Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Repost: madwoman in the academy + extra thoughts

Around this time last year, I posted a book review of The Madwoman in the Academy, a compilation of academics contemplating their negotiation of being female in the academy.  I re-ead the book when I began seriously considering what my own presence in the academy might look like, and grappling with whether or not I could conceptualize this path as an actual possibility.  And this time this year, I I find myself definitely about to re-enter the world of higher education again.  And contemplating my own madness, still not feeling sure-footed about my ability to juggle two young children and the rigours of academic work, both of which I love.  In this last two weeks, I've already had to miss two talks I really wanted to go to for lack of childcare.  What happens when this is a class?  When I have a sick babe who can't go to daycare?  When they pull my arms away from my keyboard because they are needing my love and attention and focus?  What happens when it doesn't come naturally after more than 5 years away?  I guess I'm about to find out what I'm made of and how far these arms and this brain will stretch...

The Madwoman in the Academy: 43 Women Boldly Take on the Ivory Tower.  (Eds.) Deborah Schnitzer and Deborah Keahey.  Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2003.

I likely shouldn't have read it.  I knew it as soon as I picked it up.  But it was like a train wreck - I couldn't look away.  It's actually a fantastic book.  And I'm not just saying that because it's co-editted by one of the best professors (and loveliest people) I've ever known.  An edited collection of women's experiences in the academy.  The downs and outs.  The dirty bits.  The scary bits.  The frustrating bits. Details I need to remember and think about before I choose whether to jump in feet first.  The still far too prevalent sexism in academia.  The in-fighting and me-firsting and I'm-smarter-than-you-ing and eating-the-young-ing.  Imposter-syndrome.  The particular challenges and lack of accomodation for moms in academia.  (Breathe, T. Breathe.)   As (the wonderful) Deborah Schnitzer asks in her essay "Tenure Tracks",
How can a system that has been organized for and by male experience and privilege respond effectivelyand respectfully to the realities of women's lives?  How can a system burdened by a dependence upon a ritualized transmission model, restricted and often mechanical standards of measure, esoteric official languages, and limited ways of defining what constitutes knowledge comprehend those who work within frames of reference that are dialogic, inclusive, multidimensional and organic? (199)
How indeed? (I know - she is brilliant, right?  And also brilliant and right).  And those realities of academia are ones I must consider - carefully- before I jump back in.  But then there are the good bits too, of course.  The mentoring.  Sage navigational assistance.  Breaking barriers.  Smashing one's own ideas of one's limitations (and possibly other people's too).   And the parts I really crave:  The thinking. The writing.  The Thinking!  The Writing!

My absolute favourite essay in the collection is by Monika B. Hilder, entitled: "This Three-Horned Bronco of a Life" in which she describes the challenges of life in her triad roles as mother, academic, writer.  So gorgeously and bravely.  (Note - I am sharing big chunks of Hilder's writing here.  It is not my intention to overshare.  You should buy the book.  Read the essay in its entirety.  It's good, good, good.  But this particular essay really spoke to me,  to my own current worries and processing, so much that I feel compelled to share it with you all).

She writes: "Mad?  Me?!  You bet I'm mad - dissapointed, frustrated, feeling guilty, and alternately fiercely angry that I am able to do so little with words while I engage in the whirligig of family details.  I am not always so disgruntled, but sufficiently so to answer your question in the affirmative" (35).

And I read this, slightly panicked, and think: Good lord.  But I feel this NOW.  Can I really dare to add more fuel to that fire?  Can I handle another role, another division of self?  Can I handle that triad Hilder writes about? 

And then more:

Mad?  Me?!  When I was young I had the hubris to reject the position that a woman must choose between books (teaching and writing them) and babies.  (Isn't it ironic that this either/or dilemma is still presented by many camps: the misogynists, the kindliest patriarchs and matriarchs, the feminists?)  I still reject this position.  I still want it all: books and babies.  But sometimes I feel crazy with the competing demands on my person.  I grow furious with the helpless feeling that I am going too slowly along the journey of teaching and writing literature. (36)
And just like Hilder - I also want it all.  Babies and books.  I want desperately to reject that either/or dichotomy that feels so much like losing.  I want to be able to be a mother and a thinker, a writer, a do-er.  I want to be able to inhabit multiple worlds.  So much so that I often feel these days like I am leaping out of my own skin.  But I worry - have I waited too long to go back to school?  Can I keep up?after six years away? Will my trying to keep up put my other roles in jeopardy?  Will we all adjust?  Is it really possible to keep it all together, to remain - more or less - intact?

And then back to Hilder, who essentially tells me that the answer to my question is, in fact, no.  Not so much.  Remaining intact is likely not an option.  She relates: "[m]y mothering life is a crucible. . . . Pain characterizes too much of this fleeting lifespan I have in which to raise my beautiful beasts.  I would die for them (birthing does prove that, for starters).  The immediate fact though, is that I am dying daily in just trying to live with them.  So my teaching/writing aspirations are daily crucified to the needs and nonsense of my dear ones three" (36-37).

Something will always give.  And that something will almost always be the external obligations, the public sphere self.  Because that is the bargain I struck, quite willingly, when I chose the path of motherhood.  It feels overwhelming just to consider adding that public sphere self back to my repertoire.  But it feels equally like striking the sort of bargain which meant choosing not to do this would be a bit, you know, disastrous.  Luckily (?) for me, Hilder seems to suggest that perhaps remaining intact is overrated, and perhaps, not the end result I should be aiming for:

I whine, but the truth is that I wouldn't trade this triad life for anything.  To ride this three-horned beast for even a few seconds is an extraordinary privilege.  In the words of Ursula Le Guin, 'Babies eat books.  But they spit out wads of them that can be taped back together; and they are only babies for a couple of years, while writers live for decades; and it is terrible, but not very terrible' (812)*. . . . Mad? Me?!  Yes, yes, a resounding yes!  I'm riding this three-horned bronco of a life with all my might, dust-caked, and with tears in my eyes. (38-39)

So then - to be or not to be a madwoman in the academy?   I strongly suspect not even this book will scare me away from trying it on for size.  But I also strongly suspect that I won't ever be sure...

*The Ursula Le Guin quote in Hilder's essay comes from: "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Writes the Book." The Art of Short Fiction.  (Ed.) Gary Geddes.  Toronto: Harper Collins, 1993. 

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