IN HER OWN WORDS: Riding the Bull: A New Scholar in the Academy

“I live an academic life where women learn to ignore being ignored, even as they must have the confidence to research, to fill the blank page

My mother used to tell the story of an uncle who had a job pushing a broom in a Glasgow dancehall. At halftime the dancers cleared the floor and the entertainment came out: four men in uniform pushing brooms to the tune of the Colonel Bogey March. Once the whole family once went out to watch him at work, as if he were a celebrity.

My uncle highly recommended education, to both women and men, as an antidote to a life of pushing brooms. When I was little, I often heard him say, “Ach. They educated folk think different.” My granda would say: “Think different-ly. Speak proper!”

My uncle would respond: “They’re on a whole other echelon, nevertheless.”

A new academic life

In my new life as a university professor, where I am living the dream of an educated person, I realize that “being educated” changes as you become acculturated into the educational system.

In graduate school I took part in conversations about whether or not the campus existed. Still, in the back of my mind, I was wondering about the drywall, the plumbing, the foundations, the concrete. Had other people built those walls so that we could sit inside them and say: There are no walls? In my heart, I knew that building was real.

I remembered the words: “Ach. They folk think different.” As a poet in graduate school, I wandered as an academic outsider, from the inside.

During my graduate program, someone asked me: What do you hope to get out of this? I answered: A job. A gasp filled the room. The person said: “But you can’t think of it like that! It’s selling out.”

I had actually meant the comment in an ideological sense: with an academic job I would be able to pass on the benefits of my education, and privilege, to others. To me, academia as “work” gave the ivory tower a purpose beyond its pearly gates. I noted that the walls within which we discussed the issue were created, literally, by work.

I have discovered that at times in the higher echelons of education there are those who will always make others feel like the broom pushers, the hammer hitters, the drywallers. When I started my job as a professor one of the worries I had was that I would lose the ability to do things. Like mow lawns, plant hedges, clean gutters…or write poems. And while I gratefully accepted the job, it was also with a sense of regret, as if I was going away for a very long time. The day before leaving for my new job, I wrote:

Like It Is

I miss my grandmother’s hands,
peeling potatoes and winding clocks,
the time she held out an ice cream
cone for Ivan, the cocker spaniel,
wagging his tail in the living room,
all eyes on Ed Sullivan.

I miss the eyes of Ivan on ice cream.
I miss her hands, her dress,
the Beachcombers in the background,
my Dad saying, “Nick. That guy. Ha Ha Ha.”

I miss the brown eyes of Bruno Gerussi
towing dead logs in the forests of BC.
I miss people carrying things (driftwood, turkey platters,
gravy boats, frisbees, colouring books)
across the living room.

I miss my father’s whistle
when he carried tools though the door.

I miss touching the covers
of the five books on our shelf:
Black Beauty, The Wayfarer, The Wandering Heart,
Speaking in Public, The Secret of Shadow Ranch.

I did not read them.
Instead I gazed at them long enough
until I lived between their covers.

Now, my hands lie on keyboards,
they read and write and lie
inside pockets in meetings
I never thought I’d be in.

I read the poem at a conference in Victoria, Canada, where a colleague and I presented on the topic of “New Scholars.” While I read the poem, several scholars, all women, nodded vigorously. Afterward, someone in the audience approached me and said: “That’s exactly how I feel as a new professor.”’

It was interesting how, after all the years of study, it was the simple kitchen and living room memories that evoked such a strong response in these newly academic women. We were there to tell our stories and read our poems. There are too few outlets for such work.

I have since attended too many conferences where women present at under-attended sessions, telling powerful stories about transforming their communities, only to have the “serious,” angry academics walk out.

At this conference, we enjoyed ourselves, as did the audience. Was it scholarly work? As bell hooks suggests (1994), pleasure in academia is usually feared.

I believe the humanness of our stories and poems gave a sense of purpose to the weary audience. Judging from the teary eyes around the room, it seemed like our early memories were still very much a part of us—even though such memories were not a part of academic life.

At first I found it odd that few people in academia discussed their former selves. But that audience, mostly women new to academia, were still sensitive to that loss. The conference presentation made me wonder whether the academy erases memories, histories, perhaps entire personalities.

I wondered whether the academy changes how we tell our stories and whether, if ignored long enough, those stories are even recoverable. One colleague said she could no longer recognize her own voice on a tape recorder; her transcriber tells her which voice is her own. To a new academic, that sounded truly alarming.

What was a practical way to survive academia that would also allow some sanity and recognition of self? I realized I would have to tap into my ancestors’ determination. I would do what I always did to survive: write.

New scholar blues

During my first year as an academic, I kept a journal of my experiences. I described my first day at work: the promised view of the library from my office…was actually a view looking inside the library.

When I opened the drawer of my circa 1970s desk, it fell off the track. The phone didn’t work. I was given a new computer; five minutes later there was a knock on the door and it was taken away. The replacement was covered in old yogurt, many keys did not function; the left arrow key took me right, the right arrow, left.

While I sat tapping the arrow keys, always somehow ending up in the same place, a colleague walked into my office and said: “I see you got a window.” A passerby noted: “Yes, but she has an old desk.” I somehow wished I’d been given an even older desk, a more windowless room, a more airless existence.

As my colleague and I described various incidents during the presentation on “New Scholars,” people nodded vigorously, laughing with recognition. Whether I would be the one whose windows were measured, or whether I would one day be the one measuring others’ windows, I knew that I had stepped over the threshold into a brand new world.

In the telling of our stories, I know we are not alone. And I realized that as a writer, as a new academic trying to find her way through this new, privileged world, my own narrative would become how I would live it. I realized the choice was mine. It had to be.

Words as descriptors

During the presentation on new scholars, I asked the group: “What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of your first year as professors?” Their answers included: complicated, fearful, hostile, competitive. One word was repeated several times: loneliness. Nods all around. Guilt? Yes.

In the transition from grad student to professional, confidence levels still lagged. Many women had felt more confident as graduate students than they did as professors.

How does the academy change people? Partly through language. Communication in academia is detached— at times amazingly indirect. As a new academic, I noted a style of public discourse that was quite formal, passive and often pompous. As one seasoned academic mentioned, “We want academia to be about ideas but unfortunately it’s too often about personal politics.” I heard the word “unfortunately” a lot. I wondered: Who defines what we do?

If story telling was the way to survive, how could we tell honest stories without making political and tactical mistakes? The fear of making those mistakes—and of speaking clearly—was, I realized, how new scholars have trouble getting their own stories heard.

Words to help women

In researching survival guides for women new to academia, I found a text from the 1970s that uses frank language to discuss life for academic women. In The Young Woman’s Guide to an Academic Career (1974), Marjorie Farnsworth’s writing itself is a no-nonsense aid meant to encourage women new to academia. “The public relations officer’s duty… is to portray the university in glowing terms, whereas mine is to portray it as it really is,” she wrote on page 111. Reading Farnsworth’s pioneering text, I realized that in her own way, she too told it how it is: fearlessly, directly, bravely.

Some modern guidebooks for academic women tend to focus on the business of academia, offering practical advice for scaling corporate hierarchies. In most cases colourful, flamboyant clothing is discouraged. I recalled my colleague and I wearing red feathers and satiny blouses with opera sleeves to our first academic meetings. We dressed proud and laughed loud.

Perhaps it would have been wise to dress and act quietly; but perhaps there was also wisdom in not acting wisely. I realized what I needed to hear most was other stories of women who had not acted wisely… and survived. Amid the research on women scholars, the most important element for our sanity and survival in delivering our presentation was sharing our stories.

Lessons learned

I sometimes hear in academic circles that “It’s all negotiable.” But even then one must know how to negotiate, and even then there are aspects that remain non-negotiable—because they are unspoken. New academics negotiate hidden terrain until, after a while, academia itself, the academic herself, becomes invisible.

From graduate school we are encouraged to find a place in the larger story that has already been written. In finding a spot for ourselves, we spend important time away from the tangible work of improving the communities we come from, telling their stories, which in turn aids our survival.

For new scholars, our stories keep us true. Each story is a life. After riding the high range of graduate school and early academic life, I’m still wondering about the stories and lives that might disappear in the context of “becoming a professor.”

My ancestors thought I would make a difference to the world through higher education. And yet, sometimes the academic life makes you just want to fix a fence, or hammer a horseshoe, something practical that makes a tangible difference.

The new researcher’s dilemma, that the difference we make is often symbolic or unseen, even as we must argue forcefully in favour of our work, takes getting used to. I live an academic life where women learn to ignore being ignored, even as they must have the confidence to research, to fill the blank page.

As I have conversations with academic women, both experienced and new, who think they are “going crazy” in academic life, some sage and practical wisdom remains: The distinct idea of being a “woman in academia” must be named in ways that still sound like ourselves.

Reach Dr. Veronica Gaylie at:
veronica.gaylie@ubc.ca

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