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.