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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Motherhood After Tenure: the value of collaboration
July 29, 2009 - 11:15pm

As I plan the upcoming semester’s courses, I contemplate the oft-emailed articles about the “millennial generation” students. I’m skeptical of these generational generalizations, particularly since they seem to elide the great differences between students (such as economics). Nonetheless, I find intriguing the claim that the new generation of students like to work in teams. I regularly assign group projects, with mixed success. When I ask for feedback mid-semester, the class is usually split, with half of the students claiming small groups are a waste of time, and the other half extolling their virtues. I have sympathy for the former, since I never enjoyed working on teams or in groups as a student myself.

As an extreme introvert (according to the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator), I am well suited to an academic career that requires me to spend quite a bit of time alone in solitary contemplation, working under my own deadlines toward self-imposed goals. Academia rewards introverts, although being a successful professor requires the varied skills of focused research, gregarious teaching, and savvy marketing of oneself as a job candidate. This past year’s sabbatical has been a welcome relief from campus politics and, well, other people.

However, despite my comfort with the solitary nature of academia, I realize that many of my most generative projects have been collaborations. True collaboration, as opposed to opportunistic networking, was never explicitly encouraged in my graduate program; instead, we were expected to produce individual insights, papers, and eventually jobs. We were ranked against each other each semester in order to determine assistantship, and I remember one professor even mentioning a fellow student by name (as a form of comparison) in his course evaluation of me.

Yet while I have published as a single author, the projects that have garnered the most interest and have touched the most people have been collaborative projects, (such as Mama, PhD). One of the most dynamic experiences in graduate school was being part of a feminist collective (“FemTV”) that began as a way for female students to discuss theory and which became a video production collective that produced, among other things, a video about the Gainesville serial murders of 1990. Perhaps our desire to band together instead of (just) feverishly pursuing our own individual research agendas is part of a female response to stress, wherein women often “tend and befriend” instead of engaging in a “fight or flight” response.

Later, as an assistant professor, one of my first publications was an edited collection of essays on the Victorian writer, Mary Elizabeth Braddon. While each of us could have parlayed our initial work on Braddon into a monograph, the edited collection drew on strengths of several excellent scholars and was, I believe, much richer.

Even during this past year’s sabbatical, I’ve been meeting regularly with a colleague, also on sabbatical, who has given me the fresh perspective of another discipline, kept me producing, and provided much needed encouragement.

Still, I’m aware that collaborative work is not valued or rewarded as much as more traditional, single-author work. The Modern Language Association has urged literature departments to reconsider their reliance on the standard monograph as a main basis for rewarding faculty.

Perhaps this new generation of students will help effect that change.


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