'Teacher, Scholar, Mother'

New book of essays sheds light on what it's like to be a professor and a mom.

December 22, 2015

Much of the literature in on being a mother in academe breaks down the various -- usually negative -- ways women’s careers are impacted by having children, and then suggests ways in which colleges and universities can better support academic moms. And if you’re looking for another book like that, Teacher, Scholar, Mother: Re-Envisioning Motherhood in the Academy (Rowman and Littlefield) isn’t for you. Instead of a quantitative or qualitative study of its subject matter, the book instead explores what it means to be a mother in academe through firsthand accounts collected by editor Anna M. Young, an associate professor of communication at Pacific Lutheran University. The topics, ranging from breast-feeding to feeling pressure to perform for other moms to stillbirth, aren’t exclusively academic. But the recurrent theme -- that living a life of the mind while changing diapers, attending kids’ soccer games and trying to raise good human beings is both challenging and enriching to all pursuits -- rings true.

Young responded to questions from Inside Higher Ed about why she wanted to put the book together, her views on progress for moms in academe and who should read the work.

Q. How did you decide you wanted to edit Teacher, Scholar, Mother? Did it originate as an edited volume? You mention that you interviewed a number of women for the project.

A. The idea for the book actually began as I was writing my last book, Prophets, Gurus & Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Scholarly Engagement. I was asked to add a chapter on a woman public intellectual to my case study chapters, and I realized as I was trying to select a woman for the chapter (eventually I chose Christiane Amanpour) that part of the reason it is so difficult to identify women public intellectuals is related to women in the academy. And when we talk women in the academy, increasingly, we need to talk about motherhood. I don’t think that was true a generation ago, but it’s true today.

It did originate as an edited volume. When I was trying to write the call for chapters, I conducted in-depth Skype interviews with 10 women academic friends -- their responses formed the themes of the book. I wrote the call and essentially used the snowball method. I sent the call to women I know in a variety of academic disciplines and fields of study, and asked them to read it and forward it to anyone else who might be of interest. I was inundated with chapter proposals.

Q. You use the term “motherscholar” to describe your subjects/subject matter. Does that come from scholar Sara M. Childers’s essay on, in part, feeling the need to “reverse-cover,” or exaggerate her mother identity among other moms, or was it an existing term? And why do you think it's appropriate -- what does it communicate that “working mom” and other terms don't?

A. I really love what Sara Childers did in coining “motherscholar” as one word. It was not an existing term, but one I feel is a signifier or even a code switch for those of us who claim both identities. Those identities overlap to the point where the Venn diagram is mostly just a big circle. I think it’s appropriate because “working mom” is so cliché at this point, it is almost emptied of meaning. Academic life is seen as the life of the mind. To bring something so blatantly “bodily” into it, so material, so messy, requires a new lexicon.

Q. The book is organized into three sections: theoretical and disciplinary approaches to academic motherhood, critical and cultural territory associated with academic motherhood, and personal, painful perspectives on motherscholars. Most essays, regardless of section, though, recall the idea of the motherscholar, in that one's motherhood tends to inform one's scholarship and vice versa. Is that what you intended, for the book as a whole to communicate that motherhood and work are intertwined for academics who are moms -- maybe even in ways that they aren't for mothers who work in other fields?

A. I don’t write about [gender, motherhood, representation and identity] particularly outside of this project, but as a rhetoric scholar, I could. However, there are a number of fields where that is not an option, or where doing scholarship or teaching on motherhood or its intersecting themes and issues would be forced or totally sidebar. Regardless, though, I wanted to give motherscholars room to think about how their motherhood informs what they do and informs how they do it.

Q. The book includes essays such as Elisabeth Kraus's that touch on something I don't hear talked about in the ongoing discourse on academic motherhood: losing children and/or infertility. (Kraus is an adjunct professor of English at Northwest University and Bellevue College.) Why was it important to touch on this subject, and do you think this should be a bigger part of the conversation?

A. I purposefully did not limit the content of chapters in the call. I suggested themes, but I didn’t try to contain what authors sent. By design or by accident, I ended up with a number of chapters on very painful, deeply personal topics like stillbirth and infertility. I think Lis Kraus really touches on this in her chapter, but silence is also a choice -- not talking about losing children or infertility does not mean those challenges and tragedies do not exist. And our silence marginalizes and excludes. I thought it was important to draw the boundaries wider in order to include some of these conversations.

Q. What does this book contribute to the ongoing dialogue about academic motherhood in your view? What's new here?

A. Most books about academic motherhood (there are an increasing number of them) are either entirely first-person narrative or entirely longitudinal. I wanted to do a book project where motherscholars looked at their own motherhood as engaged scholars, using their own disciplinary lenses. That is, they are not disembodied as they might be in longitudinal studies, but they are distinctly scholarly rather than experiential. So, this project is situated somewhere between the poles of most books on academic motherhood. I also really tried to restrain myself in editing. I never wanted any of this book, save the introduction, to sound like me. That would have been exactly the wrong move -- the purpose to give voice to and honor other motherscholars by letting them do their work their way.

Q. You mention numerous studies written over the past several decades about what it's like to be a mom in the academy, and what needs to improve. Yet you also note that your interviews revealed that traditional perceptions/attitudes about motherhood remain in many cases a bigger barrier than logistics. Why is change in this area still relatively slow in coming?

A. In terms of why change is so slow in coming, the academy is very conservative and bureaucratic by design. It’s weirdly monastic. And most senior faculty and most university administrators are men, and particularly men with stay-at-home wives who raised their children to enable their careers. Until that changes, until more progressive and more aware men and women ascend the ranks, I don’t see how there will be much progress. In fact, in some of the Skype interviews I did initially, I spoke with women at major research universities who teach on campuses with zero official language or policy on parenthood -- people are entirely at the mercy of whomever happens to be their chair or dean. To me, that is insane. The academy is behind the private sector in many areas of human resources by decades -- how we treat academic mothers is one very significant example of that.

Q. What kind of progress do you see?

A. I think much is hopeful. Very few of the motherscholars who authored chapters speak with a kind of pessimism. (Note: This sentence has been updated from a previous version at Young's request.) the For one thing, more people are willing to write about and more presses are excited to publish work on motherhood in the academy. That is progress. More women, even on the tenure track, are electing to have or adopt children. More men on the tenure track have far more progressive views about parenthood, distribution of labor, leave, pay and other issues that intersect motherhood. That is progress. I am being interviewed by Inside Higher Ed about the book. That is progress. It is most certainly important to talk about how far we have to go, but I feel a sense of optimism throughout the book.

Q. Who is this book for?

A. Certainly, other motherscholars. Scholars whose work deals with motherhood or corollary issues and themes would be interested. Disciplines like sociology, anthropology, communication, women’s and gender studies. And I hope administrators. That’s sort of my not-so-secret target.


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