Guest Post: Making “Beyond the Old Boys Club?” Using a zine to tell stories and spark conversations about gender and academic culture

This post was contributed by Heather Rosenfeld aka Optimus Prime, a graduate student in the UW-Madison Geography department

This project began without my knowing it. A year and a half into my master’s/PhD program, a professor gave a brief talk on gender and academic culture. Our department had a reputation of being particularly unfriendly toward women and feminism, it turned out. Grad students responded with a mix of naïve but genuinely concerned questions as well as muttered dismissals. For me, this triggered a slew of memories: alienating or mansplainy remarks in classes, tacitly or explicitly sexist remarks at informal departmental activities, gendered divisions of participation and labor, questions I had received elsewhere as an admitted student about why, as a feminist, I was considering this school.[1]

Having worked for several years in non-academic settings before applying to graduate school, sexism and gender issues in the workplace were nothing new. But reflecting on these memories and discussions made me wonder: what gave my department its current reputation as historically unfriendly towards women and feminism? To what extent and in what ways did this accurately depict people’s experiences? How is it currently resonant, and how could our departmental culture be improved?

I decided to do some research and make a zine about it (What’s a zine? Zines are the sort of punky do-it-yourself cousins of comic books. While many are online – like this one on race in geography –, they started as paper creatures often available at your local radical/indie bookstore.). My reasons for wanting to make a zine in particular were multiple, ranging from strategic to selfish.

Strategic: it seemed appropriate. I wanted people in my department to read it, and it seemed more likely that they’d read a zine than a paper or report. Also, the stories didn’t fit together to form a streamlined argument. Sometimes they conflicted with one another, and above all they were folks’ experiences. A zine gave me the freedom to highlight these multiple and sometimes contradictory experiences. Finally, in the form I went with, individuals became characters (see page 5 of the zine), which allowed me to preserve anonymity while, hopefully, keeping the stories alive.

And then there were the Selfish Reasons: I thought making a zine would be a lot more fun than writing a paper, organizing a panel, etc.

It became a lot like a research project in my discipline (human geography) mashed up with investigative journalism and zine-making. I conducted interviews and archival research (aside: it was also a great way to spend a major annual conference that brings folks from all over the world in your discipline together). With pressure from my advisor, I eventually put together an IRB.[2]

I made the first draft in an art class on making comics. Turning that into the final version involved an iterative process of drafting and then emailing scans of pages to folks who had been interviewed. This was to make sure they were OK with the degree of confidentiality they had, but also to make sure I’d gotten their stories right. A few revisions, a lot of late nights of coloring later, and it was ready.

It is available here in two formats. The print version is designed to be printed double-sided and stapled in the middle. The screen version is readable on a regular computer screen or tablet.

People’s responses thus far have varied tremendously, but have all been rewarding and promising (my neurotic self believes it’s quite possible that there are folks who are less happy about it and that I just haven’t heard from them). Many people remarked that they have had similar negative experiences. This is terrible, but in some ways exactly the response I had hoped for: that the zine could help dismantle the imposter syndrome that is pervasive in academia, especially among women. You aren’t the problem; the culture is. At least as promising: several people remarked that it caused them to reflect on things they’ve done that might have made women uncomfortable.

I’m wondering now about a few things, and I’m sharing the zine partly because I think it speaks to other departments and even non-academic workplaces. Also, though, I want to throw around a few questions (warning: the second and third are enormous):

First, this was considered at least somewhat under the imaginary but powerful umbrella of “legitimate research.” I used research methods common to my subdiscipline and drafted the zine as part of a class. Would this fly, though, in other disciplines – particularly in the natural sciences? Have you tried anything similar? Can you imagine yourself doing so?

Second, what other academic zines are out there? Any other recommendations?

Finally, creating a zine was really only one step to increase momentum behind improving departmental culture. It seems like many of the issues my department faces now are quite similar to those at other departments. Have you been involved in trying to change departmental culture? How?


[1] This project was largely not intersectional. This is because, as far as I know, our department’s reputation is about gender more than race, class, or other identity categories. That said, geography as a field still has a long way to go to improve diversity and redress historical and institutional oppressions.

[2] I remember being unsure about doing the IRB at first, wanting to keep the project separate from the auspices of the university. It wound up being useful though. Later on, I was often asked who I had talked to, and having an IRB that forbade me from naming informants made answering that question a lot simpler.

Guest Post: Women In Science at Evolution 2014

This is the third consecutive year that the Evolution Meeting has had a workshop and networking lunch focused on Women in Science. This year’s focus was on implicit bias in the workplace. The event was organized by Jenny Boughman (Michigan State University) and Michele Dudash (University of Maryland) and led by Joan Herbers (Ohio State University), past president of the Association for Women in Science. During the workshop, which was attended by about 45 women and 1 man, participants were asked to share instances in academic settings in which they felt they had been disadvantaged due to implicit bias. Continue reading

Funks, slumps, and yawns: how undiagnosed anemia affected my productivity

My first year as an assistant professor was hard. This did not come as a surprise to me, because I did not fall off the proverbial turnip truck last week. I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this job. During graduate school, I attained completely unsustainable-but-glorious levels of productivity, and by the end, I was exhausted. I submitted grant applications during my postdoc that had me burning the candle from both ends, and when I was finished, I knew what it was to feel tired in my very bones. Those feast-and-famine cycles of productivity can wreak havoc in the long-term. I had my 3rd-year PhD slump, and my post-PhD postdoc slump. I’ve recognized that slumps come, and they can be a natural part of the creative process, and I try not to be too hard on myself when I’m in one.

But last spring, I was tired all the time. Continue reading

Getting past a poor third year review

For many academics, the third year review means make-or-break time. You’ve had a few years to settle in, get your own research started, mentor some students, develop and teach new class preps. In my field, funding is definitely expected by this time, and publications from your new line of study should be beginning to roll out.

Ideally, anyway.

For me, many things that could have gone wrong in my first three years, did. My research technician crapped out on me and cost me a good half-year of productivity while I was figuring out how to handle that situation. The research I had started wasn’t really taking off anyway–both the original Plan A as well as my back-up Plan B. I went through a divorce and was learning to handle single mom-hood. My departmental mentor just wasn’t sure what to do with me.

I dug out my own third-year review earlier this semester. Continue reading

Guest Post: Grad school with big kids

Like many of my classmates, I entered graduate school right after I got my undergraduate degree. Unlike many of my classmates, I took 15 years off between high school and college. My graduate experience is not just happening to me. Instead my husband and 3 children are along for the ride. While some of my classmates grapple with whether to have a baby during graduate school, or where to find the best preschool close to campus, I started this graduate school journey with elementary and middle school children in tow. Now, 4 years in, they are in middle and high school. I found little advice or feedback on going to grad school while parenting big kids. Therefore, I am here to dish the dirt. Whether you are a parent contemplating going to graduate school, or are simply curious, I would like to provide you with some insight on advantages and disadvantages of the situation. Continue reading

My husband gave me permission to come out tonight

During seminars, while noting figures I could use in my own talks, I keep a running list of Odd Things People Say. This spring I compiled them and found a series of comments made by academics, to academics, complaining about controlling behavior by the speaker’s husband. These were all said in front of multiple academic colleagues, some at group dinners and some to rooms bursting with over 100 listeners.

“My husband has trained me very well: he’s taught me I’m wrong all the time.”

“My husband gave me permission to come out tonight.”

“My husband finally stopped complaining about my travel when I brought home a large honorarium.”

“If I stay on this conference call any longer, my husband will divorce me.”

“My husband has limited my travel to two trips per month.”

“Sometimes my husband will drop me off at work but mostly he tells me to stop being lazy and take the bus.”

“My husband didn’t seem angry when he talked to you, did he?”

JUST KIDDING!  Take every instance of “husband” above and replace it with “wife”. Take every “he” and replace it with “she”. The original quotes were all made by men in academia about their wives.  In a professional context.  To a group of academics. Continue reading

Tenure, She Wrote Turns One!

Dearest readers, July 1st marks the first anniversary of Tenure, She Wrote! So much has happened in the last year, and we wanted to take a moment to pause, reflect, and celebrate. When I first started floating the idea of a pseudononymous women-in-academia blog to a few trusted colleagues, I felt that we had the opportunity to contribute something unique to the academic blogosphere: a place to have conversations across disciplines and career stages about the challenges and opportunities facing women.

One year and 580,000+ visitors later, and it’s clear that that the broader community thinks these conversations are needed, too. I’m in absolute awe of my fellow bloggers, our guest contributors, and all the folks who read, share, and comment; you’ve all helped make this space so incredibly valuable. As bloggers, we’re learning so much from one another and from your shared wisdom, too.

Some highlights from the last year: Continue reading