Monday, May 16, 2005


"I Could Never Do That," or, The Good Girl Theory of Academia

About once a week, some faculty member asks me how/why I went into administration, usually in tones of incomprehension, and ends with “I could never do that.”

Some couldn’t, and to the extent that that’s true, kudos for self-awareness. Still, I wonder at the speed with which so many say it. If it came at the end of a conversation about the things I do all day, I’d take it as a reasoned conclusion, but it usually comes at the end of the question. The conclusion precedes the conversation (if there is one).

It’s almost like the Seinfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” It’s a way of putting distance between the speaker and the subject of the conversation.


Granted, a great many administrators are sorely lacking, but that, to me, is an argument for getting in, rather than staying out. If good people don’t step in, bad ones will.

Some don’t want to give up summers. That, I understand. Especially this week…

Some are conflict-averse. Those folk are well-advised to avoid management generally. The ability to maintain composure while receiving torrents of ill-founded abuse from tenured faculty is a job requirement.

Still, the job has much to recommend it. It’s more family-friendly than faculty life, to the extent that most of my job stays at work when I go home at night. (Not true in December or late April/early May, but true the rest of the year.) That was never true when I was on faculty. Job opportunities, weirdly enough, are easier to come by. The pay is (usually) better, to compensate for the loss of summers. You get a broader view of both your college and higher ed generally, which, for the curious, is great fun. You even get to observe other instructors’ classes, which, for those who have taught, can be a hoot.

I suspect that the knee-jerk rejection of the prospect of managing, in academia, is another outgrowth of the weird academic service ethic. It’s a kind of modesty, worn as a badge of honor. (The contradiction in proudly displaying one’s modesty is rarely addressed.) Leave such vulgar pursuits to lesser folk – I’m too busy nobly and selflessly pursuing truth (and tenure, and status, and travel money…).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the more interesting and insightful academic bloggers are female. The tension between self-effacement and self-promotion that pervades academic culture is structurally similar to the tension in the definition of the ‘good girl’ – be sexy but not sexual, get attention without looking like you’re trying to get attention, etc. Women academics have seen the contradictions twice, so they seem (generally) better able to articulate them. “I could never do that” is a classic good-girl sentiment. Seek approbation through self-effacement – yeah, that should work…

As the classic tenure-track faculty line evaporates into budgetary purgatory, I think many academics would be well-advised to retire their modesty. The existing rules have set up an entire generation to fail. It’s time to write some new rules.

I’ve been corresponding with some folk who have crafted some wonderfully interesting career paths through (and outside) the interstices of the academy. The first thing all of them did was to junk the good-girl notion that the only acceptable job is a pure teaching job at an ‘appropriate’ school. When the dinosaurs died, the small mammals that scurried under rocks survived. There’s a lesson there…

Have you carved a unique path? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Let me know which parts of your story are share-able; if we can break someone’s tunnel vision, we will have achieved something. There is more to life than endless adjuncting. Even good girls (and boys) gotta eat.

Don't know that I've carved a unique path (how's that for self-effacement?!?) but... I am intrigued by the seemingly repetitive hegemony of the academy, quite an irony for what is supposedly a space for thinking new thinks.

Here's a question I have: will the will to "be" differently lead to different ways of being(s) in the Academy? Of course, a question leads to other questions... In some on-going vulnerability to the evil dichotomies of modern thinking, I wonder instead if we might be caught reproducing some will to power that has us lose sight/site of the thinks we thought to think... Are these even questions I ought to ask, lest I too be "departed from the house of the scholars , and ... have also slammed the door behind me" (Neitzsche/Zarathustra)?

Yes, I am playing. It's part of the thinks to think.

Thanks for the thinking. L:)
As a good girl in academia, I've said "I could never do that" more times than I'd care to remember. (Never to a Dean's face, though. It is still a choice.)

You didn't mention, however, the most important reason why I would "never do that!" in your discussion.

Paperwork, bureaucracy, and deadlines. I am awful at all of them. I procrastinate and they become worse than they are. I think this is the case for many academics. I can barely get my faculty activities report in every year (okay, I've been late 5 of 7 years)
Oh, and meetings. I totally forgot about the meetings.
Oh, and one more thing (you can tell that this topic has hit home for me).

I DO think that there is this understanding in academia that women make good deans or associate deans because they are good at being good girls. I was asked in my 2nd year by a number of deanish types if I would be interested in administration. Why? Because I am a good girl who is used to getting the job done because it is expected of me.

Lace -- I've been thinking about the whole Nietzschean/pomo thing, too. (Full disclosure: I went through a pomo phase in the early 90's.) At some level, I can't help but wonder how much of my obsession with the annoying service ethic of academia stems from a visceral Nietzschean aversion to 'slave morality.' Still, one of the reasons I lost interest in the pomo thang was the constant paralysis it implied; the whole "anything we do ironically re-inscribes something else nasty" move just becomes fatalistic. And, frankly, re-inscribing isn't always bad -- if I didn't want to preserve what's good about higher ed, I wouldn't have gone into it in the first place. Still, it was fun to revisit those terms.

Kelly -- nice move! You've taken the 'good girl' analysis to the next level: good girls make good deans. There's a lot of truth to that, actually; deaning (and administration generally) requires the ability to multitask while remaining chipper. In the aggregate, I think it would be fair to say that more women than men can handle that combination (with a great many exceptions, obviously). Still, my use of 'good girl' was intended as critical/ironic, and that would be true in administration, too. It's easy, in this office, to take 'conflict avoidance' as the prime directive. The problem is that sometimes progress (whoops! there go my pomo bona fides!) requires conflict.

Part of the runaway success of "Bitch, Ph.D.," I think, comes from a recognition at some level that building an institution on the good-girl ethic causes serious problems. I'd much rather have thoughtful and engaged colleagues with strong moral/political convictions than a bunch of Good Girls and/or Organization Men. If that entails dealing with a certain amount of drama, so be it.

I've been receiving some more really nifty alternate-career-path stories at the yahoo email address; I'll summarize the more interesting ones in a forthcoming post.
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