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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

MLA Realities -- Then and Now
December 30, 2008 - 6:42am

My first San Francisco MLA, I didn't get any closer to the convention than the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel. I was living in San Francisco and had just been accepted to UC Berkeley's PhD program in Comparative Literature. I wasn’t such an overachiever that I wanted to attend a professional conference before joining the profession, but my sister Libby, a grad student at UCLA (and now one of the Mama, PhD bloggers), was on the market, looking for a job teaching English literature. I offered to babysit for my two year-old niece so that Libby could get some sleep before her interviews. I scooped Mariah up and took her off to my Western Addition flat for the night. In the very early morning, when she rose and brought me a picture book to read to her in bed, I managed just a page or two before drifting back to sleep. I woke – I don’t know how much time had passed – to my niece holding the book patiently in front of my face.

I don't know how my sister felt about her MLA experience, but I was wracked with guilt about falling asleep on the job, and felt relieved that both "Mama" and "PhD" were titles still far in my future.

Seventeen years have passed and the MLA is meeting in San Francisco again this week. My sister defied the odds twice: she found a job in her field, and earned tenure after having a second child. My niece is about to move to San Francisco to live with my family (and help care for my children!) before starting college in the fall. I finished my PhD eight years ago and left academia shortly after my first son was born. I have also learned that even the most attentive parents do occasionally fall asleep on the job.

So many things have changed, but when I walked into the lobby of the conference hotel this morning, I felt that same tense buzz that leads some attendees to slug from bottles of Pepto Bismal none-too-discreetly in the hallways. I told one of my old grad school friends the other day that I felt a bit like an imposter, asking for a press credential to come to the MLA; I'm not a journalist, after all. But then, I realized I'd always felt like an imposter at the MLA. I didn't belong that first year I came just to pick up my niece, I didn't belong when I was on the market but already planning my route out. And I expect more participants than would like to admit probably feel like imposters, too.

But my interest now is not on ferreting out the imposters (plenty of others are keeping themselves busy with that task) but to check in with those who kept progressing down the academic path I left, who have made careers for themselves in higher education. So I'm not scanning the program for panels in my former academic field, looking for papers titled things like "Epistolary Modes in Family Narratives of the Forties" but, as the coeditor of Mama, PhD, instead attending presentations on the state of the profession, like Sunday's panel called "Do You Like Your Job?"

Scott Jaschik has already reported fully on the findings of the panel arranged by the MLA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, titled "Do You Like Your Job? The Associate Professor Survey, Gender, and Job Satisfaction." What struck me as I entered the conference room was the diversity of the audience – women ranging in age and ethnicity, women teaching at community colleges and research one institutions, those adjuncting and on the tenure track—although only three or four in attendance were men (I am not ready to give up and say issues of gender only concern women, but of course this is how it plays out, in higher education and more broadly).

I overheard one woman, catching up with a friend, bemoaning the teaching load she'd accepted happily in the fall (5 courses at two different schools) and commenting ruefully about the toll teaching was taking on her slow progress toward the degree: "I'd like to get my degree before they pull the feeding tube out." The panel's biggest (bitter) laugh came when a speaker quoted a survey respondent who suggested that she might want time "to have a life." And another speaker sighed when, speaking of the pressures of juggling teaching and research, work and family, she commented, "Book ideas become journal article ideas become conference paper ideas become ... thoughts." The refrain throughout the panel was that the women are passionate about teaching but feel that their work is undervalued; they are made to feel like less than full members of the profession for their interest in this work on which the academy is founded.

I flashed back to grad school, thinking of my chair's continual advice to put teaching on the back burner in order to pursue the original research that would get me a job. That I loved to teach wasn't a factor, was in fact something I was expected to keep quiet about. I couldn't fake it, so I left. I continue to hope that the academy will find a way to value its teachers, and stop making them feel like imposters.


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