I’m having a lot of trouble writing these days. I don’t do much scholarship anymore; a little here and there, but not much since leaving the academy (proper). My other writing — about tenure — is draining in many ways; important, fulfilling, exhausting. The basics of that story are done, although there’s a lot more underneath it all. I’m just not feeing a lot of it at the moment, so not writing it. Over the summer I started designing a new website, a new blog thread, a book project, and a podcast. But suddenly it’s November and will be Thanksgiving before we know it. My husband pleads with me not to do this, jump ahead two weeks as if they didn’t happen. He wants — deserves — these two weeks. Too late; I’m already at the end of the Fall term with over 30 research papers to grade in three days before the winter holiday break. And high school for my first born and middle school for my second; new adventures, most of them wonderful, a few painful. For them too. I really like my kids; I would choose them. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, though, hoping that my retirement will be enough to help them pay for the therapy that I’m sure they’ll need after being raised by me. So, I’m a bit paralyzed, intellectually … and physically, as luck would have it, as I lay on the sofa with ice on my back because old and doing stupid 30 year-old-person things. The Buckeyes look horrible. And democracy much worse. So I’m off to touch base with my California peeps because fire again. Then write postcards to voters because those words are discrete, meaningful, communal, doable. I’ll try to stay off Twitter but, really, who am I kidding. I rationalize by counting those words as part of my writing each day. What a cheater. But I’ve got 326 here, so that’s something.
Tenure is the brass ring of the academy, and careers are made or broken in the effort to achieve it in an all-or-nothing race against the clock. Yet, there are few authoritative sources on the rules of the race or how it is to be judged. Instead, the tenure process is generally conceived but highly variable and relatively opaque, and it goes under-scrutinized because those who succeed rarely question the methods and those who fail rarely talk about their experience.
In my contribution to the PS: Political Science and Politics symposium, Reflecting on the Profession, I reflect on a few of the institutional failures apparent from my own denial of tenure in 2010, including lack of transparency, accountability, and effective leadership. I argue for intentional hiring with written contracts that define tenure requirements; clear and transparent tenure standards so junior faculty understand expectations; honest pre-tenure reviews that provide candid feedback about progress toward tenure; meaningful consideration of external evaluations that provide a broader context for understanding accomplishments of tenure candidates; and, effective leadership in the decision making process.
It is an honor to announce the publication of our PS Symposium, Reflecting on the Profession. These articles have their origin in our 2017 NSF workshop, which included a broadly diverse group of political scientists. These authors — and our many other colleagues who participated last fall — offer their experiences in the discipline as the basis for much-needed conversation about what works and what doesn’t work in political science. We hope this encourages other to tell their #profstories as we all strive for improvements in political science and academe more generally.
Introduction: Reflecting on the Profession, by Susan Sterett and Jennifer Diascro: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics/article/introduction-reflecting-on-the-profession/E4D7F3C66C889F70E2012CF8D7D1DA73/share/da94105e9c3c1a5c92f3ca4275530350efb16410
Balance Is a Fallacy: Striving for and Supporting a Life with Integrity, by Renee Cramer, Nikol Alexander-Floyd, Taneisha Means: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics/article/balance-is-a-fallacy-striving-for-and-supporting-a-life-with-integrity/8A3DAD371551AC75D65426C5D527A834/share/ecdaf0d8cab691fbba5fcaa95c4da5267b6fc016
Making Academic Life “Workable” for Fathers, by Jon Gould & Brian Lovato: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics/article/making-academic-life-workable-for-fathers/8CC50CEFA854582FACBE7FFBF12FFFED/share/b9b105af12888dcc399f064f8f25a0c72b939b49
Rejection of a Manuscript and Career Resilience, by Lee Walker: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics/article/rejection-of-a-manuscript-and-career-resilience/F7CA5A10FFAA67E0B97CA68F2513FA84/share/72ab08bdde874ca0ac371492d579968074c05191
Failure in the Tenure Process, by Jennifer Diascro: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics/article/failure-in-the-tenure-process-we-can-do-better/776E6046EE56758E4EB1E1E4B71B4F5E/share/c2664352277aa01a5dddf06ce0863679dc38de90
Rebounding on the Tenure Track: Carving Out a Place of Your Own in the Academy, by Valeria Sinclair-Chapman: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics/article/rebounding-on-the-tenure-track-carving-out-a-place-of-your-own-in-the-academy/C0993728C71F5B074EEB77D518C31EF4/share/33a52913e46688abf27aaa9b0858eef9801305f3
Navigating the Night Sea Journey: Learning to Let Go after Tenure’s Loss, by Stephen Bragaw: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics/article/navigating-the-night-sea-journey-learning-to-let-go-after-tenures-loss/20CCBF184FB46E5CD69ECFE832B1D2D4/share/082b24e5eab3e08b9021c096780cfde312649966
Providing Promotion Pathways That Reflect Changing Faculty Workloads, by C. Scott Peters: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics/article/providing-promotion-pathways-that-reflect-changing-faculty-workloads/1B222CFC1EA5BE5F0D781EF6CE8793D5/share/fdedec1b8befaf97500954cc8611eb195cf4003c
Tenure Track to Think Tank and Back: An Unreproducible Path to Success, Christopher Foreman: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics/article/tenure-track-to-think-tank-and-back-an-unreproducible-path-to-success/CA25CF89931BADE4C54D38BC15932CF6/share/207074638efc4e39bf191879be3f94abd6a4a976
I get to teach Judicial Process and Politics this Fall and I am over the moon!! This may seem a bit ridiculous, but let me see if I can explain why it’s such a big deal.
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The last time I taught JPP was at American University, where I was denied tenure. I loved this class. It was truly my happy place. My PhD is in judicial politics and this class was a fundamental part of my teaching arsenal for nearly two decades. I taught other courses like civil liberties and constitutional law when I was on the faculty at the University of Kentucky, but JPP was the only court-related undergraduate course I was allowed to teach at AU because a senior colleague taught the others. I spent a lot of time on it — even co-edited a textbook for it — and enjoyed every minute; it was interesting and challenging, and my students learned a ton and had fun doing it.
After I was denied and during the first semester of my terminal year, I accepted another job but delayed my start date until the semester was over; I wouldn’t have left any of my students in the lurch at mid-term, but I had a particular soft spot for this course and the students in it.
Many years later, when I returned to teaching in my current position, I wasn’t offered a judicial course. But I didn’t care. I was overjoyed to be back in the classroom after 5 years, but relieved to not be asked to step back into old shoes. Even teaching my favorite course unappealing. For the first time since being fired, I didn’t have to think about political science or political scientists if I didn’t want to. And I really didn’t want to.
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When I began looking for another job, it didn’t occur to me that it might be healthy to distance myself from the profession after being denied tenure. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wouldn’t be pursuing another tenure track job. I didn’t even look to see if there were open positions in my subfield. I was sure I’d be seen as damaged goods. In my early 40s with two small children, I’d just been fired — and from a pretty average program, especially compared to others in the area. I didn’t think I’d be competitive in a very tight academic job market. And even if I was, there was no way I was going through the tenure process again.
Still, I felt uneasy walking away from a career for which I’d worked so hard. So when a friend sent me a job listing for the American Political Science Association, I applied immediately. I had no idea what it meant to work for a nonprofit membership association, but staying connected to my field was appealing. And, well, beggars can’t be choosers, a bird in the hand, and <<insert your proverb of choice here>>. I was lucky to get such a good job.
But it came with some serious unanticipated costs.
I didn’t realize at the time how much of my self-worth was connected to the academy, and it surprised me. It’s not like being a professor was my childhood dream and losing my job was the end of some long-held ambition. It wasn’t. And it’s not like I couldn’t imagine a different career. I could. What really weighed on me — and came to a head a few years into my stint at APSA — was that I might not be capable of doing anything. Forget political science. I mean anything at all.
For decades, I honed tools that I relied on to overcome the setbacks I experienced in all parts of my life. Focus, commitment, persistence — these were keys to a work ethic that gave me confidence when I didn’t succeed. Yet, after I left AU for APSA, it became clear that those tools were the primary casualties of losing my job. Without them, I lost my moorings and my way.
At first I thought I might have a bad case of imposter syndrome, but the truth is that I never felt like a fraud because I had no illusions and made no pretenses about my abilities. I wasn’t one of the “cream of the crop,” not as a student or a professor. I wasn’t in advanced classes in high school and didn’t graduate at the top of my class, I earned As but as many Bs (and a C I remember rather well) in college; I did ok on the GRE, winged my way through a few of my grad school classes, and nearly lost my funding after the first year. There were many times when I felt—painfully—that I wasn’t capable of competing and worried that I wouldn’t get my degree, wouldn’t get my work published, wouldn’t be a good teacher, or earn tenure. Or earn tenure again. These feelings were par for the course for me.
The antidote for my insecurities and shortcomings has always been to push myself, do my best, and not give up easily. What’s the worst that could happen, I always ask myself before taking a new step; falling on my face isn’t usually reason not to try. I’m ambitious and want to do well, but experience tells me that not succeeding is always possible (even likely, at times). Through this prism, it made sense when I didn’t get As, was rejected from grad schools, struggled in my classes, had manuscripts and grant proposals rejected, was overlooked for jobs. Hurdles and setbacks like these don’t feel like failure. They feel like normal and necessary — however disappointing and sometimes discouraging — parts of a life-long learning curve that served me well as an academic.
Being denied tenure should have been the same, I thought. Another — albeit pretty substantial — setback. But it wasn’t. And not because of claims that my research wasn’t good enough, or plentiful enough, or whatever.
What I had a lot more trouble overcoming was the assertion that I was on a “downward” trajectory, the doubt that I would be productive in the future, and the judgment that this constituted a failure on my part. They questioned my focus, my commitment, my persistence — the very tools in my kit that had been anchors when I struggled, that I needed to combat my insecurities. With the implication that I’d let my work slide, that I wasn’t dedicated enough to the job, that I didn’t work hard enough to earn my place — that I was knowingly and even deliberately a slacker — they dismantled my defenses.
Of course, it was all code for having kids. They knew better than to say it out loud or in writing, but it’s what they meant.
Still, knowing this to be true — that the failure was theirs, not mine — didn’t make it easier to move on.
And working at APSA made it exponentially worse. Spending my days (and many of my nights and weekends) surrounded by political science and working in the service of political scientists was a constant reminder that I’d been found wanting in ways that were integral to my identify and self worth. I did my work with a smile on my face and even enthusiasm some days; I knew how to pull up my big girl panties.
But it took a lot of energy to continually push down the grief, sorrow, anger, and embarrassment that I often felt. I regularly compared myself to others, at once reassured that I was as good a political scientist as most of them were, and dejected that I’d been unable to get it done as they had. I forced myself to continue working on a couple of research projects, to review manuscripts and grants, to do other small things, to prove to myself — and others — that I was still dedicated, willing, and able to put in the time. But it made me feel worse. I felt diminished and ashamed for needing to validate myself, and guilty for not appreciating how lucky I was for everything else in my life, including this job. Self-doubt was a constant companion, creeping into every part of my life.
I had trouble sleeping well for years, a function of having babies and then small children, and medical issues. But when nightly panic attacks turned to sleepless nights that lasted for days, and then weeks, I knew I was becoming unmoored.
* * * * *
I’m not sure I’ll ever fully recover from being fired.
Yet, after a long slog that included invaluable support from my family and the expertise of professionals, I eventually turned a corner. I reclaimed my tools and made (enough) peace with the past so that I could take baby steps forward.
Or back, as it were.
First, a return to the academy and the classroom, on my own terms.
Now, a new — or rather, an old — class! I’m ready to take back my happy place!
For the last three year, I’ve taken my students each term to the Library of Congress for a research seminar and tour. I lucked out when I was first assigned to a wonderful librarian; I’ve been able to schedule him for almost every visit since then. He spends about 45 minutes with us discussing the history of the Library and how it works, and my students get their Reader Identification Cards so they can use the Library for their research. After a brief look at some of the smaller rooms in the library — like the Children’s Literature Center where the smallest book in the world is displayed, and the Microform Room where my students look at me with their “The what?” expressions — he takes us into the Main Reading Room. The audible gasp from my class when they walk through the door is my favorite part of the trip. The grandeur is overwhelming and is not lost on them. I love hearing them remark that they feel smarter just for walking across the threshold; I have the same feeling every time.
Another regular part of the visit has become a joy for me, although it wasn’t initially! During the seminar portion, as an example of how to search online databases, the librarian includes one for dissertations. And he pulls mine up every time. It’s a very nice gesture and method for engaging my class, but it was startling for me at first! I have two copies of my thesis in my home office, but haven’t opened them for years. It’s been a long time since I defended, an obvious point when he scrolls past the publication date of 1995 and the students do the math. No one is more shocked than me to realize that over 20 years has passed and the thesis is older than every one of them.
Yet it feels much more recent than that and the memory makes me happy. I liked grad school — mostly — but my favorite part was writing my dissertation. Well, maybe not the actual writing, which was a bit dry and formulaic as academic writing often is. It was the research that I enjoyed, designing a study of my own. I wasn’t sure that I’d like it or that I’d be any good at it. But I loved having the time to think bigger thoughts and to be creative. Unlike course work, this was fun!
It was also a challenge, every bit of it. And stressful. Unlike many of my classmates, I didn’t feel the need to be the best, to write a masterpiece (as if). I wanted to do good, solid work. And I wanted to finish. It helped that I took “the best dissertation is a done dissertation” advice to heart.
More important, though, was the Dissertation Support Group. We were four, from the same cohort, with different intellectual and personal experiences and histories, different substantive interests, and different professional goals, who bonded through the “boot camp” years and worked together at the end to get it done.
Initially, I wasn’t so sure about a group. I preferred working alone and at my own pace; I was disciplined and knew how to structure my time. I resisted competing with others and found it difficult to be around the hyper-competitiveness that’s so prevalent in grad school. For some, that environment was stimulating and productive. Not for me. It made me anxious and increased my self-doubt. School was hard enough; I didn’t need the extra pressure of everyone else’s crazy.
But our group worked. Although we had different work habits and varying levels of intensity, we were able to put them aside to support each other. We’d work at the library, get coffee to start the day, meet for beers at the end of a long week. We’d touch base on our progress, work through individual challenges, and set goals for the next time. And we’d vent. A lot. This and other social aspects of the group was much more important than I’d anticipated. When course work ends and dissertating begins, the time spent alone increases exponentially. Even for someone like me, who valued solitary work space, loneliness was a challenge. I’m sure there was friction at times, but I don’t remember it. In the end, we withstood the inevitable tensions of writing and defending our dissertations with our friendship — and (most of) our sanity — intact.
I’m now reminded of this remarkable camaraderie every term when we visit the Library. As my students calculate my age from the publication date, I smile to myself while the librarian continues to scroll through the pages of the dissertation to the acknowledgements. There — with the dedication to my family and my closest friends — is my tribute to the members of the Dissertation Support Group. Truly, the best of times.
Eric N. Waltenburg, Jennifer Diascro, and I are curating a new judicial politics reader as part of the Oregon State University Open Textbook Initiative (see http://open.oregonstate.edu/textbooks/). We hope that this textbook will provide accessible research materials to augment the more traditional textbooks utilized in our undergraduate classes as well as take advantage of the electronic platform to link together other available resources. As this is an open textbook (i.e. free to use for students), we are seeking previously unpublished work to include in the volume. As a general guide, we are looking for systematic empirical analyses, both qualitative and quantitative, that use undergraduate-friendly methodologies. Given that the format is electronic, we would like to include posters as well as other forms of scholarly work. We want to feature the work of undergraduates as well as graduate students and faculty.
Following the outline of most of the textbooks in the field, we plan to include the following topics:
- Role of courts and law in our political system
- Organization of the judiciary (state and federal)
- Actors in the judicial process
- Interest groups
- Court procedures
- Judicial decision-making
- Judicial policy-making
- Judicial process in a comparative perspective
- Courts and public opinion
- Courts and media
If you are interested in participating in our volume, please send an abstract of your paper or a copy of your poster for consideration. In the abstract, please identify the general topic(s) of your manuscript (from the list above), research question, methodology, and main findings. If you send a poster, please identify the general topic(s) it addresses. We are reviewing abstracts and posters on a rolling basis.
Please send abstracts to email@example.com with the subject line: Judicial politics reader.
We will be able to offer contributors a small honorarium for each manuscript accepted as part of the volume as long as funds remain available.
Jennifer Diascro (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Rorie Solberg (email@example.com )
Eric Waltenburg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Download Letter: Call for Contributors.Open Textbook Judicial Politics
When I was on the academic job market for the first time, salary was the least of my concerns. I wanted a tenure track position in a good department where I liked the people, where I had support to do my research, and where teaching was valued. The market wasn’t nearly as awful as it is now, but I didn’t take for granted the luck I had in getting two interviews early in my last year of grad school, and an offer from my first choice soon thereafter. I was over the moon! I got to be a professor! I was eager to sign on the dotted line the minute the letter arrived.
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I’ve negotiated every salary offer I’ve ever received — for a grand total of 5 across academic and non-academic jobs — and I asked for a raise and promotion once too. There is so much at stake in a starting salary, not least retirement benefits and future raises. It’s an essential part of advancing your career and protecting your future. In my view, salary negotiation is non-negotiable!
But I hate it. I really don’t like talking about money, in general, let alone asking for more. And I’m not very good at negotiating (ask my husband about the native mask we may have overpaid for on our honeymoon). That would require many things of me, like knowing (and appreciating) the value of my labor and having the confidence to convince someone else of it.
There’s a ton of professional advice out there about how to negotiate salary (just a few are here, here, here, here, here, and here) and some of it is helpful. But a lot of it is generic and formulaic, and sounds great in theory but hard to put into practice.
The truth is, it’s just really difficult to know what to do.
* * * * *
So, when I got the offer, it looked looked pretty good (especially by grad student standards) and I worried about seeming too greedy in the eyes of my would-be colleagues. Asking for a bit more in research funds and other support was easier because it was directly related to my success in the job, which was presumably in the interest of the department too.
Asking for more salary was different. Knowing that retirement and merit increases would be a function of my starting salary didn’t make negotiating seem any less … selfish? Not surprisingly, this is not a feeling unique to me or to higher ed, as this recent piece illustrates beautifully.
Moreover, I didn’t know how to start the conversation. I can be pretty assertive, but this was new territory and it felt awkward. I got some advice, but there’s just no one-size-fits-all way to manage most things, and this was no exception. None of it seemed right to me.
I was ambivalent and anxious, and ultimately asked the chair if there was “room to move” on the salary. Not the most confident ask ever made. But I was lucky, again. Perhaps she figured I’d have trouble asking because she seemed to anticipate my question and immediately suggested there was some flexibility. She would take my counter — such that it was — to the Dean, who made final salary decisions. In the end, I think we split the difference and I walked away with a little more money and a stronger financial foundation.
More importantly, I came away from the experience with a lot more confidence.
It was such a positive experience. I did it — I asked! And I succeeded! But mostly, I’d worked with someone who so clearly wanted me to be satisfied with my decision to join the department and to be a happy and successful member of her faculty. She provided an invaluable lesson about the significance of supportive leadership — especially for the uninitiated — and I had the benefit and privilege of working with her for many years thereafter.
When I went back on the market some time later, my approach to salary negotiation was a bit different. I dreaded it, but I was more secure professionally, a tenured associate professor with years of experience under my belt, and I was getting married so had more than myself to consider this time around. Unfortunately, the open positions in the city to which I was committed to moving were junior, but I thought my more senior status might give me some leverage. Also, I knew much more clearly than I did before that so much of an academic’s work goes uncompensated. Still not singularly focused on salary, this time I did my homework on the cost of living differences and comparative salaries, and I thought carefully about how my experience might be valuable in a salary negotiation.
When I received an offer, I was glad I’d prepared. The salary seemed low and I thought there must be room to move. I had an appointment with the dean and my argument was ready. And while it’s always possible the answer will be no — I didn’t know if my plan was any good, if my ask was convincing — I was completely unprepared for the response I got.
It was obvious that I’d surprised him by asking. He looked stunned and seemed offended by the prospect of negotiating; he suggested that no one before me had asked him for more money. I remember having one of those split seconds of panic when you wonder if you’ve just done something terribly wrong. But no. His response was totally bizarre. No new hires during his tenure had negotiated their salaries? How was that possible?
Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to sit quietly, to not fill the silence with my chatter that might result in me back pedaling or him talking me out of countering. And in the end, he agreed to some amount more than the original offer but less than I asked for.
As disappointing as it was, the experience made me realize with greater clarity how very important the ask itself is. It would be nice — even appropriate — if the hiring process were collegial, where the new employee and the new boss are on the same page. You know, the page where the one wants the job and the other one wants you to have the job, and everyone works together to make that a productive relationship. But it’s often not.
So, I discovered that for me — however uncomfortable and nausea-inducing, and whatever the odds of success — just the act of asking for more money is priceless. If it doesn’t bring more money, it can build self-esteem and be a decent gauge for how invested and supportive future bosses and colleagues are. [For a similar perspective, see this great twitter thread.]
Since that time, I’ve negotiated my salary three times, twice with new job offers and once for a promotion and raise. None of these positions were (traditional) academic jobs, which changed my approach to the ask. First, starting salaries are higher off campus than they are on campus; I had to force myself not to settle just because the offers were already greater than what I was used to. Also, I struggled with what my skills and experience were worth, a challenge that came on the heels of my painful tenure denial. But with help from my husband and friends familiar with the “real” world, I reframed my academic career and accomplishments into a resume that reflected my expertise.
That sounds very confident. Frankly, the memory makes me want to puke.
Still, it worked, sometimes better than others.
With one offer, I got an immediate “no” to my counter. To be honest, my heart wasn’t really in it and I probably wasn’t very convincing. To his credit, he gave me an explanation and reason to believe that the opportunity for a higher salary would come sooner than later (and it did). Despite my rather cynical view of workplace integrity at the time, he seemed sincere in his approach. I didn’t have loads of job offers, but I did have a few choices and time to consider them. Still, this position came with generous benefits, which changed my calculus about the value of the original offer. Ultimately, it felt like a good decision for the time (and it was).
Several years later, I returned to the job market again. But this time was different than any other time. I didn’t need a new job; I wanted one. This job hunting came on the heels of asking for a promotion and raise at my then-organization. I prepped more thoroughly for this negotiation than any other with a list of my accomplishments and the tasks I was performing at the level of the promotion I sought. I didn’t expect an outright yes, but I felt pretty confident going into this meeting that I had a compelling case.
I got an outright no. And it wasn’t a I-wish-I-could-because-I-value-your-contributions no. It was more of a this-is-a-ludicrous-proposition no. He seemed incredulous that I had asked.
Ooof. There’s nothing quite like the gut punch that tells you how little you’re valued. After the inevitable (for me) period of self-doubt, I knew it was time to move on.
Which is why I was overjoyed to get an offer for what I believed — and rightly, it turns out — would be a phenomenal opportunity doing valuable work that would return me to an academic environment and the classroom. It came with a lower starting salary than I was currently making and less robust benefits, but more flexible hours meant much more time to spend with my kids. The team seemed terrific and my would-be boss had a vision that included a valuable role for me. Like I had 20 years before, I wanted to sign on the dotted line immediately!
But, no. Negotiate! So, I did. Albeit a bit ass-backward. I accepted the offer. And then I asked if there was room to move in the salary. I wanted to act in good faith; this was a position that marked a new beginning for me in many ways, and I didn’t want to be coy. I was going to take the offer regardless of the response to my counter. But if there was an opportunity to raise the salary, even a little, it would have important implications for my benefits. And, I hoped for the affirmation that, at the start of this new chapter of my life, I would be considered a worthy and valued member of the team.
She said yes.
Nothing makes me happier professionally than to support colleagues and friends who are fighting the good fight against discrimination and other inequalities in academia. Unfortunately, the opportunities to look behind the curtain to see the fight in real time are rare. But there’s a very important lawsuit against American University for which many documents are public. With permission from both women — who are close friends of mine — I am posting a court ruling denying the University’s motion for summary judgement and a declaration of events in support of the plaintiff.
Change is incremental and requires that we all contribute in whatever ways we can to make institutions as fair as possible. These amazing women are working together on the long game for all of us.
When I was about 7 months pregnant with my first child, a senior female colleague gave me some unsolicited advice: I should pump as much as possible so that my husband could feed the baby while I worked at night.
I was surprised because it was so intrusive and presumptuous, and because I was a bit overwhelmed with the ever-increasing reality of becoming a mother. Was she kidding? I had no more idea of what kind of baby my son would be than the kind of mother I would be. The idea that I would strategize about feeding him before he was born—to make time for work, no less— was bizarre. Surely there’d be time to figure that out after I met him.
I shrugged off her remark as insensitive, and assumed it was her awkward way of helping me negotiate work and parenthood.
But it’s occurred to me over time that there’s something a bit sinister in the way some women react to other women and their challenges with work-life balance. I’m not sure my observations are unique or new, but we certainly don’t talk about it enough. And we should, for the sake of each other and the academy in general.
* * * * *
Work-life balance. We talk about it as if it’s a real thing. It’s not.
For a long time, I bought into the image of this balance as a scale. It seemed reasonable enough, especially when successful balancers explained how it was done: just identify required work tasks and requisite timelines, set aside the hours required to accomplish the tasks within the timelines, and do the work. Repeat on the life side. TADA! Balance.
But the analogy of a scale is all wrong. The weights are never even because we begin the balancing with work. There are good reasons for this, not least that work is usually non-negotiable; most of us have to work. Work is also relatively predictable: usually we know what’s expected, when it’s expected, and how to achieve it. And, significantly, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be selective, work is also intrinsically valuable and essential to our self-worth and life satisfaction. It’s not surprising, then, that we focus on work first when trying to figure out some semblance of balance in our lives.
For people in good health and with little if any responsibility for others, the life side of the scale can be predictable too. Even so, once we give work the first cut at our time and energy, there are few resources left for non-work stuff. In academia, work is a gas and it fills the space. We try to make the most of the life things in an attempt to level the scales. And it often seems like balance even though the scale tips (sometimes steeply) towards work.
Still, the imbalanced balance can be great — wonderful, even — in this relatively unencumbered world where the line between work and everything else is a bit porous. We value our work and it gives our life meaning, so we happily sacrifice the other things we might do with our time.
Eventually, though, many of us enthusiastically add a partner and children. We dutifully and even happily add sick and/or aging parents to our daily lives. We unfortunately experience personal health issues. And all hell breaks loose. Every bit of predictability disappears. And it happens—poof!— in what seems like a blink of an eye. Life as we know it changes into something completely unknown … and unknowable. And however joyous some of these life-changing events may be, the result resembles a massive cluster fuck that rests not on a scale but a precarious house-of-cards on the verge of falling to pieces at any moment.
Yet the work does not change. It goes on, it needs to be done. It is not negotiable. And for many of us, we want it to go on. Again, work is part of who we are. We want to work.
For those who have partners or other sources of assistance, stabilizing the house-of-cards is (more) doable because there is someone(s) or something(s) available to complete the life tasks. These ideal workers continue to meet work obligations because they are not responsible for managing the chaos that exists elsewhere in their lives. Historically, these workers were men with wives at home, and this is still largely true. Even as women have entered the workforce — and some men have exited — much of home and childcare tasks remain the responsibility of women.
Some working women seem to be able to do it all, and effortlessly. They are “superwomen,” who appear to seamlessly adapt to the various challenges posed by life changes. They can do — and have — it all.
A closer look, though, often reveals that the ease is a misperception as these women have various sources of help in accomplishing the many life tasks that make it possible to meet—or even surpass— the demands of work. It is not to diminish their intellectual merit and multitasking skills to suggest that luck—in terms of partners, financial resources, proximity to family and friends, severity of health issues, the personalities and needs of their children, and other factors—plays a significant role in their ability to keep their fragile houses relatively stable.
For the many more women with less, and sometimes no, support, the effort to keep the house standing comes with the high price of cutting corners at home, at work, and more often, both. There is a constant pull of one and then the other, with little relief. It is exhausting. And it produces a unique kind of anxiety and guilt, and feeling of incompetence, that is difficult to overcome, especially when there are superwomen—real or perceived—against whom we judge ourselves and are judged by others. In the end, some of us seem to manage it more effectively than others. While part of our ability to cope may be a function of merit and skill, a huge part of it is luck.
The very worst part of it, though, is that the process of becoming a working mother (or other caregiver) is seen by others and ourselves as some kind of rite of passage that gives value and justification to the sacrifices that we make.
We—us women— talk about learning from those who came before us, supporting those who are next to us, and paving the way for those who come later. But that’s not always the way it works. If we have struggled, made sacrifices, taken hits, then that is part of our narrative of success. And it is the way we perceive the appropriate narrative of others. I struggled, so should you. I struggled, it worked for me, it will work for you. If you don’t make the right sacrifices, you will fail. If you fail, it’s because you didn’t make the right sacrifices.
We are the Cans and the Cannots. We get what we deserve. And we deserve what we get.
* * * * *
My colleague may have meant well. But she was most certainly delivering a warning, one that I didn’t fully appreciate until many years later. She and others would be watching my commitment to work as I became a parent.
Hindsight being what it is, I now recognize some of the not-so-subtle signs over the years about expectations for my productivity as a mother. I suspect they are so familiar to so many mothers (and perhaps some fathers too) as to be trite: the off-hand remark about your leaving early from a late afternoon meeting, or not having been able to attend at all; the awkward silence in a discussion about the conference you missed because it involved travel; the knowing look when you turn down an invitation to serve on a(nother) committee; the query about how you’re doing that is as much (if not more) an evaluation of your performance than sincere interest. And, the advice that seems helpful but is a veiled message about the appropriate priorities for success.
If I noticed any of these, I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about them. In fewer than three years, smack in the middle of my probationary period, I had a baby, my father died, and I had another baby. And those were just the big things. I didn’t have the luxury of fussing about what people in my department or elsewhere may or may not have been saying about my ability to “balance” work and life, or to meet some artificial standards of behavior set by a few women (or men) who thought I had dues to pay for their long-ago sacrifices. I had a shit show (literally and figuratively) going on and every ounce of energy I had was spent keeping my very vulnerable house-of-cards standing.
By every measure—except the tenure one, of course—I did pretty well. Both pre-tenure reviews were positive; if I missed informal cues along the way because I was too exhausted to exercise my mind-reading super powers, I did not miss the formal written evaluations of my work performance. As for the rest of it, I managed to keep my children healthy and happy and I was able to provide some comfort and dignity for my dad in the last weeks of his life. I was (I am) lucky to have an exceptionally supportive spouse and loving family and friends who had my back during the many times when I thought I would surely lose my mind and fall to pieces.
Could I have accomplished more “at the office” during this period? Absolutely. I made a lot of sacrifices in my life to meet my work obligations, but I didn’t cut every corner. I know women who have, and do.
I could provide a list of my so-called choices—the decisions I made about what was important at any given moment—but I won’t because it shouldn’t matter. Every woman (every parent and caregiver) does what they need—what they can—to keep it all afloat. There aren’t “right” or “wrong” sacrifices, there are just difficult and sometimes impossible situations that require us to make hard decisions. Most of them go unseen by others as we struggle privately to do our best. We should be able to count on others not to judge what they don’t know.
I am fortunate to know many remarkable people in the academy—women and men—who see beyond themselves and their own experiences to support others in their pursuit of success, both at work and in life. They know that there’s little distinction between work and the rest of life, and that trajectories are rarely linear. They take the long view in supporting individuals careers and building institutions.
And there are many who don’t.
* * * * *
Several months ago, a woman posted to the PoliSciRumors blog in response to my tenure denial story and her words have stuck with me.
I don’t normally focus on a single post, but not only is she very angry, she also has some support, evidenced by the Yeas. If nothing else, it’s obvious that there’s some serious bitterness expressed here.
And it’s very personal. She Googled me or my dad (likely finding his obituary) and used his success to highlight my failure. She made assumptions about my upbringing to suggest that I hadn’t earned my achievements. And she found myriad ways to say that I deserved to be fired.
I admit that among my first thoughts (after “WTF?” and “Who are you?”) was, “THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU! THIS IS ABOUT ME!”
Except that it’s not just about me. She’s right. It IS about her, at least to some extent.
She sees in me someone who had every opportunity, every benefit of the doubt, every resource available, and squandered it all. She sees me playing a victim, blaming others— including my kids—for my failure. And it’s all made worse because she had none of these things and made all the sacrifices that she believes I didn’t.
The rite of passage. We each get what we deserve, she to succeed, me to fail.
I get where she’s coming from.
But her anger is misplaced. Taking aim at each other is short-sighted and counter-productive. She knows no more about the nature of my life than I do about hers. I didn’t create the circumstances that have caused her such difficulty any more than she created the circumstances of my tenure denial. And more power to her —and anyone else—able or willing to cut corners and make sacrifices that I was either unable or unwilling to make.
But my willingness or ability to make personal sacrifices—like pumping so that I could work instead of feeding my child—has no more to do with my merits as a scholar, teacher, or colleague than hers. Neither of us—none of us—should be the object of institutions that makes our individual sacrifices the price for success.
This is an institutional failure of the worst kind.
And this is the fundamental purpose of my blog, to shine light on one part of this failure by highlighting some of the serious procedural and substantive flaws in the tenure process. This is something everyone should care about—especially women and mothers—regardless of their views about the merits of my case and how it makes them feel about their own success or failure.
The consequences for not appreciating how institutions affect individual decisions are devastating, not just for the individuals affected but for the academy more generally. Maybe, just maybe, if we can take a step back to see the big picture and a step forward — dare I say, lean in — to support each other, we can find solutions to the many challenges that we all face in negotiating work and life.
Last month, a phenomenal group of political scientists convened in Washington, DC for a NSF-funded workshop on success and failure in the academy. In attendance were current and former faculty from across the country, employed at private and public colleges and universities and outside the academy, with degrees from different types of programs in various subfields. They represented the discipline on many other personal and professional characteristics as well, such as sex, race, ethnicity, disability, age, stage of career, tenure and non-tenure track, and parental and other care responsibilities. They brought with them their experiences in the academy: the successes and the failures, the opportunities and the hurdles, the victories and the disappointments. They were — they are — a remarkable group of human beings who, through their personal narratives, laid it bare for two days so that we all might understand a bit more clearly and honestly how the academy works — and, often, doesn’t work.
As two of the three coPIs on the project, Susan Sterett (UMBC) and I wrote a brief summary of the workshop that includes the primary themes and a few of the common reflections that emerged from our two-day conversation. We’ve published it as a post on the WPSA’s New West blog. If you’re interested in contributing your own story about these or related topics, please drop me an email via Contact Me on this site. Also, please join the conversation on Twitter using #AdvancingNarratives and #ProfStories.