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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: March Madness
March 28, 2011 - 9:11pm

I’ve been keeping tabs open in my browser, hoping I can get to them before the newsworthiness fades, but it’s been nearly impossible to keep up. What should I focus on, the report on the “pyramid problem” in higher ed, which explains why even though women are receiving more than half the doctorates in the U.S., we are still nowhere near achieving gender equity in the professoriate? Or should I be writing about writing groups and how great I think they are, even though I don’t have a formal one at the moment?

Recently my friend and colleague Phil Nel put up a provocative post about the myth of the meritocracy in academe, which seems to me related (if only tangentially) to both the first two links. (You’ll remember that I’ve blogged about Phil before, when he chronicled his 62-hour work week.) I agree with Phil that writing and publishing are the avenues to academic success, but I’d like to hear a little more from him—and others!—about the faculty’s responsibility in creating, supporting, disseminating, or combating the myth of the meritocracy. If we are, primarily, teachers, is it our responsibility to figure out ways to reward teaching more fully in the hiring process? In the tenure and promotion process? Should we really be focusing so narrowly on academic publication?

I may be idealistic to think that professors can make a difference in the terms of their own employment—certainly recent events in Wisconsin and elsewhere suggest that we are not always the authors of our own destiny. But I’ve long been concerned that we are simply too passive (and maybe here I just mean “me”—maybe you are all out there fighting the good fight) when it comes to the way the academy makes decisions about merit.

I’ve been doing non-academic writing about my field for almost a decade now, both in print and online. None of it “counts” towards promotion. I made my peace with that decision some time back; I do it because I like having a larger audience than academic prose affords me, because I like the feedback, and because writing begets writing—the non-academic writing feeds my academic side. I would never claim that it is the same as my academic writing, in either scholarly rigor or value to the discipline. But I also want to consider the ways that this kind of writing could “count” for someone else, someone as-yet-untenured, perhaps as-yet-unhired. Is it possible that writing about the academy, or about academic issues, for a non-academic audience, is in fact tenurable or promotable work? Could we see it as part of a professor’s portfolio? Or, to take the spotlight off my own case, can we find ways to acknowlege and reward interdisciplinary work, ground-breaking articles even when they don’t end up in peer-reviewed journals, or books even when a discipline prefers articles? Can we find a way to acknowledge the myriad service commitments that really do make a difference in our students’ ability to learn, the ways some faculty members support teaching even when they’re not in the classroom, the ways we represent our institutions in the wider world?

As you can see, I have no answers. But the questions are pressing, I think. As liberal arts majors continue to decline, we need to think about how we represent ourselves in the world — not just to each other.

Or, we could just throw up our hands and watch basketball. After all, it’s March, and that’s the way colleges and universities are representing themselves to the wider world right now. We could do worse. (Now that the Spiders have come back home: Go Rams!)


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