On Being an Academic and a Mother

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Via Feminist Philosophers, this essay entitled: “Making a Place for the Other: A Letter to My Daughter” by Janet A. Kourany of the University of Notre Dame, via the Fall 2007 APA Newsletter. Below is an excerpt:

… I have frequently heard from people in commuting relationships that their colleagues are amazingly insensitive. These colleagues simply ignore the problems in a commuting relationship and act as though everything about it is fine. But colleagues cannot know the problems unless we tell them. At my old university, for example, I had been criticized by a colleague because I took off Winter Quarter to be with your father and taught Summer Quarter instead (when he could be with me). But, the colleague pointed out, there were heavy committee responsibilities during Winter Quarter and none to speak of during the summer. So, he concluded, I had an easier situation than anyone else, and it was unfair. Had I tried to make clear to my colleague the difficulties of being separated from your father during the entire academic year, year in and year out, how no one else in the Department faced such difficulties but me, and how shirking committee responsibilities was the farthest thing from my mind, he might have withdrawn his criticism. Similarly, had I let my new colleagues at Dad’s university know how few rewards came with my adjunct appointment, at least some of them might have come to my aid. Indeed, when I finally did so, some of them did.

People who have interviewed professional women of my generation:people like the journalist Vivian Gornick:have set out poignantly what so many of these women experienced: how they started out full of ambition and promise, how so many of them became trapped in dead-end positions such as research associate positions in the sciences, and how they ended up believing that that was all they could be. Rather than transform a negative environment to meet their needs and deserts, they allowed the negative environment to transform them. Something of that happened to me. Indeed, my third, and probably my worst, mistake was that I allowed my adjunct status at Dad’s university at least to some extent to define me. True, I fought for and eventually got an office with the regular faculty, paid trips to give papers at conferences, the possibility of teaching graduate courses and, in fact, any courses I pleased, and many of the research supports available to the regular faculty, and true, I kept professionally active, but the demoralization took its toll. Ironically, much of what had prevented a regular position in the first place gradually melted away. The nepotism concerns disappeared. The duplication problem also disappeared: the philosophers of science in the Department all moved in different research directions in (and in one case, out of) the field and new faculty and retirements further diversified the group. I myself moved into feminist philosophy of science and feminist philosophy in general, and then into science and social values, and though the thirty to forty men in the Department were never quite comfortable with that, they had to admit it was different from their interests or those of the few women they eventually hired. What did not disappear, however, was the lack of regular status. I should have simply demanded it, and finally I did, though not because I felt an inner certainty that it was long overdue but because a variety of external circumstances ultimately pushed me to it. Indeed, all I did was ask to be considered for a regular position. And all the Department did was grant me my first paid leave of absence when they denied my request. That is when I resigned, paid leave in hand. And that is when I got a regular position.

Why do I bring up this ancient story now? You are still in the coursework phase of your doctoral program, not even up to proposing a dissertation topic. Yet, you are seriously dating a young man who has just landed his first university teaching job far away. Both of you have excellent credentials and you both are full of promise. Yet some of the same problems that beset my generation are still around for yours. …

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