The patch of woods outside my front door is in trouble. After we moved into our neighborhood four years ago, my husband and I, along with several other community members lobbied hard for an elementary school to serve our growing population. Be careful what you wish for, I guess. Last spring the school district announced plans to build a new elementary school in our community, but we learned that the playing field for the school will cut right through our favorite patch of forest. It will probably obliterate berry patches, the trees in which the local great horned owl likes to roost, and the thickets where we can see up to five species of warblers foraging. Since hearing about the school district’s plans for the site, some of us in the neighborhood have been working to have our cake and eat it too — we want the school, but we’d love to see a large portion of the woods remain.
In my lobbying efforts to save the woods I’ve played the PhD card — anything to have people listen to me. I had done this very little before leaving academia. I was always afraid that if I did something like book an airline ticket for myself as “Dr. Stockwell” I’d be asked to assist during an in-flight medical emergency (thank you, “Car Talk” guys, for planting that fear). However, at our first community meeting to discuss our concerns about the woods, I introduced myself as a biology PhD who was taking some time off to be with her kids. It sounded a little silly to be flaunting the PhD, but I didn’t want to take any chances that I’d be dismissed as just another raving environmentalist. Besides, others had introduced themselves as both parents and professionals, some of whom are professors at the nearby university. I’m a little ashamed that I couldn’t just say I was a mother to two kids. I know it was the substance of what I said at the meeting that was most important, but I felt I needed to add some credibility to my comments about the environmental value of the forest parcel.
My lack of status and affiliation doesn’t come up very often, but sometimes I think it does matter. Last year a former student asked me to write a letter of recommendation for his application to medical school. This is the third time a student has asked me to do this since I changed career paths. Just as I did the other two times, I had to explain that I was happy to write a letter for him, but that my letter probably wouldn’t be regarded as highly as one from an affiliated professional or faculty member. He wanted the letter anyway; he’d done a project with me and he said I knew him better than any of his other professors. I filled out the paperwork for his application, wrote him a great letter, and under “Profession” I wrote that I was a “biology instructor, currently on indefinite maternity leave.” Whether my recommendation made a difference or not, I’ll never know, but the student didn’t get into the school of his choice, and he hasn’t contacted me again for another letter.
While I’m not ashamed of being unaffiliated, I need a place to put that PhD and it’s no wonder I’m ambiguous about when to use the title. I earned it from years of hard work, but I have to remember that it’s how I use what I’ve learned and the perspective I’ve gained that matters most now. With my background in biology I have every right to feel like an expert in the health of the little ecosystem that I see every time I look out my kitchen window. But one night as I composed emails to the school board trustees, I debated whether or not to mention that I was a biology PhD. In the end I simply introduced myself as a concerned community resident and mother of a pre-schooler and an elementary school student. I told them about walks in our beloved patch of woods and pointed out the environmental education opportunities for neighborhood children in a school that shared its grounds with a lovely wooded area. And I just signed my name and address, no PhD. The trustees listened, or at least they seemed to care. Almost every trustee wrote back within 24 hours of my email (I sent it on a Saturday night) and expressed a strong desire to work with the existing landscape. They’re up for re-election this year, so that may have something to do with the quick response, but it was good for me to see that it’s not necessary to wear the PhD mantle to make my voice heard.
We’re not out of the woods yet, so to speak, and the neighborhood still awaits word on the final plans for development of the site. However, affiliation or no affiliation, I’ll continue to stick my neck out to save our little forest. I might have to be more persistent, but I’m learning to ignore my ego and just speak my mind about what matters to me. And I’ll keep you posted on the blog as to the fate of our favorite patch of woods.