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Bad Female Academic: I Want to be Bad
March 4, 2012 - 9:04pm

Before our regularly scheduled post, please take a minute to donate something to the Red Cross in the aid of those impacted by the recent tornadoes in Indiana and Kentucky. One town in my university’s service area, West Liberty, was hit with two tornadoes in three days. Please give what you can in support of these people who lost just about everything, many of whom are my students and their families.

This week’s Bad Female Academic’s post is, once again, inspired by a reader’s comment. From last week’s post on wanting to be paid what I’m worth (by the way, thanks for making it the first post I’ve ever had in the “Most-Read” list), I received the following comment from Hoosier Prof:

“Bad Female Academic, would you consider changing your handle?  I realize it's tongue-in-cheek, but why give any leverage at all to those who equate uppity women with trouble-makers?”

This comment really made me think (and not filled with rage like last week). There are clearly some gender issues that are coming up here. Aren’t all “uppity women” trouble-makers? What about uppity men? Wait, do we even call men uppity (unless, of course, they happen to also be African-American)? And what’s wrong with being “bad”?

Let’s be honest, being a “bad” female has much different connotations than being a “bad” male. This isn’t to say that any man can get away with being bad while women can’t. Race (as alluded to above) has a lot to do with it, as does class. But being a “bad boy” has always been held up as a source of fascination and attraction in our society, while the bad girl is equally fascinating but reviled, feared, and repressed instead. Rebellious boy become folk-heroes, innovators, game-changers. Rebellious women are used as cautionary tales.

(Obviously, there are some exceptions, but look at the over-all way that bad boys and bad girls are portrayed in our media. There are entire reality franchises built around just how despicable “bad” women are. Or how bad women are despicable.)

The comment has provoked me to realize that calling this series Bad Female Academic is as much an ironic statement as it is something that I aspire to. That’s right, in writing this series of posts, I realize that I want to be bad, to disrupt, to stir shit up, to question authority, and to take action. Bad Male Academics are called visionaries. Bad Female Academics are called adjuncts.

I’ve been a good girl my entire life. Through a combination of temperament (I’m a people-pleaser, always have been) and circumstance (maybe someday I’ll get into that), I did my best to be good, follow the rules, not cause trouble, and be the ideal student, daughter, sister, swimmer, etc. I wasn’t always an angel (as I’m sure my mother will be thrilled to list every single deviation and infraction from my childhood and teenage years), but the level of guilt I felt after doing anything bad kept me in line thereafter, to the point that I stopped doing anything lest I get in any sort of trouble at all. Rules were meant to be followed, and if I just followed the rules, I would be successful and loved.

Even my rebellions were of the safe and non-controversial variety. My bad-boy teenage relationship was with a guy who was about to be accepted into an Ivy League school (he did, however, listen to industrial music). I wore oversized men’s clothing for a few years (ah, grunge, thank-you). I went to a less-prestigious university. And, even more galling, I went to grad school. Even this was the “safest” form of rebellion; as a quasi-feminist, going to grad school meant I was going to be a professor, which sounded and felt so much more progressive than being an elementary school teacher (which, to be honest, was my other choice). And, it meant I got to stay in school longer, with more rules, regulations, and deadlines for me to follow.

Following the rules made me feel safe. Between the pool, where the clock, however merciless, measured with precision my progress, and school, where grades were earned, along with praise and privileges, I built a safe world for myself, a predictable world, a world that I could fit myself into and thrive. A place where I didn’t have to be so afraid of failure, of disappointing someone, of being left out.

I wish I hadn’t been so afraid. I wish I had had more fight in me. I wish my youthful ignorance had made me want to stand out rather than fit in. In a nutshell, I wish I had been a little more bad and a little less good. My dad once lamented that my summers had been so full of activities at the pool, and as a result I didn’t have any time to get into trouble. What he was talking about was the curious exploration mischief, where you discover things for yourself outside of the rules of the adult world. Instead, I scheduled my days to within an inch of their lives (and it was all me) because I feared that free time where there was nothing to do.

(But don’t worry, I succumbed enough times to peer pressure and got into some trouble. And then felt really, really, really bad about it for months afterwards. I didn’t even get to enjoy those few times I was bad.)

Of course, this wasn’t a perfect arrangement. I was smart, and I noticed how arbitrary the rules could be, how unfair and unjust they could get, and how limiting they were. But, I was told, it wasn’t my place to question to the rules or even to change them. I was too young or naïve, I was told, to do anything about them. Best just keep following them. I’m not young or naïve anymore, and I don’t know how to be bad, to not only question the rules but have the strength, resiliency, and perseverance to change them.

What does this have to do with higher education? For so many of us, I think, we got into higher education in part because it set up some very clear rules and guidelines in order to be successful. And, once we are successful, we keep following rules in order to get tenure, promotions, etc. Particularly in this environment of too-few tenure-track jobs, many of us are clearly too scared to question the rules for fear of being left behind. Good academics, particularly female ones, shut-up, do their jobs, and follow the rules. Nothing will ever change.

It’s actually a compliment, to me, to be called an uppity trouble-maker. It means I’m finally starting to get things right. 

 

 

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