May 1, 2007

Political & Social Issues

The Road Less Respected

by Andi Miller

In 2007, it’s nice to think that women are rarely told that there’s anything they can’t do. Girls are often raised in wildly different environments from the one in which my mother came of age and consequently believed that a number of avenues were closed to her. Quite simply, she believed that graduating high school and getting married were the only available options. Years later, with a divorce and a child on her shoulders, she raised me to believe the opposite. She raised me to believe—and I do—that women can do anything in any field and excel.

I am positive that it was this confidently nurturing environment that helped me flourish in an educational setting, dabble in multiple careers and ultimately attend graduate school. Her guidance and independence allowed me the courage to be independent and courageous. It is because of my mother—who turned down a scholarship to attend college—that I found myself a woman in academia.

There are few undertakings in life that I find quite as intensely stimulating as academia. When I began my Master’s degree in Literature in the fall semester of 2005, I knew I had found a home. Not only was I a student again—after a year of teaching in a rural North Carolina high school and a year of teaching developmental reading and English courses in a rural community college—I was able to try my hand at all the professorly duties I’d so often dreamed of since completing my Bachelor’s degree in 2003. The duties of academia, both teaching and scholarship, appealed to my sense of independence. I could easily spend endless hours alone in my office working on my latest project, and I got a dose of the social while teaching freshman composition or congregating with my colleagues over drinks.

And two years later, things changed.

In addition to the multitude of knowledge gained in courses, at conferences, and teaching, I also learned what it can mean to be a woman in academia. Certainly there’s the unavoidable fact that when one walks through the hallowed halls, one also walks through one of the oldest boys clubs in existence. While some of the tiresome ideas of women as lesser scholars still hold, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I didn’t have too rough a time. However, the stereotypes that follow women in academia are plentiful. Any woman smart enough to hang with the big boys is probably unattractive and boring, after all. Right?

More troubling than the occasional mustily pretentious attitude towards women intellectuals was the issue of marriage and family within the academy. While we might spend hours discussing feminist theory, gender studies, and critical race theory, a few troublingly real stereotypes and binaries often floated to the surface. Some of my colleagues were far more versed in those stereotypes than me.

One particular professor, a well-respected, Harvard-educated Medievalist, chose to take several years off from her work in the early part of her career to raise her children. To this day—some 21 years later—she still looks back on that time as a “mistake” in the eyes of the academy. While she doesn’t regret the time—it was the best thing could’ve done personally—she sees that she lost a number of opportunities and much respect in her time away from academia.

Far more than many people may realize, a career in academia is very much about politics and reputation, and anything that takes a person away from the job is a threat to the job. That’s why, when I began to burn out just short of receiving my M.A.—about the time I realized that starting a family was very important to me—I had to rethink my plans. While I had acceptances to two nationally acclaimed Ph.D. programs in my field, the choice became clear, and the old attitudes about the “right” decision for a woman began to ring true. While I am lucky to have an exceedingly supportive group of friends and colleagues, a few looked at me as if I were crazy to want a life outside of the academy. The old stigma came roaring to life.

I suppose one reason for the generally negative attitude toward a life outside academia is the fanatical nature of anyone chasing a terminal degree. You have to be extremely determined to get one, extremely determined to stay in the field with a tenure track position, and with this extreme determination often comes a fierce love of “the work.” While I can’t say that I lack any of the determination or love of the work associated with the Ph.D. chase, I have an equal love for life outside of the academy—time to read what I choose, time to write, and time to foster deep and lasting relationships. And, while I certainly still believe that women can have it all, this woman chose the road less respected.

Andi Miller is a recent graduate of a Master's program in Texas. She is founder and co-editor of the e-zine, Estella's Revenge, and a book reviewer for PopMatters.com. She hopes to begin work on her first novel in the near future while she spends her days teaching English and freelancing. You can also find her work in an upcoming special issue of The Journal of the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. In her spare time she is an unapologetic book nerd, avid blogger, novice foodie, and loves napping.

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