Choosing not to give: Academic culture

In the last couple of days I’ve read two articles that both made me a bit sad. This one, “Look What They Make You Give”, is Elizabeth Rodwell’s reflections on turning down a tenure track job and what sacrifices she’s made to establish an academic career. This one is an anonymous author’s frustrations with her professor-husband and the way her own career has been put on hold.

Alone in a country where I (initially) knew almost nobody, I didn’t feel the romantic sense of adventure I had expected. I just felt isolated. All the more so when I returned to Texas and found myself craving a greater balance between work and life. With my marriage a casualty of both my fieldwork and my relentless focus on my career above all else, I was also back on the dating market at age 35.

  • Elizabeth Rodwell

I want him to be respected for it, just not at my expense. I’ve got a degree, but I’ve been a bit busy to write any books myself. I’m the one always on her own with the kids at parties, or on family days out, museum trips and cinema visits, because he was always “working”. Don’t get me started on people who think academics have “lovely long holidays”.

  • Anon

Both of these women are casualties of academic culture – as well as sexism, of course. Rodwell sacrificed health and personal happiness to try to advance her career; by the time she was offered the fabled tenure-track job, she’d remarried and had children, and wasn’t willing to relocate thousands of miles away – a sensible decision for her family, but one that meant she was chastised by a mentor for not being willing to “commute from one coast to another — visiting my husband, babies, and stepsons only on the weekends”. Anon, meanwhile, has taken on the lion’s share of childcare and domestic servitude in order for her husband to work round the clock. He, apparently, doesn’t even know how to unload groceries into the fridge. Or rather, I suspect he would learn perfectly well how to do it if he were on his own, but since he has a wife to do it, he can fall back on the persona of the charmingly impractical professor, learned in arcane knowledge and elbow patches, and helpless as a baby when it comes to ironing and paying bills.

I don’t have anything radical to say about either of these articles, and certainly nothing I haven’t already said before on this blog. But what I will say is that I stopped thinking “yes, whatever it takes” about achieving a successful career quite some time ago. Mostly since I had my daughter, but even before then. I do not, and almost never have, worked 14 hour days, and I certainly can’t now, when my husband takes Grace to nursery at 8am and I leave the house at 4.30 to pick her up. I almost never do any work at the weekend, not even checking email. Perhaps in some ways I’ve got more efficient in using my time since I had a baby and I know I have less of it to myself – but also I just sometimes have to let things slide. I have not published as much as I could have done, or perhaps should have done. I’ve not been to all the conferences I could have been to. There are opportunities I’ve missed.

But I don’t regret them. In the late afternoon and evening, I belong to first my child and then my husband – and to other friends and family, when we have time to catch up. I belong to myself, too, the parts of myself that aren’t about work but are about reading novels, taking baths, cooking nourishing meals, watching interesting TV, painting my nails in colours that even in the depths of January make me smile, remembering warmth.

I used to want to be brilliant. Of course I still do want that too; I’m still an ambitious person. But the sum of my life is not my job. I have a year and a half left of my Leverhulme post, which will mean in the end I have been at the University of Oxford for six years. Six years in which I have become, I think, a better teacher and writer – but I hope also a better ally and friend. None of this will have been a waste, whatever happens. I have already started to think about what comes next. I know that I will not be willing to relocate our family for a job unless it’s not only a brilliant job, but it’s also in a place that offers my family opportunities, and that means my husband isn’t wrecking his own career. So I will mostly be looking for commutable opportunities, which limits my potential jobs quite a bit. And I am no longer willing to take very short term contracts that offer us no security. It may be that I have to leave academia, which would be a source of great grief for me. But I do have ideas of other things I might do, and have already started building connections to establish them, just in case. I will always be Dr Rachel E. Moss; I will always have taught hundreds of bright and interesting young people, and I will always have talked about my research with some of the cleverest, kindest people around.

I drew a line in the sand for myself a long time ago. Will I regret the distance of that line from the shore in years to come, that I drew it too far up the beach, will I think I should have risked more? Perhaps. But I will know I drew that line so I was not at risk of drowning: not just for my sake, but for those I love.

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About menysnoweballes

Feminist medievalist, teacher of history, consumer of pop culture. Lecturer at the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. Blogging in a personal capacity.
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18 Responses to Choosing not to give: Academic culture

  1. I understand what you are saying about the need to balance things and say no when you need to and I agree that decisions need to be made but how many men do you know who would say as you have said ‘I belong to first my child and then my husband – and to other friends and family’?. As long as women continue to think this they will be cast in the role of the primary carers whilst male academics quietly progress outside the home. The discrepancy between the number of female professors compared to the number of male ones says it all. Also how many women are remembered for their ability to never miss a school run compared to those who manage against all the odds to publish enough to be made professors? Just saying. I respect your need to make your own choices however but this is a pattern that goes back for decades since the time when women were first admitted to universities.

    • Hi Lucy, thanks for commenting. There are lots of things to unpack here, so this reply may get a little long.

      I think it’s a little sad that many men might not say their first priority is their family. Luckily my husband is not one of those men, and indeed I wouldn’t have married him if I didn’t think he would put me and any future children above his career. Part of the reason we’ve been successfully together for nearly a decade now is that we’ve always supported each other’s career choices, but we have also thought about them as a unit. How do my choices impact on our family life, and how do his? So for instance when he was unhappy in his job a few years ago but there were no opportunities in our area, he applied for jobs in a city from which it would be possible for me to commute to work too. So in that regard, my decision to not be prepared to uproot us to move 500 miles away unless we both benefit from it is just part of that general ethos. However, I understand why you might assume that only I’m making those decisions, since unfortunately for many women, especially once they’ve had kids, their partners assume that the man’s career will come first. Or because many women are victims of the pay gap, it may simply be prudent for their families to prioritise the man’s career.

      I don’t think the answer to all this, though, is to lean in. Indeed, I’ve discussed on these pages that such an approach merely replicates structural inequalities. In fact I’ll quote from one of those posts wholesale:

      “While the narrative of the glass ceiling suggests we smash boundaries, what really happens with circumventing the glass ceiling is usually that we “lean into” conventional practices, co-opting them so that we succeed. If we really want to break through the glass ceiling, we need to fundamentally change the values of history departments in the UK from relentless focus on publications to an appreciation of the multiplicity of “soft skills” modern academics can bring to the table, which we’re all supposed to acquire and yet somehow don’t make much of an impression at interview or in promotion panels. We need to celebrate the different gifts historians have – as talented teachers, marvellous managers, co-operative collaborators – rather than saying all those matter but only really looking for 4* publications. We need to actively strive to increase the diversity of our departments, not just hope it happens by seeming friendly and making sure a token woman or person of colour gets added to a shortlist. We need a kinder academy, but one that does not lack courage. And this is not a journey minorities can take by ourselves; when I talk about a kinder, braver academy, I mean all of us, together.”

      As for if I’ll be remembered for making the school run – well, it won’t be something people write about in career retrospectives after my death. And you know, there is a part of me that does want to be remembered, to have a big impact on the field. I hope I’ve already done that in some modest way, for instance by publishing the first full-length study on medieval fatherhood. But what your (forgive me) rather glib comment elides is that “the school run” is shorthand for being present in my daughter’s life. I may well only have one child, and during the week I see her for an hour in the morning and an hour and a half in the evening. Perhaps I might somehow write an extra 4* publication if I gave up one of those hours each day. For me, the cost isn’t worth it. And ultimately, I should be able to do my job successfully in 40 hours a week. If that isn’t possible, and I need to eventually change track, that’s not my fault, but the fault of a system that’s stacked against anyone who isn’t a middle class white man who’s either single or has a stay-at-home spouse. It is that I would like to change, rather than critiquing individual women for making hard choices about their work/life balance.

      Best wishes,
      Rachel

    • iad says:

      “how many men do you know who would say as you have said ‘I belong to first my child and then my husband – and to other friends and family’?”

      I’m married to one. He was commuting for three years to stay in academe, and he quit this past summer. The price was too high, especially the price of not seeing his son half the week. He does most of the daycare runs now. He’s very happy about it.

      • Epiphyta says:

        Coming rather late to the party, but I married one as well: 16 years ago he’d been routinely travelling three weeks out of the month when he looked at the others doing that work and realised they had, to a man, wrecked their relationships and their health for it — and still had no guarantee of job security. We discussed it as a family, and he chose a new position that would allow him to work from home, with occasional trips to the office or a remote location. It made a tremendous difference in our son’s life, to come home from school and hear “Mum’s on deadline; come tell me about your day whilst we prep for supper, and I’ll help you with your homework once I’ve finished this last meeting.”

    • iad says:

      And I should add that a lot of men I know are making that kind of choice these days. They didn’t like the way their own fathers did fatherhood. They’re figuring out ways that work for them. Nobody is more passionate about women working for money than I am, or about women being ambitious, and indeed, I have always worked for money and been extremely ambitious. But both men and women are changing the ways they make decisions about career and family.

  2. There are many great messages here, but the one that stood out for me was how to single out the things of life that bring us joy. I think being able to do this is actually a talent. You have this talent. Don’t ever lose it. Keep practicing!

    • Thank you, Carole! My research and teaching do bring me joy, but so do many other things. There can be an expectation in academia – or any other demanding industry – that it is your career that’s the most fulfilling part of your life. But I am fulfilled by many things, which I hope also makes me a better teacher and writer. It also means that if this is a career I one day have to say goodbye to – I really hope not! – that it means I’ll remember my life is still full of joy.

  3. I think being able to say no when you need to is a very important skill to acquire. But I do wonder, particularly now with permanent full time academic jobs becoming less common, how many people – both men and women – feel that they are in a position to be able to make that choice.

    • Oh, I agree – saying no is very difficult. I’ve written quite a lot here and elsewhere on the precarious nature of early career academia. My point here – though I’m sorry if it’s not clear – is not about saying no. It’s about deciding how much I am willing to give – or give up – in order to achieve a successful academic career. In an industry where not that many of us will end up with permanent jobs, I think this is a very important decision to make. After all, I could bust a gut for the next decade and still not have a permanent job at the end of it, and by that point my personal life might be a wasteland. I work hard and creatively, I hope; but I am also keeping my options open, as I would recommend any other early career scholar do too. None of us can afford to only be employable in one field, sadly!

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  5. C says:

    I absolutely hear you. It’s a difficult game. But as with all. How does this square with childless/single men/women who are able to devote more time to a career? I really do not know how to square this circle but it is a thing…

    • It is tricky! But really, this post is not about parenthood (though I can see why several readers have interpreted it that way). I think it’s mainly about deciding how much of a life outside your job you need and want. I don’t think the only people in academia who need free evenings are parents – I think all of us need and deserve them! It just becomes more pressingly obvious, perhaps, when we have familial obligations that must be met.

  6. This is such a powerful post, thank you. As a student at the start of her academic career, I feel a lot of pressure to be ambitious and competitive, to get a good job at a well-regarded institution, but that’s not all I want for myself; I want to have a family and friends, to travel, to read and be creative. It feels good to know that some academics are willing to step back from the constant drive to succeed and find a happier place. -Cait

    • Good luck, Cait! Academia is a wonderful place, and for many people it offers more opportunities to be creative and fulfilled than the usual run of jobs. But the job market is tough and it can be so hard to find a foothold; I’m glad people have found this post reassuring in some way, to simply say that there is more to life than work!

  7. You took the thoughts right out of my head. It’s refreshing and reassuring to hear these opinions expressed, so thank you. I have come to a similar conclusion over the past two years, which have included non-academic (but loosely related work) since not finding another paid teaching/research job after a fixed term contract ended. This has meant working in spare hours/mornings/evenings/weekends to write my book and conference papers, to the inevitable detriment of health, relationship, a social life. Now, expecting my first child and with various postdoc and lectureship applications submitted, I am wondering how much more I can continue, and, as you highlight, how much I really want to. I love (much of) my academic life but not at the exclusion of a *well-rounded* life.

    • Good luck with your pregnancy and the months to come!

    • iad says:

      Having a kid taught me the hard way how important it was to take time off work. It’s not just wanting to spend time with the child, it’s also how devastating stress, work, and a child are for one’s immune system. (Daycare is wonderful in so many ways, but it’s also a world of disease.) I now do my best to take weekends off if I can, or at least one full day on the weekend. I do not, by the way, get less done than my peers who do not have kids and work seven days a week.

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