First Ladies of the Academy

The last presidential election cycle in the United States raised many, many questions. One of them was: “is the role of the first lady outdated?”  When the incoming First Lady didn’t do exactly as her predecessors had, or as many had decided was traditional, many thinkpieces were written and hot takes had.** While it can seem like a laughably lighthearted question, the kind of thing relegated to the lifestyle section of national newspapers, I’d argue it’s more important than ever – and incredibly relevant to academia.

Cultural norms are often only visible after they are broken, and this has been true for the perceived (in)actions of the current first lady.  Consider this passage from a Huffington Post piece:

In February, Melania Trump broke a longstanding tradition that the first lady accompanies the spouse of a visiting foreign leader. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife, Akie, was alone during her visit to Washington. The White House claimed Melania Trump’s absence was the result of a scheduling error with Abe.

Brower called the White House’s handling of the visit “embarrassing.”

“You’re being a rude host, really,” Brower said. “Part of the job of the first lady is to escort spouses, men or women, around Washington, and you kind of just suck it up and do it, even if you don’t want to.”

The first lady is expected to do a bunch of hostess work, despite not being a paid employee and/or elected official. [The focus of this post isn’t really on the presidential spouse, so check out one primer on the ‘traditional’ role of the first lady as conceived of by the George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum.  Or check out the whole website of the National First Ladies Library. ] And as the “embarrassing” quip shows, her behavior apparently reflects on the president (her husband) AND the country as a whole. Moreover, the end of the passage demonstrates that opting out of this role isn’t, actually, optional.

So, what does this have to do with academia? Well, this industry is rife with first ladies. Most university presidents are men, and many of those men are married to women. Those women are expected to play the role of first ladies for the university – and the expectations for the role are very similar, including hostess duties, fundraising, appearing at public events, and acting as an all-around ambassador of the institution.

A 2011 study by the Council of Independent Colleges on the spouses of university presidents found a wide range in the amount of time first ladies (and spouses) spent on university business and whether/how much spouses were compensated. Compensating spouses of presidents comes with its own set of debates (as it should) – especially at universities that otherwise do not have partner hire programs for staff and faculty. The 2011 study found two-thirds of spouses of university presidents have some kind of formal appointment with the university, yet I highly, highly doubt as high a percent (or the same universities) do the same for the rest of their employees and their spouses. Doubt may be the best I can do, as good data on these policies is sparse.***.  Seems important to look into further, especially as most faculty and staff probably work for a university longer than a university president does.

The US still hasn’t decided how it feels about the role of first lady and what to do if someone doesn’t want to take it on. I’d say the same is true for the academy. I am certainly not the first person to raise this question about what the role of spouses of university presidents and whether it should be compensated. One thoughtful piece, framed as a two-sided debate, about this question in academia was published online by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges back in 2013 [read it here].

BUT, and this is a big caveat, it was written by two men. Even though the writer arguing *against* compensating university spouses is the husband of a woman university president****, it is very likely his experience as the spouse of a university president – and the expectations of him by others – are vastly different.  I can only hope that the organization revisits the topic with (at least) two women contributors, including a university president and a spouse of a university president. Of course, since both of these roles are seen as institutional spokespeople, likely no one in a current role would be able to speak openly about this topic.  And it shouldn’t just be decided by people who have benefited from, and want to participate in, the status quo.

So let’s take it to the comments. What do you think the role of first ladies in the academy should be?  Should it be compensated? Is it fair to formally hire spouses of university presidents at schools that won’t do the same for the spouses of other employees?

 

** In fact, if the other candidate had won, the country would have seen just as many thinkpieces, as the “first lady” would have been a man for the first time in the history of the country. The question is broader than, and outside of, political persuasion.
*** One article mentioned that a study of 360 deans said that “80%” of them claimed their institution would “do something” for the spouse of a faculty hire. That hardly counts as a policy or evidence, and without a policy it’s not clear it would be (or has been) applied evenly to faculty and spouses, regardless of gender of either.
****the man arguing for compensation for spouses of university presidents is a university president himself
Further reading:
2016 report (~150 pages) from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities “The Lives of Presidential Partners in Higher Education Institutionshttp://www.aplu.org/members/councils/presidents-and-chancellors-spouse-partners/presidential-partners.pdf
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To my colleagues, on the death of their students’ grandmother(s)

It’s entirely possible that I’m just not cool enough to enjoy this “humorous,” “fictional” take on the the phenomena of students manufacturing dead grandmothers during finals week. Maybe it’s because my own grandmother died while I was in college, my grandfather died while I was in grad school, or another grandmother died in while I was in grad school  (are you keeping track? That’s two grandmothers). I missed her funeral to go to a postdoc interview, which is what she would have wanted (I got the job). As the child of divorced, remarried parents, I had four grandmothers, so if I was so unlucky as to have more than one die during the course of your class, then, gee, I guess I’d be in a pickle!

But seriously, I do not get the mentality of seeing your students as adversaries. I don’t get the need to dehumanize them with your disdain, to the point where you need to mock them in aggregate in public. There is a time and a place for venting your frustrations with students being dishonest to get a little extra time on the final (even though it never seems to actually bring their grades up, so seriously, let it go). I get that finals week is stressful for faculty, too (even though your future is pretty certain and you have a job, so it’s not like everything is riding on this one grade). But this idea that we need to single out even fictional students for daring to have a life experience that interferes with your routine?

Acclimatrix is not having any of that, thank-you-very-much.

Let’s set aside the fact that grandmothers die for a second (they do, as I’ve already established with my n of 1). Let’s start instead with the premise that students are people, and bad shit happens to people all the time. The problem is, we don’t  usually hear about it. This might blow your mind, but: dead grandmothers aren’t always dead grandmothers. Grandmothers, as the universal symbol of love and goodness and plausibility, are an un-challenge-able event in the life of a young person. We accept that grandmothers die (at least, we did until the Chronicle updated us on that!). So dead grandmothers may actually be stand-ins for things we won’t accept, can’t know about, shouldn’t know about, or won’t otherwise believe. Sometimes, dead grandmothers are [CW: a diversity of bad shit coming]:

The time I got assaulted and couldn’t tell my teachers, because I couldn’t tell anyone, and I needed a reason to explain why I disappeared so suddenly.

The time I had to take three days to go to Canada to have an abortion and was going to miss the midterm, and I didn’t know if you’d be okay with that.

The time my boyfriend of six years dumped me and I couldn’t stop sobbing, or even take a shower, so of course I couldn’t come to class.

The time the person who actually raised me instead of my parents died, and I knew if I said “Patty died,” you wouldn’t know what that meant.

The time I thought I might have cancer, and had to go home to the family doctor to get a biopsy from my uterus.

The time I had to drive my little sister to the gynecologist for the first time because our mom wouldn’t go with her.

The time I had a miscarriage and I couldn’t tell you I was pregnant because I was afraid you would change how you thought of me.

The time I had to testify for my roommate, for a crime she asked me not to talk about because she was afraid she’d lose her scholarship.

The time I had to work because if I didn’t pay my bill, I wouldn’t get to graduate on time.

The time I spent the whole semester barely treading water because of a deep depression, panicked when I realized the exam was a week sooner than I thought, and needed a way out.

Not all of those are real, of course. I used a fictional “I” as a literary device, to draw you in and make you feel empathy for me. You know, like those kids with dead grandmothers do.

If students are lying, you have no way of knowing if it’s because they spent the entire semester playing drunk Candy Crush, or their grandmother actually died, or the dead grandmother is a stand-in for what they cannot tell you. Being a somewhat optimistic person, I would guess that the vast majority of students are telling the truth, at least in one way or the other.

When you mock students because life happens, and they react, you diminish them. And if that student has already struggled — because they don’t have a supportive family, or financial resources, because of mental illness or a disabling condition, because there is no one in the classroom who looks like them, or for any other reason — they take double damage.

Students see us. They see how we talk about them. They see how we treat them. They hear us when we say we do not believe them. And when you publish those diminishing thoughts in the Chronicle, even as a “joke,” they see the authority of the Academy behind you.

That piece should never have been published (it’s a tired trope that literally adds nothing to our discussions of classroom management), but I’m especially upset that it ended up in the Chronicle. I even have enough empathy to understand the sentiment behind it — I get frustrated, too. But I choose to err on the side of believing in my students’ humanity, because I would not be here if someone had not believed in mine, over and over again. Even when I wasn’t telling the absolute truth.

ETA: I got so mad I forgot to talk about documentation policies! My take? Don’t. Because sometimes the dead grandmother needs to be a stand-in. And even if she’s really dead, don’t make your students cut out their obituary from the town paper. Just don’t be that person.

The Resistance is futile (but it doesn’t have to be)

I’ve been engaging in some resistance activities in the last few months, as one does in these times. Organizations, marches, and coalitions are sprouting like Bernie Sanders stickers on Subarus this time last year. People are fired up, doing things for the first time. And that’s great, it really is! It’s so inspiring to see the new energy, the sense of urgency and purpose, because we’re all coming together for the great cause of equality.

Except when it’s not, because we aren’t.

Before you quit reading or accuse me of being divisive, let me explain: many of my colleagues and friends are new to activism. Trump’s election terrified them and lit a fire under their bums to the point where they are finding themselves doing things — activist, things — they never imagined: calling officials, protesting, rallying, writing letters and op-eds, hanging out at Standing Rock or occupying offices. And many folks are joining or starting new organizations to try to Do Something, Anything, Right Now, to Make Me Feel Like it’s All Going to Be Okay (TM).

What’s the problem with that, you might be asking? Isn’t that good? What could go wrong?

The problem is this: Continue reading

A woman’s place is on the syllabus

We’ve been busy. Organizing, mourning, resting, strategizing, spending time with loved ones – not to mention all our paid (+unpaid) labor as academics.

As TSW writers and readers know all too well, our work (every dimension of it) didn’t just begin nor will it end with the change of any administration. For many of us though, the work  (every dimension of it) feels more urgent now than ever.

There’s a lot more to say, and lots of voices we want to feature in this space to speak, to listen, to make change.

And we also need to – and do – act “in real life.” *

There is SO MUCH to do though, that it can feel overwhelming. And in our role as academics, especially in a climate that wants to censure topics and conversations in the classroom (Exhibit A, Exhibit B) and eliminate academic freedom by eliminating tenure (Exhibit A, Exhibit B), what can we do?

I think lots of things, and lots of “small” things that add up. Which brings me to:

A woman’s place is in the syllabus.

Continue reading

I am here, despite it all

The elections have taken over everything. It’s been the dominant topic of conversation I overhear in the streets and on the bus; it’s what my colleagues and students talk about over breaks and occasionally in the classroom; and it’s all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds. People are rattled and they are truly afraid. Too many posts have been written about this at this point for me to even try to link to them all.

I want to use this post to offer a slightly different perspective. I am a foreign scholar, currently on a temporary contract and looking to find permanent employment in the United States. A few months ago I applied for a Green Card, and I’m still waiting for that process to run its course. This post is about what it’s like to decide to adopt a country that seems to have decided it may not want to adopt you back. I say this despite the fact that I know not a single person who’s expressed this thought to me, but clearly those people are out there. So while my American friends are talking about despairing and even leaving the country, I am working hard to become a member of their community. I’ve had several conversations with them about why I chose to come and stay here, and what my other options might be. Their desperation seems commensurate with their awareness of what things are like outside the United States,* so this post is my attempt to explain my own thinking on this topic. Continue reading

Professors- Don’t Panic, Organize

I have put off writing this post until the absolute last minute because I still don’t know how to talk about the election, and yet I can’t seem to talk about anything else. What does it mean for my queer marriage? What does it mean for my undocumented students? What does it mean for my community college where we live and die by Pell Grants? I have been selfish- thinking mainly of myself and making contingency plans from the banal (get personal documents in order) to the ridiculous (preserve all the vegetables so we can eat underground after a nuclear apocalypse). It is only in the past week that I have started to think collectively, and remembered that community, allies, and coalitions are the best place to start.

In academia, we are horrible at collective action. The structure of our disciplines creates silos, and our research can lend itself too readily to isolation and over-inflated egos. We start to believe we only need our impressive intellects to thrive in the world. As contingent faculty have taken on more labor to free the select few who have access to tenure, we have wrapped ourselves in the comforting lie of meritocracy. “It should be this way,” we tell ourselves, “the system is working.” At best we think, “I don’t have time to deal with these massive structural problems in my field.* I am trying to write my book.”

We have forgotten how to work together for systemic change. Continue reading

How Age Can Pave the Road to Tenure

There are lots of articles about how older women feel invisible and how ageism affects women in the workplace.

My story is about how age and experience has helped me in my road to Full professor.

I entered graduate school more than a decade after I finished undergraduate school. I found a graduate program that was willing to take a chance on me, even though my undergraduate grades were only reasonable and I had not taken some of the standard courses or exams you might expect for my field. The program had a good number of women in it, and the department was actively recruiting women graduate students and faculty. They told me that they often prefer “older students” because they tend to be more focused and mature.

Once I arrived, I did see some of my graduate student friends struggling with the question of “why am I here?” and “did I just come to grad school because it was the next/obvious/easy step after undergrad?” I never really struggled with these issues.  I was very focused and worked as hard as I could to get out in a reasonable amount of time.  In the end, I finished my MS and PhD in about half the (tremendous amount of) time I had allotted myself.

Recently I have been promoted to full professor relatively few years. Continue reading