Rejection

My son is two, and that means, for the most part, I can fix most of the problems he has. Food is too cold, he has a splinter in his foot, he’s hungry- these are all things I can fix. Sharing a coveted toy, ascending a big climbing wall, these too I can help him find a solution too (even if the solution is to walk away). I encourage him to find the solution to these situations on his own, but I know and he has faith that there is a solution available. But soon he will discover that there are some things without a solution and no amount of crying or trying will change that fact of life. I don’t look forward to him learning this. I dread the years when my son’s friends will decide they don’t like him, or a girl or boy will turn him down for a date. He will feel rejected and I can’t change that. It’s an awful feeling.

Rejection has been on my mind a lot lately. My university is going through some interesting times. Four people in their penultimate year went up for tenure, were recommended strongly for tenure by all levels of our bureaucracy (department, chair, dean, promotion and tenure committee) and were rejected by the provost. It’s created a lot of drama. I know these four professors are profoundly sad at being rejected this way, and they appealed to the president of the university; three won, one did not. I had a student come into my office crying because her advisor was the one whose appeal was rejected. He has one more year and then he has to find another job. This student could not seem to comprehend the rejection (even of someone else!). I had to walk her down to counseling to help her deal.

I get rejected all the time. It happens in academics as well as a lot of other fields. It hurts. But it’s not, and it shouldn’t be, the end of the world. There was an interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on rejection. The author, Rebecca Schuman, who got her PhD but never got a tenure-track job, was making the case that rejection for academics is much more painful than for everyone else. I’m sorry, but no. Rejection is hard, because in many ways it feels personal (and sometimes it is). You feel like your whole self-worth is tied up in that rejection. That’s not a problem of academia, that’s a problem of individuals. We all got rejected (by dates, by colleges, by jobs, by publishing houses, by friends, by banks). If we tie up our self-worth in those applications and proposals than that’s our problem. The solution is to learn to accept any criticism (if the rejection comes with some) and move on! There’s never been a rejection that I’ve received that didn’t lead to other opportunities. It’s important to get those rejections so we learn to do better next time. When my article got rejected, I read the comments, rewrote the article and sent it out again. And I’m going to keep doing that while it makes sense to pursue this publication.

As for my son and his future rejections? I hope that I can teach him that it’s okay to be hurt. It’s okay to be disappointed, but his self-worth is not tied to those rejections, that there will always be people that love him, and that he will find the avenue that best suits his personality. I will hold him, let him cry, and let him know I love him. Rejection hurts in the moment, but it’s not the most painful feeling in the world. You need to learn and move on. And if you can’t- well, that’s the time to talk to a counselor.

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Dream Deferred, alternatively titled Spring Break in Cow Town

I haven’t thought about Langston Hughes’ poem Dream Deferred since high school. At the time it didn’t make much sense, I was 14 after all. But a recent trip for Spring Break reminded me of it.

“What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?”

With all due respect to Langston Hughes, my deferred dreams age gracefully, and are more like old friends than exploding raisins. I muse this way whenever I go back to the town where I finished my PhD and where my in-laws still live.

I love visiting my in-laws, not only do they do free babysitting, but they just ooh and aah over my son and he basks in all the attention (plus they’re pretty cool and loving people). They live in sunny California, and we are SO happy about leaving the snow for a week. We return twice a year or so to visit. Most of the time is spent doing family things and letting my son spend time with his grandparents, but I always make sure to reconnect with a few of my graduate school friends who still live in Cow Town.

If you are lucky enough to get good graduate school friends from the process, cherish them. These are the people who have seen you at your worst and vice versa. They have struggled and fought with you (in both senses of the phrase) and yet remain your friend. Some of these friends move on to exciting jobs, or new fields, and you rarely see them. Some you see at conferences, and your circles are close enough you can get together. But when I go back, the friends who are still there have a different perspective. These are the friends who have decided to eschew the tenure-track line in favor of staying right where they are (for any number of reasons). And in many ways, I envy them. They remind me of what I imagined my life would be like all those years ago.

Most of the ones I see are the ones who are also parents. They have their PhD’s and good jobs (some are so-so jobs), just not tenure-track jobs. They raise their families here. They get to share with their kids the best things about this town. I love Cow Town. I loved this town so much, that my son is named after it (yes, really, and no his name is not cow- that’s a pseudonym for the town). The town has this amazing restaurant scene and farmer’s market, there are fairs and celebrations, talks and performances, beautiful walking trails and an arboretum, plus a great school system, and practically zero crime. Most of my husband’s and my courtship happened in that town, we lived there when we got married, bought a house, got a dog, graduated from school, and got my first “real” job. It’s not surprising that I thought of it as home. When we lived there I imagined what part of town we would live in when we had money. I imagined what school my children would attend. I imagined summers, and friendships, and years passing in this town. Then I got a tenure-track job and we moved 3000 miles away.

So, when I come back to Cow Town, I return to my memories, but I also return to a dream deferred. When I see my friends from graduate school, the ones who decided to turn-down the tenure-track job in favor of staying there and raising their families there, I am not sorry I made the choices I did. But, I am a little bit jealous.

Academics have to get used to moving anywhere- that’s what they told us in graduate school. I never questioned it, although I do now. Which is really more important, the job or the location? It’s strange to spend so many years in one town for graduate school (eight for me), and then move suddenly to a whole new place for three years or thirty. I’m lucky that my job is in a great location (despite the snow) and the people are awesome. Most academics don’t have it so good. But coming back and I feel the weight of nostalgia as overwhelming. I wish Cow Town was a person so I could give them a hug and write them letters. Maybe one day we’ll come back, or maybe we won’t. Maybe I’ll feel the same about my current town (let’s call her ivy city) in 10 years. For now, I’m going to call up some friends and plan some playdates.

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The Problem with Leaning In

Last week, Rosa Brooks (an academic mom like us) posted a wonderful piece in response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In mantra. Here’s the link. I admit, I haven’t actually read Lean In, although I followed some of the media hype and blogs surrounding the issue. Overall, I thought it just didn’t apply to me. After all, I don’t work at a company like Facebook. I’m in charge of my own time (for the most part) and besides tenure, I’m not really looking for promotion. Or at least THAT kind of promotion,

Okay, I admit that it would be nice if Harvard calls me up some day, and tells me they will pay for me to visit and decide if I would like to be one of their professors of early American history (tenure assumed). And that’s not going to happen unless my book (hopefully books and articles and talks) get some attention. Which is not going to happen unless I finish writing them. When I start thinking like this, I get all hyped up and feverishly start typing. I then look around for grants and conferences.

Then I remember that I’m doing fine. Yes, I’m not as prolific as some of my friends at R1s who have more research release time (or my friend who is an independent scholar with no kids). But, I am doing my own research, and I’m writing. Just on my own timeline, not some imagined schedule conjured up by comparing myself to others.

And I think that’s one of the biggest problems with Leaning In. What seems to be a solution to being a woman (and mom) in a business environment by networking and working harder, is really just an opportunity to compete with other women. Have you been to the website? It sounds good, it even looks good. But, what I see is just another group of people telling me what I’m doing wrong. How about this… You are doing NOTHING wrong. You have a job? Awesome. You are still working on your PhD? Good for you!

This is one of the many reasons I like the Recline article. Rosa Brooks, who went to college with Sheryl Sandberg, but never met her, said this about that realization:

“Some college students, like my friend Suzanne, take aerobics classes. Some college students, like Sheryl Sandberg, teach aerobics classes. Other college students, like myself, lie around the dorm reading novels. No wonder I can’t remember meeting Sheryl Sandberg in college! She was already busy leaning in. I was busy leaning back on my sofa, with a good book and a nice cup of cocoa.”

Honestly, I love books and hot chocolate. And I’m not sure if I would be a better person or a better professor if I was one of the students who taught aerobics classes (not that I could). It’s Rosa Brooks realization, after she does Lean In for a few years, that she’s miserable and decides to scale back that really made sense to me. I believe if you honestly WANT to be the best academic there is, go for it, follow the advice of Sheryl Sandberg and network and step-up to the plate at work and school and home all your little hearts desire. I’m not going to compete with you. I’m going to do what’s right for me. And if I need advice, I’m going to turn to the people I love and trust, and who know me best. And who knows, maybe being my own person and doing what’s right for me WILL appeal to Harvard. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, if you’re reading this, you’re going to LOVE my book when it finally appears.

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New Semester’s Resolutions

For most academics the new year starts in late August, if you’re lucky maybe early September. That’s the time when you have new hopes for your classes, and your students, and maybe even some projects you hope to accomplish.

But like most academics, I think, I also get to start afresh in January before the spring semester, and in May before the summer “semester mostly without students.” I start each of these semesters with new goals, but my goals around now, when other people are putting together resolutions about weight loss and saving money, are a little different. Okay, okay, lots of people resolve to be happier, let go, accept themselves, live in the moment, etc…. Those are all perfectly worthy and even inspiring resolutions. But, this blog is about academic work and motherhood, and in my case it’s the work that suffers. So my resolution is going to be about work.

I write a list. I love lists. What academic and/or mother doesn’t love lists? How could you possibly keep all that information in your head without lists?

Every day I have a to do list of things I want to accomplish that day. Not surprising I don’t get through all of them. Then the things I don’t accomplish get shifted to the next day. This leaves me with a very long list by the end of the week and me a little frazzled. Some of them are domestic- vet appointment for the dog, fix broken toys, balance checkbook, send belated Christmas cards. Others are school related- revise syllabi, contact students about their internships, revise program handbooks, and send a long list of committee related emails (yuck). Then of course there’s my research- I have some revisions on one article, and two conference papers coming up.

If I don’t get all that done today, it gets shifted to tomorrow, where there’s an equally long list. Over and over again my research, my book, my writing, gets shifted to the next day, and the next, and the next. I do my research work in small bursts on those days when I get through my list and I’m still seeing straight.

When I was in graduate school I got through my lists. Partly because I didn’t have the same level of committee, advising and teaching commitments, but mostly because I didn’t have kids. If I needed to work until 2 or 3am finishing a chapter- fine. I don’t think I can last much past 10pm anymore (voluntarily at least). I wouldn’t go back to those days for anything, BUT I need to figure out a way to get all my work done (more than I had in graduate school) in no more than 8 hours a day.

So, my New Year (New Semester) Resolution is to prioritize the long term projects. Easier said than done.

I’ve tried making short term (ie daily writing goals) but that didn’t work for long. I’ve tried putting aside a day to do research (it got taken up by other more pressing things). I’ve tried using the late night (after kid’s asleep) to do an hour or work before bed (the work is then terrible). The only thing that has worked has been to actually NOT do other things on my list.

So my method of attaining my resolution is to NOT DO THINGS. Will my students survive? Absolutely! Will the committee survive? Of course (no one likes getting the emails anyway). Will my family survive? Who am I kidding? I’ll keep doing things with and for my family 🙂 But maybe if I prioritize an hour of research at the beginning of the day, I’ll start to feel good rather than guilty about that list with the ever-hanging-on-research-to-dos. So, cheers to a new year and a new semester! And wish me luck!

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Academic Mamas: An Introduction

I have a confession: my son is home sick with a stomach bug and I’m at work.

I had an 8:45am committee meeting with the Provost, another meeting at 11am with the Chair of another department, and then my students had their final exam from 12:45 to 2:45pm. I was writing some emails pertaining to our writing program. And thinking about my next book proposal. Throughout it all I checked my phone for the updates from my husband, who took time off to take care of our 18 month old son (and to clean the puke from the car seat where my son got sick on his way to daycare). My mind is at school, my heart is at home.

It’s days like today that I especially feel the binary pull on my identity. Am I a professor or am I mommy? Can I be both? How can I be both? This is not a statement on having multiple identities (we all do this- besides a professor and a mother, I’m also a runner, reader, Californian-at-heart, former expat, sister, cousin, daughter, and a brunette). But, I created this blog because I think that those of us in academia struggle with being a real presence in our field AND a present and happy mother. I don’t have an answer, but I do have a lot of ideas, experiences, questions, and a lot of friends (and friends of friends) who are in the same situation. Maybe together we can contribute something to the conversation. We are not leaning in, we are not opting out, we are Academic Mamas.

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