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.