If I Only Knew Then … Tenured Scholars on Professionalization: Nicola Denzey Lewis


by Nicola Denzey Lewis, Brown University

On the heels of a successful series based on Russell
McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, where 21 early career
scholars weighed-in on a separate thesis, we at the Bulletin would
like to continue with the theme of professionalization as it relates
to mid-to-late career scholars, asking them to name one thing (or several) about
their career (in either teaching, research, or service work) that they
know now but wish they had done earlier on. For other posts in this series, see here.

I’m going to direct my comments particularly at junior women scholars, partly because despite having had a female doctoral advisor myself, I still could have used more advice, and partly because of the significant problems that women are facing in the Academy as a whole. Sexism in the Academy? As Sarah Palin would say, “You Betcha!” How many stories do I have on this? So, so many, starting with my own. My husband – an academic with his Ph.D. from an equally stellar institution as my own, with a CV roughly equivalent to my own (I have one more book than he does and a bunch more national fellowships but, hey, who’s counting! …) – makes about twice as much in annual salary than I do. For his achievements, he gets promoted – he’s a full professor at an Ivy League institution. For my achievements, well, an entirely different story. But this is not about me. This is about what I wish I had been told, as a junior woman professor.

1. Realize that you will have to advocate for yourself. Women tend to be more reticent about self-promotion than men. For example, a number of prominent awards in Religious Studies have consistently been awarded to men; only a small proportion to women. Hear that little voice in your head saying that your work is not good enough? Ignore it. Self-nominate for awards and fellowships.

2. Do not be afraid to increase your professional visibility. Another fascinating finding, thanks to my fellow scholars investigating serious gender disparities in the Academy: women scholars are far less likely to have their own Wikipedia pages than men. In fact, when a group of women scholars worked actively to write Wikipedia pages for one another, many of our pages were rejected by an anonymous series of (male) editors. When asked, a number of highly accomplished female scholars said that they did not want Wikipedia pages – part of a culture in which women feel uncomfortable self-promoting or appearing to be self-promoting. As a result, there are scores of Wikipedia pages produced by and for men that increase their visibility although their achievements are often not as impressive as those of female scholars who go unrecognized.

3. If you hold a teaching position, be aware of the gendered elements of teaching evaluations, which have been widely researched. Students are looking at you and evaluating you on the basis of all kinds of things – mannerisms, your grading and feedback, even your way of dressing. In fact, particularly your way of dressing. What you wear will be noted. If you choose to wear your Jimmy Choo stilettos, someone will mention that. If your dress is clingy, they will notice. If you wear jackets every day, for God’s sake, students will probably mention that too, as recently happened to a friend of mine. Why what women wear is interesting and relevant to what we teach is unclear to me and I am absolutely not telling you not to wear your Jimmy Choo’s if that is your thing. But please don’t be surprised when you receive both positive and negative feedback about your appearance. File them mentally under “irrelevant to my professional expertise.” A different way of putting this: TAKE NO NOTICE OF YOUR TEACHING EVALUATIONS. If they are not good, well, someone will be sure to bring this to your attention, and you can decide then if your teaching style and approaches need work, or if something else is going on. If they are great, read them over for your own pleasure and self-affirmation – what we do can be pretty thankless – but be aware that great teaching evaluations have a way, to put it delicately, of biting you in the ass. Keep them in proper perspective, which means diminishing their importance. Read them; put them away. Don’t put them on Facebook. Don’t tell your colleagues about them. PUT THEM AWAY.

4. TEACH LESS EARNESTLY. This is controversial and some will strenuously disagree, but if you are ambitious, you may want to focus less on being a spectacular teacher and more on maintaining an aloof professional identity as a researcher. There is often little professional reward in our guild for the hours and hours we spend devoted to teaching; frankly, a great teacher also often incurs the hostility, jealousy, and resentment of senior colleagues, many of whom will be on a tenure or other evaluation committee. Heard of “helicopter parenting”? There is also such a thing as “helicopter teaching.” Make yourself available to your students, but set clear limits. Model the academic life for them honestly and transparently, noting that your teaching responsibilities are only a part of what makes you a great professor. Take one day a week purely for research and writing. Limit your office hours. Make a policy, in writing, that you will not respond to student emails after business hours or on the weekend.

5. NO BAKING. I happen to be a very, very good baker. No ego here: it’s an open secret that before I went to college, I apprenticed to be a pastry chef. But when one of my professors in graduate school told me – eating some luscious cake that I had made for a faculty-student party at his house – in jest (hahahahaa! hilarious!!) that I was a better baker than a graduate student, I decided on the spot that my baking talents should hitherto be exclusive and secret. I think sometimes of a great scene in 30 Rock when Liz Lemon bakes cupcakes for her staff to make them like her. They do like the cupcakes, but they also end up whiny and disrespectful of her, because she’s trying too hard. You don’t gain respect for your scholarship, or your authority, by baking. So don’t be the one to bring in home baked treats for your students, or for your chair. Which brings me to…

6. NO MOTHERING. Be careful not to become “Professor-Mom.” That is, be careful not to have your students think of you as a motherly type. It is not your job to counsel them through personal hardships, substance abuse, and other troubles. Colleges and universities have massive resources allocated for this sort of counseling; your job is not that. Only today someone posted this article in the NYTimes. The problem is real.

There. That’s my best motherly (ha!), professorial advice – things I wish that someone had told me twenty years ago. Do I wish I had done things differently? Not made the sacrifices? Not stepped off the tenure track to have kids? Not hovered in the background rather than stepping up? Not made myself small? Yes, of course I do. But I’ve learned much along the way, and it’s been a difficult, infuriating, but sometimes exhilarating ride so far. Do I see the Academy changing? Maybe. I’m not sure, honestly. Yet I honestly believe that the crop of current recent PhDs can keep from making the mistakes that I did.

Nicola Denzey Lewis received her B.A. from University of Toronto and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Religions of Late Antiquity at Princeton University. She works on the intellectual and social history of Rome, and the process of Christianization in the Roman Empire and Late Antiquity. She is currently on leave from Brown University as an ACLS Fellow at Princeton University, working on a book on the early modern invention of late antique Rome.

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13 Responses to If I Only Knew Then … Tenured Scholars on Professionalization: Nicola Denzey Lewis

  1. Dr. Randi R. Warne says:

    This is very good advice. Unfortunately, it will quite possibly not help you at all, as the game is still rigged, built into the very foundations of our enterprise. Karen McCarthy Brown’s ancient article, “Heretics and Pagans: Women in the Academic World,” remains accurate. We are deeply dependent on the good opinions and support of others, on our skill at “people work”, and it is a rare woman who gets through unscathed by that not always invisible demand. No one is going to get penalized for treating you like you don’t really belong. They’re just not.

    My advice is to do what you love. Focus on the joy your research and teaching gives you. Be self-centred in that regard. And don’t leave. Don’t ever let them push you out. It can be lonely, but if you can still do what you find meaningful and important to do, that’s a lot more than many, many people have a chance at.

  2. a prof says:

    Dear Nicola and Randi – this blog post is making the rounds among women faculty beyond those in religion. I just want to say, THANK YOU for the blog post and also for the additional perspective in Randi’s comment. I cannot tell you how much both of these things resonate with my own embattled experiences as a soon to come up for tenure assistant professor in a very male dominated, antagonistic institution. Please keep writing & offering advice, and I promise we women scholars going through the TT now will pay it forward. This informal network is how women have survived and helped each other since we dared to be scholars.

  3. Twice textured, twice free says:

    I would like to respond to the comment “And don’t leave. Don’t ever let them push you out.” As someone who held tenured positions twice and twice left them twice for (very attractive,well paid) jobs in industry, I suggest that keeping a wide door open to the outside world and to other possible life paths can be very empowering. Knowing that there are options, attractive options, and ridding oneself of the “if I leave the Academy, I have failed” mentality can be very freeing and once one feels free and acts like a person with choices, people notice, and once your colleagues and the deans notice, you suddenly seem like a desired asset rather than someone to overlook. More like a man, maybe?

    • Randi R. Warne says:

      I’m not sure that the Deans and colleagues who are pushing you out will suddenly see you weren’t so bad, after all, but I completely agree that leaving the academy is not the end of the world. I was in a tenure track position in another country and I was so desperate not to live that academic life in that place that I took concrete steps to set another career path in place in my own country. Not every academic job is even good, you know? There are some good fits, and there are some truly terrible ones. As I said in my initial comment, do what you love. If you can’t do that in the academy, find a way to do that elsewhere. However , don’t leave the academy just because some folks are clear that they don’t want you there when you have every right to be.

  4. I agree whole-heartedly with everything you’ve written, and thank you for doing so. Regarding course evaluations, a recent study argued that they are not evidence of quality of teaching, they are evidence of gender bias among students. I have recently requested that my department no longer consider or even consult student course evaluations during faculty reviews for this reason. I am hopeful that this proposal will be accepted, but we shall see. Gender discrimination is a highly unpopular topic in my department, as in many others I am sure.

  5. Kate Daley-Bailey says:

    This piece is significant in multiple ways. Sadly, I have heard most of these suggestions before. Each represents advice that might assist a young female scholar to be taken more seriously by the academy and yet there is something else that this tells us. There is a latent discourse here (which is not of the author’s making but one inherent in the academic system) that says women academics need to be more like male academics. Can you imagine some telling a young male scholar that it was in his professional best interest not to bake? I wonder if we were to create a list of comparable suggestions for minority scholars… how that might resonate differently with us. Would we make suggestions that young minority scholars act and dress less like minorities (whatever that means) in order to be successful or would we be more likely to criticize the system itself? I think this post is compelling and helpful but it also concerns me that, continually, our advice to young female scholars (for good or ill) seems to be that they need to change, they need to just ‘lean in,’ and to avoid anything socially categorized as ‘women’s work’.
    I can’t help but hear the opening of My Fair Lady’s “Why Can’t a Woman be More like a Man?”.

  6. Jamie says:

    Most female academics are adjuncts. The fact that teaching has so little value in universities is reflected in their tiny paychecks. Does the above advice matter for them? Or, is this another piece for the woe-is-me female academic who is part of that tiny elite lucky enough to land tenure-track jobs? No one even notices adjuncts, let alone whether they bake or helicopter teach. That means the majority of women academics are ignored. If you feel that this advice piece applies to you, count your blessings. If you are a female PhD candidate, expect to encounter bigger problems.

    • Hi Jamie,
      Yes, there are huge endemic problems out there, for adjuncts and for those facing a dismal job market.
      I myself am an adjunct, and have been for many years. I also know many adjuncts, male and female, whose situations are truly horrific. You’re right — no one notices them. Their work is absolutely taken for granted within the institution, although they can make a huge difference to the students they reach. My advice for women to be better at self-promoting — by applying for awards, engaging social media, creating a public profile — is not directed at the “tiny elite,” who often already know these things. It’s directed at the unseen, suggesting ways to perhaps be seen just a little bit more. The advice not to kill yourself teaching — to set reasonable limits — is also not directed just at TT women. Adjuncts getting paid $1500.00 to teach a whole course (and yes, I know, some get even far less), for the sake of self-preservation, need to set limits on what they do. “Wow! This adjunct is fantastic because her teaching evaluations are incredible and let’s offer her a tenure-track position here!” said no academic administrator, ever.

      And by the way, my adjuncting positions have been at a range of Ivy League institutions, I haven’t found a single “woe-is-me” female academic in a tenure-track position, just a whole lot of gratitude and feeling awfully fortunate. They are also some of the most thoughtful and passionate advocates for less fortunate women that I know.

      • Randi Warne says:

        Well said, Nicola, and so true. It is troubling to me to feel put on the defensive (“no, I really DO care about my less fortunate sisters, how dare I talk about my own difficulties when others have so much less…”). A thoughtful examination of academic political dynamics would reveal, I think, a self-reinforcing set of mechanisms that function to keep outsiders off balance, even after they have propelled themselves over all the hurdles placed in front of them to end up in TT /tenured jobs. But perhaps that’s a topic for another series.

  7. Randi R. Warne says:

    “another piece for the woe-is-me female academic” – This dismissal would carry more weight if it had been directed at the series as a whole.

    It also seems weird to single out female faculty for a remonstrance about adjuncts. We know, having been them.We also have a pretty fair idea of what it costs to be a female Ph.D. student, in human as well as financial terms.

    So – what was the point of the slag? (thanks, though, for sort of proving my point). ; )

  8. Pingback: Systematic Sexism: Is there any hope? – Merianna Neely Harrelson

  9. Z says:

    Actually, I think one needs to teach more earnestly. If I don’t put real effort into teaching, I end up being too challenging, having expectations and assignments that are too difficult. I have found I really need to think seriously about teaching to be able to hold my own against men, who are expected to be challenging.

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