Sometimes I wonder where I even got the idea to be an English professor. It certainly wasn’t from observing my own teachers — in the eight years of high school and college, I had only two or three female teachers, not one of them (perhaps surprisingly) in English. A year or two after I graduated from college, I wrote to my thesis advisor from college, wondering out loud if graduate school might be an option for me. He wrote back enthusiastically, saying that he’d always thought that was where I was headed, and hadn’t he been saying so for years? He hadn’t. I don’t know why he thought he had.
I did have two family members in academe, an uncle on one side and an aunt on the other, but I’d lost the aunt early in my college career and couldn’t turn to her for advice, either. My uncle was supportive but in another field entirely. Despite coming from a hyper-educated family, then, I felt almost like a first-generation college student when I arrived in graduate school. I had no idea what to expect. When the graduate advisor told me I was only expected to take two classes that first quarter, I decided to keep my full-time job; I couldn’t imagine how two courses would keep me busy. Nor could I quite imagine how I’d live on my graduate student stipend, though that turned out to be easier than I’d expected — which was a good thing, since I had to quit my job fairly early in the quarter when the reading load piled up.
I had more female professors in graduate school than I’d had in high school and college combined, but I had little idea of what their lives were like. By the time I took my PhD orals, six months pregnant, I did at least know that of my five examiners, four were parents (who therefore graciously allowed me a bathroom break halfway through the exam). By then I also knew a couple of grad-student-moms, though not well. My advisors had been supportive (or would benignly neglectful be a better term?) when I got married, and again when I turned up pregnant — one or two even came to my baby shower — but only one was herself a mother.
I thought of all this history when I read Rosemarie Emanuele’s piece about role models the other day. Who were mine?
Mostly, they were men. My thesis advisor, the father of an old boyfriend, and several high school teachers all demonstrated for me a balancing act of parenting and professing, though none would have called it that. I was only occasionally aware, indeed, of the demands on their time, and in most cases had no idea at all whether there was a stay-at-home spouse in the picture or not. I remember being pathetically grateful when a (male) professor in graduate school announced at the beginning of the quarter that he’d have to change his office hours from what he’d initially posted, as he had pre-school pickup duty on that day. Just the barest mention of his parental role gave me an inkling of what was ahead for me.
Most of my role models have been friends and colleagues, not mentors or advisors. When I started my current job, I was immediately introduced to two or three women with children my daughter’s age; we became friends and confidantes when it came to the balancing acts we were all performing. Soon other colleagues had children, and I had a second, and our circle expanded. We traded babysitting, baby and toddler clothes and supplies, and (especially) advice and comfort. As Rosemarie said in her piece, we “created our own vision” of the life we wanted to lead. Now, as I find myself at mid-career with younger colleagues (and older children), I wonder if I’ve become the role model I never had.
I think of my younger self often in the classroom. Teaching styles have changed since I was a student, and a little bit of self-revelation often seems appropriate — especially when I teach children’s literature. I’ve brought my children to class, told stories about their reading, and rescheduled office hours in order to make it to a child’s school performance. I hope that when I do so I am signaling to my students a kind of balancing act that I never saw performed. There was a freedom to doing it without guidance, and I don’t expect any of my students to follow my path exactly (indeed, I’d counsel them not to!). But I also yearn for the day when being a professor and a parent is just routine, and the balancing act is easy because, though our trials and errors, we’ve helped level the field.
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