been tying up the ends of my academic career, I’ve also been making plans for the future and making space at home. This has mainly meant two big things: thinking hard about how we use our house and reconfiguring that space to make it fit our family in this new stage, and figuring out how to cut expenses and save money so we can afford for me not to work.
Some of the saving has been easy and fun. We’ve been making cute hair ties instead of buying more, we have plans to upcycle one of my old sweaters into a new skirt for Big Girl, and to make floor pillows created from old pillow cases and baby blankets (posts on these activities soon!).
Other saving has been more challenging… since January I’ve been trying to cook all of the food from our freezers and pantry to use up older things and decrease our food waste. We’ve definitely done that to some extent… but we had to eat a couple of yucky dinners in the process and we still have some odd mystery ingredients to go… including two kugels that I don’t want to eat… The upside is that I have been doing so much cooking and baking that the girls can make banana bread, cookies, and gougieres pretty much on their own! (Maybe a few baking posts to follow soon too?)
This week its all about our new home library! I’ve been working hard on it and can’t wait to share pictures of the gorgeous color scheme, built-in bookshelves and fabulous floor pillows in some future posts.
Winter can make any house seem small… and messy too. The cold weather has been keeping us indoors and hanging around in the living room. This can be cozy but it can also be a recipe for frustration and claustrophobia.
About two weeks ago I decided I couldn’t stand another elaborate art project taking over the first floor or another fight with the kids about whether or not we can save the lego building they made. So, I decided it was time for us to rethink how we are using our space… and find a way to create some more! Luckily, we have a pretty easy solution: a mostly unused third story.
Our third story is not as comfortable or nice as the rest of the house. We have done very little to refinish it, it’s not insulated and we rarely turn on the heat up there, the space is oddly broken up with eaves and closets, and the original lathe and plaster ceiling is starting to crumble under its own weight. Although we ostensibly have offices up there, we have not really made much use of them and instead have generally just been using it for storage or as the occasional guest room. On the plus side, we have two more rooms up there AND a full bathroom.
I’ve wanted to reclaim and refinish this space for a while. I’ve had grand visions of breaking out the internal walls and creating an amazing master suite up there. We’ve also discussed letting Big Girl move up there and having the girls no longer share a room. Both of these plans are long term and involve major renovation: installing insulation, removing and replacing walls, replacing windows, refinishing the bathroom, adding a bump out and re-roofing the house, etc… You know just your average $10,000-$100,000 project. Not happening any time soon.
Instead, I decided to create a plan for refinishing and reusing this space now! I began by having the girls help me turn the larger office/guest room into a sewing room… with a budget of $0.
First we cleaned out the space, throwing away or recycling tons of old journals and books, gathering old pictures into one space and generally getting rid of the old to make room for the new. I must admit that this felt bittersweet; in recycling 10 years of journals and donating Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members, I felt the pain of failure more acutely than I had in the past bunch of months. I even put my Ph.d. diploma and bound copy of my dissertation in the closet… not out of spite but because in making space for new things it is necessary to cast out some of the old things. This is true for a room as much as for my soul.
The result was a room with a pull out couch, a large desk/work space, a large coffee table, an empty book shelf, lots of wall space and a corner filled with a 5’ x 5’ stack of books to be relocated across the hall to our future library! (more on that soon)
Next, the kids and I pulled out all the fabric from the closet. This too was bittersweet. Lots of the fabric scraps were gifts from friends and family from a baby quilt I had made for Big Girl before she was born. Other pieces of fabric were baby clothes I wanted to reuse in some way and a few maternity clothes that remind me of the good parts of being pregnant (the sheer wonder and magic of growing a baby!). Having Little Girl and Big Girl help with this took away the sting, we weren’t casting aside their babyhood, we were building on it!
So we did: Little Girl sorted the pieces into general size of little scraps, small pieces and big lengths. Big Girl sorted them into color and texture and put them on the shelf. I did some ironing and lots of folding.
Then we went on a ribbon scavenger hunt to dig up all the bits of ribbon and notions that we had around the house. We had a “ribbon drawer” in the dining room so you know this was a substantial project. We strung the ribbons on dowel rods that I had laying around and hung them on the wall.
We finished all this about 10 days ago. And, we have been hanging out in our sewing room a ton (which means much less mess in the living room too!).
Little Girl’s first sewing project back in December made her fall in love. Since then, she has sewn herself a stuffed animal (Pancake the Turtle), a stuffed heart for a friend, and she is working on another project for my sister’s birthday present. She is working with embroidery floss and felt so far and it is a really good match for her 4 year old fine motor skills. I am amazed at her determination.
Big Girl has sewn a few small projects, mostly from the kit she began back in December and she’s been finger knitting too. She’s making a very cool scarf as a birthday present for my sister and promised to make one for me next!
And, I have been learning to quilt. I have pieced together a bunch of squares from scraps and am planning a blanket. I also just created a small purse (the final part of said sister’s birthday present) that I practiced hand quilting on. Boy is that hard!
It has been wonderful to reclaim this part of our house. Doing so has increased our living space and created an place where we can lay out big projects that we want to come back to later.
But, it’s not only physical space we’ve gained. We’ve also gained emotional space by saying that sewing and crafting is something important that deserves a space of its own. Lots of people have playrooms—a space for kids to go and play with their toys. Playrooms say that the toys are legitimate and playing with them is an important part of childhood. Having a shared craft space does the same thing!
I feel like we’ve also created some mental space. By cleaning out the old work related stuff, I made more mental room for whatever comes next. Also, I think we made some mental space for thinking about crafting and making differently. By creating a space where we can make things for ourselves and others we are saying that gifts need not only be bought in a store. They can also be made by hands, big and small.
Although my university expects to drag out our working relationship for another 18 months, it is clear to me that I am ready, eager in fact, to wrap things up and move on. When classes resumed last week I was still on the fence about whether or not I wanted to teach next year. Finding myself absent-mindedly cleaning out my desk was a pretty good sign that I am ready to depart. Another round of aggressive action from my chair pushed me off the fence. I am ready to get out.
There are lots of little decisions associated with this: What will the kids’ school and childcare schedules look like next year? How can we save enough to mitigate my loss of income? How much should I be looking at jobs right now? What things do I truly want to focus on next year during my year off? What email should I use for work correspondence from now on? Is it ethical to renew with the American Sociological Association as unemployed because the dues are so very expensive and I will be unemployed soon but I’m not quite now? These are just the ones on the top of my mind. More will occur soon; I know.
There is another decision that feels really important to me right now though. How should I communicate my decision to my department and the University? At the two extremes: I can either make a fuss by pointing out all the structural and cultural forces that I think inhibited me from getting tenure or I can quietly and meekly exit. There are real merits to both approaches.
The “make a fuss” approach is not really about my tenure case. I am not appealing the decision. But, there are a number of structural issues starting with things the university could have done when I was hired and continuing clearly throughout my time there. By bringing these things up by writing a formal resignation letter to my chair, deans and provost, I potentially improve the university environment for future women in similar circumstances (ie: mothers of young children).
Because, this really is a generalizable problem. For women, having young children is associated with much lower rates of getting tenure track jobs and getting tenure. And, there are lots of things that happened to me in the past bunch of years that ended up sinking my tenure case.
As I’ve been thinking about this, I decided to read Do Babies Matter: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower by Mary Ann Mason, Marc Goulden and Nicholas Wolfinger (Rutgers University Press 2013), it’s been both validating and heartbreaking. The authors show how at every major turn, for women, family and career are incompatible in academia. They found that approximately 50% of assistant professors do not get tenure (page 48) and that women are less likely to get tenure than men. This issue is particularly a problem in the sciences (including social sciences, they note). Specifically, they write:
“Having young children dramatically reduces the likelihood of tenure for female faculty members in the sciences [including social sciences]. A female scientist with a preschool-age child (in other words, a child under six years old) is 27 percent less likely to get tenure compared with a man who has a small child. If that same women does not have a young child, she is only 11 percent less likely to get tenure than is a male scientist.” (Mason, Goulden, Wolfinger 2013:49).
Well, there you go. I have two children. And, everyone knows (ie: google “two kids harder than one” and watch the hits tally up!) that it is exponentially harder to have two kids than one. That must mean that I was exponentially less likely to get tenure… like 729% maybe 😉
Seriously though, the stories and reasons the authors list all resonated with me: the difficulty of moving to a new city with a newborn baby, the difficulty finding day care for that baby, the difficulty of travelling to conferences with kids, the lack of childcare at those conferences, discrimination, being perceived as being on the “mommy track”, resentment by colleagues for getting breaks, punishment to make up for the “breaks” I previously received. (Have I mentioned that I’m doing my fourth new prep in four semesters right now?)
Without engaging in recriminations, this is the point that my “make a fuss” exit would address. I would write a resignation letter that educated them about the “baby gap”. I would tell them that:
“Women who have at least one child in the household early in their career are 24% less likely in the sciences and 20% less likely in the social sciences and humanities to achieve tenure than men who have early babies;” (Mason et al. http://ucfamilyedge.berkeley.edu/babiesmatter.pdf )
“Overall, the majority of women who achieve tenure have no children in the household at any point in time after the Ph.D.” (ibid)
“Women who have early babies are more likely than others to become a ‘neck problem’, i.e. part of the non-tenured academic second tier (lecturers, etc.).” (ibid).
And, I would list some of the practices that experts recommend to improve this problem, focusing heavily on what would have helped me. For example:
Faculty support groups for family issues;
Guaranteed child-care spots for new faculty at the university day care center;
Information about day cares and schools distributed automatically to help us track down care right from the start;
Part-time track with re-entry rights;
Communicating with me to find out when would be good times for teaching and meeting hours so I could better accommodate childcare needs;
Funding to support bringing my child with me for conferences or work travel;
A place to store breastmilk!
Then I would say goodbye and farewell. It would feel so good to actually speak up for myself and address these issues! Something that I have done very little of in the past few years.
The downside of this guns blazing approach? All that blazing will certainly burn some bridges and would undermine my chances of getting a future job in academia. My chair will definitely NOT write me a letter if I take that approach.
Sadly, it would be so much easier, safer and more peaceful to embrace a very different exit strategy. One where I simply say that “I have decided against teaching there next year. Thank you for everything. Good bye.”
Then I realized that if I wasn’t going to get tenure then I didn’t need to revise that hopeless article yet again. In fact, I gleefully realized, I never have to submit an article to a journal again if I don’t want to!
Letting go of all the time I’ve spent worrying, the time I’ve spent planning, and for a little while anyway, the time I’ve spent writing means that although I have lost my job, I have found some time.
One thing this found time will allow me to do is engage in big projects! First up, it is time to renovate the kitchen. When we first moved into our house I had a five month old baby (now Big Girl) and was starting my job as an Assistant Professor two weeks later. Since that time, we’ve done a lot of work on the house: removing cabinets built into the living room to hold an extensive record collection, excavating the fireplace and installing a gas unit, tiling a fireplace surround, painting, wallpapering, and mending. We also hired people to do some of the other work for us: replacing windows, installing insulation and refinishing the bathroom.
At the start of all this, the kitchen was one of the better rooms. Off the shelf granite and cabinets that were obviously installed just before the former owners put it on the market. Not what we would have chosen but perfectly acceptable. It had a dishwasher and my dad helped replace the electric range with a gas one. Nicest kitchen we had ever had! Seven years later though, the kitchen lags behind the rest of the house. Countless cooking and art projects had scarred the walls and that ugly builders’ off-white paint has started to look vaguely pink.
Turns out we don’t need to keep that ugly kitchen a single day longer!
As I’ve started working out the renovation plan I have also remembered something about myself. Before I got my job—back in grad school and before—I was always working on art projects. I painted each room. I built mirrors from old windows. I refinished our furniture. I painted and collaged chairs and folding tables. I recovered couches (using duct tape and safety pins the first few times) and I created art. While I haven’t completely given up that part of my life in the past bunch of years, I have certainly sequestered it into limited projects conducted in short bursts… and almost always with the kids
Now, I have the time to go back and do something I used to love: making our kitchen look fabulous with paint and creativity. And, I’m going to combine it with something else I love to do: teaching my kids practical skills, empowering them to try out new things, and helping them take on big projects so they know both the pride of success and how to fix things when we (temporarily) fail. (For some inspiration on that idea, check out K.J. Dell’Antonia’s blog post on Motherlode a few months back: http://nyti.ms/1L9inrq .)
My girls are 7 and 4. We have spent hours and hours coloring, painting, playing with clay, tie-dying and gluing. It is time to introduce them to stain, spray paint and the idea that an entire room can be a canvas.
First up, refinishing that old, battered kitchen table.
I arrive in my office Tuesday morning with full arms and a sore neck from dragging a stack of 600 pages across campus in cold drizzly weather. Why do I assign papers to a large undergrad class of 100 students in my “Sociology of the Family” class? Oh, yeah, because that is good teaching and I strive to be a good teacher… forgot for a moment.
I sit down at my desk, pull out my laptop and check my email. Among the usual book promotions, conference announcements, student emails, other “invitations” and requests, there’s one ominous email from my department chair. She wants to know when I’m on campus this week. She wants to meet.
I am paralyzed. This can’t be good. What could she want to meet about? Our collaborative article is stalled. Could I be in trouble for arguing with her decisions in the faculty meetings? Oh, god, could it be about my tenure case? It’s too soon to know, right? Right? Right?
I reply with my schedule and ask, “Can you tell me what this is about?” She replies, “it’s about the tenure decision.” We meet a few hours later. My fears are confirmed.
My work life, my professional life, my life as I knew it, my life as a professor, my dreams of finally having the time and space to do what I care about because the tenure decision wasn’t looming over my head, the financial security of having a job forever, the sense of having a choice about my own future, all of that, was over. The department decided to deny me tenure.
She told me not to be embarrassed to be around my colleagues. Everyone thinks I’m a great colleague. My teaching is excellent. My service is excellent. My research was good… but not excellent.
I cried. I let her hug me. I called my husband. I cried some more. I packed my bag and ran off campus. I compulsively told everyone I knew. I didn’t want them to find out from someone else. I didn’t want them to think I’m a fraud. I didn’t want them to think I’m still a professor because I’m not. Sure I’m employed by the University a while longer, but when the sr. faculty decided to deny me tenure they closed the door in my face. I have joined the ranks of contingent faculty.
Wait, my chair said, “don’t be embarrassed?” I am not embarrassed. I’m angry! “Everyone thinks I’m a great colleague. My teaching is excellent. My service is excellent. My research is good.” But I’m fired?
Right, I’m fired from a job I wasn’t sure I wanted. A job that stressed me out and made me anxious. A job that often made me cry. A job where good is never good enough. A job where being kind is a disadvantage. A job where the only way to succeed is to be focused on oneself all the time.
I’m free. I may not be a professor any longer, but I am free to find a new path. One that values my skills. One that values creativity and imagination. One that values morality, kindness and generosity.
I’m not sure what that path will be but this blog is where I will describe the journey.