Guest Post: Overcoming “young upstart” status

Today’s post was contributed by Rachel Leventhal-Weiner, a Visiting Assistant Professor. Find her online @rglweiner and at her blog

As a sociologist, I might teach about inequality of various forms, yet I had not bumped up against any -isms recently.

Until a few weeks ago, I ran head on into some –isms in the workplace.

I was attending a faculty workshop on teaching and technology with several colleagues. There were two women (myself included) and two men in attendance. I enjoy the chance to be a student (that sense of enjoyment is what carried me through much of graduate school) and the opportunity to meet other folks at my institution, to hear about college business, and to think about new teaching strategies for my upcoming courses. I was pleased that the organizers allowed me to jump in at various points in our discussion to demonstrate my use of an application or to provide additional examples of a particular program because I love to teach. After my first contribution, a quick Evernote demo, two male colleagues remarked that I was “intense.”

Intense is one way to describe a cutthroat colleague. Intensity implies strength and perhaps rigidity or control, a person who is all business. I was unsure what I had said or done where I would represent myself as “intense.”

I shrugged off their evaluation and forged ahead.

Later that first day, one of those male colleagues asked me how I was finding the college. I replied that I valued the teaching experience and that I was finishing my second of three years. His response: a look of surprise followed by an equally surprised reply, “Oh, and you seem so invested in your students.”

Yes, sir. Yes, I am.

What other choice do I have but to be invested in my work? This work is, after all, the work that pays me every month. Shall I venture on to campus and disinvest in their education? Though I know this institution will not create an opportunity for me to continue to invest in my students beyond this year (the fate of the visiting professor), what else is there to do but dig in?

Another day, in another exchange about my work, the other male colleague remarked that my energy was “endearing.” And while I was eavesdropping on his conversation about me, I was also described as a “firecracker.”

Endearing is how I would describe a puppy, wiggly and slobbering. I would certainly not use “endearing” to describe an adult’s dedication to her work, to her students, and to her institution. And a firecracker? A firecracker is a young upstart, peppy and explosive.

These words rang in my ears all week. I wanted to be flattered, but I felt insulted. I even felt demeaned. For once, I wish I was considered to be serious, critical, or thoughtful.

It seems, though, that as a woman still navigating the early days of my career, I have few choices but to embody all of these qualities. I must be intense and invested while also endearing myself to my colleagues. I began to wonder if these colleagues would use the same lexicon for a male colleague or if men faced the same professional double standards.

If you had asked me to describe my professional identity ten years ago, I would have blushed at a description that included intense and endearing. After forgoing time and lost earnings on this new career, I cringe thinking that others perceive of me as just another hungry upstart.

Yet, I know that compartmentalizing my work persona and my home persona is something I struggle with, and allowing the messiness of my personal and professional lives to exist together interferes with my own professional success at times. To meet me in person, my own self-assessment is that I am often not taken seriously, that my bubbly nature and that my friendly affect are antithetical to the true nature of a serious scholar.

At my core, though, I am a teacher and a writer—those are my personal and professional identities. Put them together and I am a writer deeply committed to teaching my students to embrace their own identities through writing. Yet, I do not seek tenure because I would do what is expected of a tenured professor regardless of my status. So I understand how confusing I must seem to colleagues like these, to men who have walked the narrowly defined paths in higher education where tenured or longer-term appointments to the faculty were more easily attainable. The current arrangement of the faculty does not allow for someone like me, who walks the edges of the neatly defined paths, to move freely.

And so this year begins the year where I will teach like no one is watching. I have no choice but to embody this messy professional identity that fits me best, the one that is so confusing to my colleagues. To take risks, to push myself as an educator, and to plan for what I’ll do when this institution casts me out, because they will. And when they do, I simply hope that my colleagues will use powerful and creative words to describe my work.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Overcoming “young upstart” status

  1. wonderfully written! and although i am too young to understand the tenure-faculty related problems(looking for postdoc), I know exactly the feeling that you had!

    What is expected of me as a woman in my life(and/or career) still confuses me. On one hand, I liked being successful, and I worked very hard… until i got demotivated (by especially my supervisor and my postdoc colleague). They were surprised and kind of disturbed by my ‘intensity’.

    I pulled myself back a bit, in professional environments just to let other people talk on things, and I saw that I was perceived as weak mind, that has no original ideas. I became self conscious about my knowledge and my contribution to the scientific environment.

    Slowly and surely i was pushed away from the inner circle. The circle of acceptance and real recognition by the peers and colleagues.

    In a social environment, as a friend who is a girl, i am expected to be cheerful and not very intense. I shouldn’t have strong ideas on things. When i have, both men and women friends are annoyed. When i don’t tell what i think then i feel guilty, guilty of betraying my true self. I am criticised by impossible standards and what is sad about all this is, the people who judge me don’t judge the male equivalents of me as harsh. The male friend is considered knowledgable and wise for knowing things and saying the last word on a topic. The male colleagues are congratulated on putting the most creative idea on the table(but i am expected to prove myself before congrats).

    your post really resonated with me. Thank you for telling this feeling

  2. Yep. All the things. I try to give those people the benefit of the doubt and embrace their assessments of me as positive.

    I’m on the TT (Year 4 of 5), and in my first year the Dean described me to our Provost as ‘aggressive’ in a meeting. You know what? I’ll buy that. No one is going to get in the way of my success. Kudos to you for embracing your job as well.

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