“Cowgirl Up”: Feminist Lessons on Academia from a Rancher

‘If you’re
ridin’ ahead of the
herd, take a look back
every now and then to
make sure it’s still there
with ya.’

Dr. Mary CulverDr. Mary Culver

By Dr. Mary K. Culver, associate professor of educational leadership at Northern Arizona University


That’s what I found while on a quick getaway last spring to a small Arizona ranching community. I had a chance conversation with a Rancher, 80 years old if he was a day, whose family had ranched those lands for generations. Courage, humility and wisdom rippled through every word. Later that evening I began to see the lessons the Rancher held for today’s college circles.

With tenure becoming as scarce as water in the desert, the odds of a woman thriving in modern academia are now comparable to scratching out a living in the Arizona wilderness.

Take the bull by the horns

Educators are burning with a drive to save the world. As long as we perceive the rewards of our effort to be at least equal our effort, we have job satisfaction. When our effort exceeds our reward, discontent sparks burnout of the soul, extinguishing our passion for changing the world?

My passion was at a subdued level when I headed out for my desert retreat. There I could almost hear the Rancher drawl, “Don’t worry about bitin’ off more’n you can chew; your mouth is probably a whole lot bigger’n you think.” We can always fit in more than we think we can.

In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), Stephen Covey suggested calendaring our time by first blocking in our priorities. His now familiar allegory of placing our “big rocks” in our time management system first—before filling the rest of our time with smaller, less important rocks, pebbles and even the minutia of sands—allows us to use our calendar as a defender of our dreams.

The trick is first to identify our priorities.

We must have both long-term and short-term plans. Short-term plans vary in length, but they should be achievable often enough to motivate us with a sense of accomplishment.

How often we need that boost is individual; it’s important to have achievable goals on a regular basis, to keep us energized. We also work for something highly meaningful to us in the long term: what we want out of life.

Saddle your own horse

Let’s look at things in a manageable time frame. We can break the scope of our career down to stages of promotion. Those can become three-year plans: long enough to accomplish something meaningful, yet short enough so that we must start right away.

Dividing those into yearly benchmarks, we schedule monthly tasks annually. Those convert monthly into weekly tasks. Setting a plan for each day allows us to take enough bites out of our goals to get our mouths around it.

We have classes to prepare and teach, assignments to grade, students to advise, prospectuses to review, hearings to hold and research to be done and reported.

With our days filled, meetings appear: department, college and committees. Yet we seek these out, both to be useful and because they’re valuable for promotion.

“If you climb in the saddle, be ready for the ride.” I doubt the Rancher ever imagined that being applied to university life, but we are academic bronco-busters. We climb in the chute, grab the rope and count to eight seconds, like rodeo riders on a bronco.

Sometimes we are thrown but we get up, wipe off the dirt and “cowgirl up!” Sometimes we bite off too much. The silver lining behind the mountainous schedule we’ve created is that, as the Rancher told me, “Good judgment comes from experience… and a lotta that comes from bad judgment.”

The Arizona desert doesn’t give up a livelihood easily; challenges of drought, rustlers, floods, fires and rattlesnakes are not dissimilar to the stressful challenges in academia. The Rancher survived and thrived; like him, we must suck up self-defeating thoughts and tough it out. Overcoming each hurdle helps to prevent us from encountering future snares.

We schedule, but things always come up to be handled. Soon our daily planner has a bad case of indigestion and we feel frazzled. Again, I hear the Rancher’s wisdom: “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin’.”

Sounds sensible, but how do you refuse your dean or department chair, colleague or student, when they ask for “just one more thing?” Assertiveness is about fairness, to both you and others. Know your limits, and stand up for your right to protect them.

Our prioritized calendar is vital to achieve our goals. We must say no when it’s necessary. Propose a way to meet the desires of both parties, and plan to repeat as necessary when facing an “ornery critter.”

When dealing with time-rustlers, remember you are responsible for only your own behavior. Remain respectful, keep your voice low and slow, and don’t accept responsibility for the other person’s reaction. “Speak your mind, but ride a fast horse” is how the  Rancher put it.

Knowing the ropes

Finding the right combination of “what to teach” and “how to teach” is a huge challenge when you have “academic freedom.” As the Rancher reminded me, “Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.”

When applied to college teaching, an element outside of our control determines the outcome: the learner. Students have the option to drop or transfer when they aren’t sold on the instructor. They must believe that you know what you’re doing and trust that you will help them to reach their goals. Your instructional reputation covers campus faster than a prairie fire.

Having a clear direction of where we want to take the class is paramount. This is the essence of knowing “what to teach.” When students believe the required amount of work is equal to their final learning, they stay in the class. So we let our students know exactly where they are, where the course is going and how it applies to their real lives.

We choose assignments needed to help students achieve the outcome goals for the course. These must be realistic, able to be completed in a reasonable amount of time, and result in moving the students closer to a comprehensive understanding of course content.

They aren’t designed to produce busy work for the class, but rather to provide timely formative feedback to the students, as they build on their understanding of new knowledge.

As in ranching, when teaching, “If you’re ridin’ ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there with ya.” Continual reflection on our classroom effectiveness and revering any and all data regarding our instruction, we can improve course design and its delivery, until it’s a true joy for us to teach and for students to learn. This is the heart of knowing “how to teach.”

Anonymous student comments given after the final grade are golden, even when they’re critical. They can generate information needed to become an even better instructor. Discovering how to teach angry or struggling students results in learning “how to teach” best for all students.

There’s a snake in my boot!

Does any word conjure up uglier images than politics? A basic definition of politics is the method by which limited resources are distributed among unlimited desires.

Distribution could be based on equity, equality, favoritism, coercion, indebtedness or first come/first served, among many methods. Attempting to manipulate that method is called politicking.

We may want to avoid politics, but that is unwise. We suggest instead that we treat politics the Cowgirl Way: with courage, integrity, and fairness.

We’ve been told that the reason university politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so low. Is it true that all the lobbying, backbiting, domain protecting and pandering done in education is small stakes?

It certainly doesn’t feel that way. But then, it’s not the snake bite that kills you; it’s driving the poison to your heart by chasing it down to kill it that does you in.

There are multiple viewpoints on politics. (If you thrive in hostile environments, skip this section.)

For the rest who find the “scarcity” model detrimental to our wellbeing, we offer Cowgirl Politics. Even if the thought of riding a huge horse terrifies you, we all have the spirit of the old west cowgirl deep inside. She’s our moral compass, our grit, strength and determination. Without her prodding, you may not be in the position you’re in today.

In listening to the Rancher, I heard quite clearly that, “It doesn’t take a very big person to carry a grudge.” Whether we’re on the giving or receiving end of nasty politics, there’s a big chance someone is holding a grudge. We can interpret the Rancher two ways: It’s easy to hold a grudge, or that a figuratively BIG person will let go of a grudge.

The first interpretation goes hand-in-hand with more advice from the Rancher: “When you give a lesson in meanness to a critter, don’t be surprised if they learn their lesson.” If we are nasty to others, it’s best to expect retaliation.

Or we can conduct ourselves such that when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we’re happy with what we see.

In living by the old-fashion honor code, some may consider us hokey and hopelessly out of date, but our inner satisfaction in knowing that we maintained our integrity and walked the line is priceless.

The other way to understand the Rancher’s statement is that a figuratively BIG person won’t carry a grudge. From talk shows to popular magazines, we know that carrying a grudge unavoidably eats away at us, mentally and physically. Impossible acts of forgiveness can be torn from the headlines, and we ask, “How could they possibly forgive that person?”

The answer is often because it was the only way the victim could go on with life. Forgiving the perpetrator was for the victim’s benefit! Literature is full of evidence supporting the renewed vigor and zest for life that people find when they no longer burden themselves with holding a grudge.

Yet, forgiveness is not always easy. It takes a true desire to forgive our trespasser, but it also takes time. It’s not the same as forgetting. It means we’ve reached a point where we no longer obsess over the wrong or feel the churning of our gut when we recall the situation. It takes strength. It takes a big person. It takes a concerted effort to “cowgirl up.”

You may be saying, “Wait a minute. I try to avoid politics, but sometimes, a great big steaming pile is just dumped on my lap!” At that point, remember what the Rancher said, “Silence is sometimes the best answer.”

Countless situations can become political. An innocent lunch with a colleague turns into a blatant play to sway your vote on a pressing department issue. Entering a meeting with certain people signals to others that you are now allies. Remember, “Just ‘cause trouble comes visiting doesn’t mean you gotta offer it a place to set down.”

Code of the West

James P. Owens’ Code of the West, in his Cowboy Ethics (2004), is like oaths in the fan clubs of old for the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

For you newer model of cowgirls, here’s Owens’ code, your introduction to the old-fashioned way of life, where your word is your bond and all your actions are anchored in honor. It’s basically doing the right thing:

  1. Live each day with courage.
  2. Take pride in your work.
  3. Always finish what you start.
  4. Do what has to be done.
  5. Be tough, but fair.
  6. When you make a promise, keep it.
  7. Ride for the brand.
  8. Talk less and say more.
  9. Remember that some things aren’t for sale.
  10. Know where to draw the line.

A parting shot

A career in higher education shouldn’t be something to be survived; it should be something through which we thrive! Channel your inner cowgirl, and expect to work hard and be honest, fair and brave, so you’ll get out of your life what you put into it.

In every way possible, the Rancher warned, “Always drink upstream from the herd.”

Dr. Culver presented a session on this subject at the Women in Educational Leadership conference at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in October 2012.

Reach her at:

Culver, Mary. (2012, November). IN HER OWN WORDS: “Cowgirl Up”: Feminist Lessons on Academia from a Rancher. Women in Higher Education, 21(11), p.  26-27.

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