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Ask the Administrator: Ambition and Decorum
July 27, 2007 - 6:45am

A tenured, Canadian correspondent writes:

I never used to have ambition to reach "full" level as it seemed beyond the reach of most women academics. Now, however, I am rethinking my view. I have sole Canadian authorship on a US/ Canada textbook project, and I will keep doing new editions for the Canadian market for at least 2 more rounds (for a total of 3 editions). I have a monograph in press now with a US press, and I have an edited collection with a UK Press. I publish on average one short (10-12 PAGE) and one long (25-30 PAGE) article per year, and generally a book chapter for a collection every year or so (maybe 18 months).
I am a member of grad faculty, and this year I will travel to Ireland as a visiting scholar. In short, I already have the kind of international profile that can garner promotions to Full Prof for those "old boys" now being promoted. I know I'm not an old boy, and I don't have the years and years of accumulated service yet. I've only been a full time prof since 2001, and only finished my PhD in 2000. I'm not quite 40, but will be this year.
So here's my question:
Given that I already have more research results than those recently promoted to full status at my (now changing from primarily undergrad to comprehensive research U);
assuming that my research pace continues at roughly the rate outlined;
and that earlier promotion means better income and benefits for a longer period of time...
I would like to hear your thoughts on the appearance of being indecorous in applying too early for promotion. I am thinking that I'd like to apply for full prof inside of 8 years, but my PhD advisor (who just acquired her own promotion to full prof) admonished me for even speaking of it at this stage (reminding me that I am but a child in the academy).
There was an issue about going forward early for tenure, and I was discouraged so strongly from going in year 3 (when they said I would appear arrogant before senate) that I waited for year 4 (which is still one year "early" in the sense that it's prior to our school terms that require we apply by year 5. We get only one shot at tenure; you either succeed or must resign).
Do I really have to be at least 50 before I can apply?


This is a wee bit close to home.

The short answer is, go for it. Apply on your merits, accept victory as your due, and let those of lesser vision cluck and mutter. Their bitterness is not your problem.

As for the longer answer...

Real achievement never happens without ruffling feathers. There is no such thing as a famous, high-achieving person who is also universally loved. If you stand out, you will command attention, and some of it will be negative. Mascots are universally loved. Leaders are not.

Put differently, nobody will tap you on the shoulder and say 'it's time.' It's never time. You have to make it time.

I think of the extreme concern about decorum as culturally female – the 'good girl' – and I suspect that it's probably one of the most powerful obstacles holding high-potential women back. (Just this week, the Chronicle reported on a study that showed that obese high school girls are far less likely to attend college than their thinner counterparts, but it also showed absolutely no relation between obesity and college attendance in high school boys. Tellingly, the effect was most pronounced in districts with the least obesity – in other words, where it stands out most. The hostility directed at the 'fat chick' gradually becomes self-doubt, which becomes self-fulfilling, with real long-term consequences. It was one of the most disturbing things I've read in a long time.)

I'm all for civility, but to see a term like 'decorum' used to keep people in their place strikes me as fundamentally perverse. To suggest that a young woman with ambition is somehow unseemly strikes me as, well, what's the word I'm looking for, completely f-ing insane. To suggest that it's arrogant to ask for what you're actually worth, well, you get the idea. Using self-effacement to win approval doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense over the long term. The better you are at self-effacement, the less there is to approve of.

(And yes, I'm aware of the irony of bashing self-effacement while using a pseudonym.)

On a prudential level, it's at least possible that someone might look at you cross-eyed for being 'too young' to apply, and vote against you. But if that happens, you have other options. You can walk. You can appeal, and sue the person who applied an illegal category. (I'll admit not knowing how Canadian law treats age discrimination.) You can try again the next year, and offer the bigoted morons a chance to save face by righting a wrong. After all, if they say 'no' the first time, you're no worse off than if you hadn't applied. Or you can let them win by not trying.

More basically, you may need to allow yourself to break away from the sway of your advisor. If you want to sit at the grownups table, someone may have to move over to make room. That's okay. Let them move. You're a professor now, every bit as much as your advisor is. Your advisor can be wrong and you can be right. Conflict doesn't imply failure. Step up.

In my teaching days, two of my proudest moments came when I noticed that the written work of a couple of very quiet female students far outshone everything else everyone else produced. I told them so (these were two separate classes), asked them to contribute to class discussions, and the rest of the semester (in both cases) was a sight to behold. All they needed was permission to show how good they actually were. They didn't want to call undue attention to themselves. I had to assure them that it was, in fact, due.

It's due. Claim it, and claim it without apology.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.


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