“Just” Teaching

MITT ROMNEY: I love teachers.  

BOB SCHIEFFER: I think we all love teachers.

I just accepted a job teaching writing at a small private high school with a liberal slant and a hippie-fied aesthetic. I have applied to many teaching jobs, but I fought hard for this one, because it sounded better than any job I’ve applied to so far—perfect for me, in fact. I have been walking on air since I got the offer.

And then this morning I woke up with a sudden panic in my chest.

The woman who founded and runs the school has a PhD in rhetoric and composition and helped shape the writing center at a major university. She left academia 40 years ago, disgusted by male peers who, she hinted, ran the department like a cross between a Chuck E. Cheese and a gentleman’s club. She believes in her school, she believes in her kids, and she believes in her lifestyle, which as far as I can tell involves a lot of time spent working and reading in a cozy armchair next to her spouse in the shabby but beautiful house they have filled with books and precious artifacts.

Despite this, there was one moment of our meeting when her face clouded over and she said, “I’ve never done anything my whole life, except just teach.”

“Just” teach.

* * * * *

From what I can tell, the University of Chicago, where I got my PhD in English, considers me deceased. If you don’t believe me, look at their “job placement” page, which lists every academic job their graduates get, no matter how transient or low-status, but makes no mention of the writers, teachers, consultants, journalists, programmers, lawyers, etc., who come out of their program every year.

As far as the University of Chicago is concerned, not only was my graduation in December 2011 my most recent accomplishment, but it will always be my most recent accomplishment, unless I get a university job down the line. Many academics consider the world outside of academia devoid of all intellectual stimulation and rigor, and the decision to leave seemingly strikes them as tantamount to abandoning the “life of the mind” for an endless parade of Katy Perry tunes, American cheese, reality TV, and trips to Six Flags.

This is obviously silly, and good, smart academics certainly don’t think that way. But this assumption about leaving academia masks certain others that are decidedly less silly. Assumptions that most people never articulate when you’re thinking of leaving, because they’re too painful, too gendered, and maybe sometimes a little too true.

For a man, opting out of academia sort of implies choosing corporate lucre over the intellectual life, which is a bit déclassé. But for a woman, it is far more likely to mean choosing a low-status job in the public sector over a high-status (if still underpaid) university job.

If you lined up in a row all the women I know who left grad school, they would look something like a female version of The Village People. Public school teacher, public interest lawyer, nurse—all models of civic responsibility, public servants who keep our society running on public-sector paychecks, and with no expectations of the deference granted their high-status peers. These are the people who are lauded on bumper stickers instead of listened to in election years. And they are disproportionately female.*

They are also the smartest women I have ever met. They are writers, thinkers, activists, poets, performers, and artists. Their conversation has made me smarter and their accomplishments have inspired me to do more. Selfishly, I hope they will eventually become mothers, so I can meet their brilliant kids.

Kids who will grow up to be . . . . well it depends. Are they boys or girls? Do they want to have a family? How much? Will someone else be able to help take care of the family? Support it financially? Will they be willing to tough it out in a career where they’re either an outnumbered minority or an undervalued majority?

How important will status be to them, and what will they sacrifice to chase it across the finish line?

* * * * *

I think I will love this job teaching high schoolers to write. I love it already, and I haven’t started yet. Sitting with the director of the school, going over the class material, imagining myself imparting the fundamentals of self-expression, which I picture getting these kids into good colleges and then good jobs after that, I think, this is so much more fucking important than anything I ever did in grad school.

“You have to learn how to express yourself,” I imagine myself telling these kids. “When you know how to communicate your ideas in writing, people take you seriously. You can tell the world your thoughts, your experiences, and the world will listen. You can argue your points. And then you can achieve . . . ”

I picture myself really thinking about this one. I guess it depends?

“Anything,” I would have to finish, even though I don’t really know what that means anymore.

Once when I lived in Chicago an exterminator came by the apartment. We made small talk as he wandered around, poking the long nozzle of the pesticide sprayer into closets and checking for ants under the sink. His head and shoulders deep in the kitchen cabinets, he asked me what I did for a living. I said “student.” He asked about my post-graduation plans, and I said, “I hope to become a professor and teach English at a university.”

He emerged from under the sink right away. He said, “I got a lot of respect for schoolteachers. They got the most important job in the world. My mother was a schoolteacher, my grandmother too. You gotta be really smart to be a schoolteacher. They got the hardest job in the world.”

His head disappeared back under the sink, but he went on talking about it for some time. I felt a little squirmy. I wasn’t the one he was talking to. I wasn’t a noble public servant. I was in school because I loved ideas. I was in school for the life of the mind. I was in school—let’s face it, I was in it because everyone told me I was smart enough to win the whole game, to wear the tweed suit, to be a professor. I felt a million miles away from being the person this man thought he was talking to. It made me feel a little guilty, like I was getting away with something.

Before he left the apartment, he shook my hand. “Good luck with the teacher thing,” he said. “It’s a tough job. I really admire you.”

I’m still not the person he means. I’m not taking on the overwhelming odds against public school teachers. I’m not working with the disadvantaged kids who need it most. The kids I will teach are just shy, or weird, or they’ve been bullied or ignored in bigger schools, and their parents can afford to send them to a small hippie school with tiny classes. If being a teacher is the hardest job in the world, I hardly qualify as a teacher at all. But I no longer feel a million miles away from the person the exterminator thought he was talking to. If I work hard, someday I will be “just” a teacher, too.

In making decisions about our lives, we measure out what we can handle in tiny little increments, slivers of difference. We weigh our talents and our passions, our dreams and our guilt, what we need and what we can give, what the world says and what it means. And if, at the end of the day, we feel womaned by these decisions, we put it into next week’s lesson plan.

 

*They were also disproportionately women of color. Women of color left my program in tiny, silent droves while I was there.

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22 thoughts on ““Just” Teaching

  1. Amy, this is so great. YOU are so great.

    Your writing has the ability to be simultaneously unique and universal. I could especially empathize with the part about the pressures and temptations of “having it all” and evaluating if “it all” is even what you truly want.

    Like you, I also am an inquisitive soul who has deep devotion to learning. My family believes teaching is the most noble profession, and they instilled in me that same reverence. So a hearty HELL YES to all of that, too.

    I love the way you speak about the empowerment one acquires by learning to write. You truly have the passion to match your intelligence; you’re going to be an incredible teacher.

  2. Joyce Cheng says:

    I think this a great post, Amy. I teach students at a state public university, but I really wish my students had better high school teachers. I feel that I reach them too late in their lives: I can’t teach them how to think and write because I need to focus on special topics like Surrealism and art history methodology. As much as people complain in the Chronicles of Higher Education, I think the most serious problems in American education happen in the primary and secondary level. The gap between a top American university and an average American high school is unbelievably large. In an ideal world, more people like us would be teaching high school, but that would require the state to make high school teaching prestigious. In France and Spain, you have to pass the national aggrégation to teach high school, thus the prestige and security associated with the job is independent of where you might be posted (it is often the case that a normalien gets sent to a podunk French town or banlieu of Paris). In Asia, people bow down to teachers; parents routinely shower teachers with gifts to express gratitude for the edification of their children. If there is no social prestige, financial reward or security for American high school teachers, how can we wonder why public education is failing in the US?

    • amyegentry says:

      Exactly! Thanks for the perspective, Joyce. It’s hard even to imagine public school teachers getting that level of respect, living in a country where our politicians regularly paint them as grasping, lazy, and incompetent, in between kneecapping them with crippling budget cuts and arbitrary punishment/reward systems (get better or we’ll take away your 30-year-old textbooks!).

      You really hit on the head something I’ve been struggling with – social prestige may not be worth chasing on its own, but withholding it from the most important professions really sends a message about what we value. Public school teachers (or public defenders or nurses or what have you) shouldn’t have to see themselves as martyrs. They shouldn’t have to BE martyrs.

  3. nina says:

    i never wanted to be “just” a “teacher.” in undergrad, i joined a sorority that was founded by 7 women who were overwhelmingly “teachers.” everyone asked me, you wanna be a teacher too? i was all like, hell NO! nuh UHN! i wanna be a “professor,” maybe, and have my own business and do my own photography and lecture in the community and write for essence or some shit about black stuff.

    fast forward to ph.d program. (hell, or to my masters–there the specific plan was to teach until i could start my quite lucrative photo business back up again..somehow i forgot the teaching part, and i was poor…) what do i want to do now? teach. i am a teacher at a bustling community college. i am a mentor/cheerleading coach at a charter school and for an inner city sports program with a focus on literacy and mathematics improvement. i. teach. i toy with the idea of starting a high school specifically for urban (read black, hispanic, poor) girls because nobody here seems to care about them. i do. like the others above i grumble in my cc classes because it seems nobody can think critically or write cogently. it KILLS ME. i get them too late, but i try my best anyway. i want to get them earlier, too.

    but i am conflicted. i am tired of being penniless. i used to have the ol’ lucre. i want it back. i am competitive. i want to beat out somebody to be the best. i want to get back to my research and write books and do conferences and be “smart and cool.” (okay, erudite and charismatic, really.) i want to marry my beloved, raise my kiddo and dog and pop out a few more brilliant kiddos. i want it all and i shall have it. and i refuse to feel guilty about it ’cause imma girl. fooey.

    and i refuse to let anyone tell me that i will lose any nobility i gained whilst suffering as a teacher. and i refuse to let anyone belittle the overwhelming, underpaid, necessary job of instructing and caring for our children–especially the ones society discards.

    one day, we’ll all have it all. whatever that landscape looks like for each of us.

    • amyegentry says:

      Thanks Nina, this is awesome. YOU are awesome. Your students are lucky to have someone as crazy smart as you who both cares and works hard (even when logic says you shouldn’t have time to do either). The fact that you are doing all the things you set out to do is inspiring to me, especially because I’ve now seen you go through a lot of periods where you alternated focus between different things, and neglected other things temporarily. (Ahem. AHEM!)

      I also love hearing that no matter what your transient feelings have been about the word “teaching,” you do it compulsively, and you’ve never once stopped. I think that’s true for a gifted teacher whether she’s in a university, high school, or elementary school setting, at camp, at home with her kids, at a corporate job, or wherever life takes her.

  4. netteee says:

    Hey Amy!

    I’m in school now getting my PhD in School Psychology. I was a teacher for two and a half years (also in a private hippie-ish alternative school), and if the school hadn’t closed, I’d probably still be there. When I first moved to Austin though, I actually looked into substitute teaching in Austin I.S.D. and was so demoralized from the whole training process that I decided the public school system was too overwhelmingly disturbing for me to even begin to think of working within it. Now I’m in school with mostly other ex-teachers who are very much living that “life of the mind,” but who actually did teach in public schools, many in pretty bad conditions, and the frustration is all around. The kinds of changes our public educational system needs (and this definitely includes universities) are infrastructural and, just, well, huge. Oh my gosh, so much to say about this!

    The nice thing is that, I think, many, many people are aware of these issues in academia and “lower” school settings. Even if those issues have chased away potentially amazing teachers, those issues are also often pushing them to demand and work for change via different avenues. I’m hopeful today at least. It helps to know I’m not the only person passionate about it. =)

    So happy to hear you’ve found a nice place to teach! I’d love to hear more about it sometime!

    ~Annette

    • amyegentry says:

      Thanks, Annette! Yeah, I totally chickened out of even thinking about public school teaching. Too many horror stories and not enough jobs.

      Reading your comment, I’m starting to think that maybe a big part of the problem is the failure of universities and secondary schools to partner effectively with eachanother on these issues. To me high school and academia feel like two completely separate worlds, only linked by the fact that high school is supposed to prepare kids for college (which it often doesn’t). That sense of polarization is reflected in my post — it’s easy to slip into thinking of them as mutually exclusive, when plenty of people have been a part of both worlds, and their perspectives could help create a really rich and multi-faceted understanding of education as a whole. And then, as a culture, maybe we could understand how valuable every part of the system is. (And we haven’t even talked about the importance of elementary school teachers yet!!)

  5. Jen Hollis says:

    As a fellow former grad schooler and current teacher, thanks. I’ve struggled, since beginning to teach, to reconcile how vital and challenging this work is with the general perception that it is not as ambitious as any other mode of being an educator–much less as professional (re. important) as being, for instance, an investment banker. Just teaching. Right. Just the future. Just a literate, thinking society. Just democracy.

  6. Judy Black says:

    Teaching is a calling, Amy. In my 43 years of teaching English, I have never said I am “just a teacher.” I have taught ESL second graders , eighth graders, high schoolers (grades 9-12), freshman comp. university courses, and upper level college English courses, including directing a senior honors project on Jane Austen’s Juvenilia. I have taught in drug rehab programs and halfway houses; I have taught Gifted and Talented students (my favorites!) as well as created and taught a college course on “Austen and the Brontes.” I have years and years of memories and tons of teaching materials. Some of my former students, including you, are my Facebook friends, which I think speaks volumes for our relationship, not only as teacher and student, but also as people who care about each other. I welcome you to my world; I hope it brings you joy and disappointment and wonder and hours of grading papers and love of the students and their quirks and varied abilities. I think you will be a dedicated teacher, and I’m glad you have made a good decision. You never know what impact you make on all of the students you will teach, but sometimes, out of the blue, you will get a letter or phone call or email from one of them who has been touched by your magic. That’s the reward–not monetary–but intrinsic and amazing. You will never be “just a teacher.” Best wishes!

    • amyegentry says:

      Thanks, Dr. Black! I hope someday I’ll be able to look back on my life and write a post like this. A handful of teachers in my life really inspired me when I was in school, and you were one of them. Your class often felt like an oasis for me, and I’m guessing Laura T. and many others felt the same way — we just didn’t know a lot of people who shared our love of literature, much less could give us such an in-depth and advanced perspective on it. It was like getting a glimpse of college, or any place where critical thought and creativity were more than just tolerated, they were encouraged. It was one of those rare classes where you could be yourself, and know that you would be taken seriously as a human being with thoughts and goals and ambitions. You modeled an appreciation for literature for us that we couldn’t find elsewhere, and you engaged us on the highest level where we could meet you — or maybe one level higher.

      Plus you let us lie on the floor — also very cool. 😉

  7. Katy says:

    When I was eighteen I thought a smart person would never be stupid enough to go into teaching. Then I decided to get a degree in education–not because I wanted to be a teacher, but because I wanted to go to law school and I thought the bazillion English classes would be good preparation. Imagine my surprise when I realized I loved teaching? And not just any teaching–I loved the difficult kids. I worked for five years as a teacher before choosing to stay home with my son who has significant medical needs (PS: want to talk about no esteem? Stay at home mom is even lower than teacher). My last two years were spent in a school specifically designed to meet the needs of children living in poverty. I am incredibly proud of the work I did as a teacher and have trouble even imagining how people do other jobs. It’s hardest now, but when an adult thanks you for caring about them when no one else did? You’ll know you made the right decision.

    Besides, you will ALWAYS have the best stories. Ever talk to an investment banker at party? Me neither. Who wants to talk to an investment banker?

    • amyegentry says:

      Love this. A couple other people have mentioned that stay-at-home mom is the ultimate in underpaid-and-undervalued-yet-vitally-important jobs. (And one that involves near-constant teaching.)

      I do worry about my ability to help the “difficult” kids — I have worked in pretty cushy situations thus far — but I think the first step is recognizing them as human beings who need your help to make it to the next stage in their lives. I recently heard a kind of amazing story that illustrates how rare it is for some students to be seen as human beings. It’s not my story so I won’t share it without permission, but I will say that you strike me as an example of someone who puts the dignity of her students at the top of the priority list, and I hope I can do the same.

  8. Hobbes Isdumb says:

    “Just a teacher.” *Eyeroll* Eff that noise.

    Long, rambling, bitchy story for solidarity:

    My BA was in 18th century English lit too (The Rover to Richardson), and I came to my MA/PhD program to keep doing that, and to think, and to talk to all the smart people who wore tweed, and to *make it*. And so I kept studying that stuff my first year.

    Luckily for me (I’ll tell you why lucky in a second), the 18th-century faculty at my institution are a bunch of dysfunctional, awful creepos. They are primarily old white men, but there are a few old white women who have been in the game so long that they think like old white men. They are misogynistic douchenozzles to their cores.

    In one of my seminars, all of the women sat on one side of the table and all of the men on the other. For real. And the men would talk about Hobbes and Machiavelli for days on end when the assigned texts were things like _Fantomina_. And the professor told us ladies, when we met with him to ask him wtf the class was even about since Machiavelli *was not on the syllabus or even in the same period of study*, that this was the best class he had ever had, and we should just shut up and take it because the men were smart and interesting.

    By the end of that semester, there was open hostility on both sides of the table. I usually spent the entire time cleaning my nails and zoning out, but one day they were so far down the rabbit hole of 16th century political philosophy that I just blurted out something like “What the hell are you people even talking about?” There was shock for a nanosecond and then they went back to talking about nonsense.

    Anywho, that guy hasn’t “taught” grad students since that semester. In fact, I don’t think a single grad class in the 18th century has been offered in the past *four years* in my program, which is a REALLY BIG ONE.

    In order to fill the gap left by having *no classes* offered in my field of study but still being required to complete coursework, I started taking all of the rhet/comp classes offered. Lucky! The seminars were awesome! And the things that we were talking about were so smart! And the faculty were supportive and helpful, and they thought that ladies were smart and that teaching *well* (not just teaching, but doing it well) was important.

    So, goodbye 18th century for me. I left it forever. Hello, rhetoric and writing! Hello digital literacies and literatures!

    In leaving lit, those old white 18c dudes think that I have made a *huge* mistake. Because anything rhet/comp is considered “service work” and is (*gasp* oh no!) feminized. And being a girl is bad. And teaching is bad. And you know why they think that? Because they suck at teaching (and they don’t like girls). If they were any good at teaching, they would realize how hard it is and how much research goes into being a good teacher.

    And you know what? Old crusty dudes think we do nothing but service (*just* teaching!) and that we’re lesser than them, but the English department is really, really resistant to letting the rhet/comp students break off at the graduate level into their own department for a variety reasons, one of which is that letting us go would sink the tenure-track placement rate.

    So they keep us around and insult us left and right in order to keep their program looking good in the grad school rankings.

    Jerks.

    End rant. Apologies to any nice people who I offended. Special apologies for tense-shifting.

    Being a good teacher *is* hard–even if your students are super privileged and smart. Every semester on the first day, I have to wear a jacket to hide the nervous sweat because I’m so scared I will eff it up. Because it is *work*. And if you care about it and do your job well, it is not in any way easy.

    I think you’re really lucky to get to teach where you’re teaching, and with that small of a class size, you’ll probably change more lives than most teachers get to. I’m actually really jealous. Kind of kicking myself in the ass for sending the listing to you and not applying myself.

    Sometimes, when my students are worried about their work, I rickroll them to this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_Panic_(The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_the_Galaxy)#Don.27t_Panic

    I’m not entering in my real name because, uh, of the stuff I said. You know who I am. 🙂

    P.S. Just found out from a colleague that the classroom gender segregation happened in an Americanist class, too, where all the dudebros just sat around talking about Nietzsche. Le sigh.

    P.P.S. Your writing is really lovely.

    • amyegentry says:

      AAAAAAAGHHHHHHH so many thoughts! Sorry, you shorted out my brain with this awesomely quotable post. Because — first off, congratulations on leaving! It’s hard! (That is essentially what you did, even though technically you didn’t. I didn’t technically leave either, but secretly, like in my brain, I did.)

      OH MY GOD THAT SEMINAR! It helps to hear stories like that, just so I know my experience at the U of Chicago is not some rare, crazy-pants extreme. Every time I start to feel guilty, like god maybe I’m just making this shit up because I’m bitter, I hear another zillion stories like this one and I feel, not really better, but vindicated at least.

      I was lucky at U of C in that most of my courses were quite good, and I rarely felt shut down in them — although believe you me I heard stories. Also I am something of a loud mouth, so it’s hard to shut me up in that particular context. But I experienced so much other crazy-making bullshit there that I will need a tranquilizer just to tell some of those stories. (Although a Mexican martini might do the trick. I’d be willing to give it a try anyway.

      Do you know about the blog “Academic Men Explain Things to Me”? (http://mansplained.tumblr.com/) Maybe I actually found it through you, I don’t remember. Anyway go look at it and laugh and then sigh and get back to your awesome new department. I have other things to say but I must mull them over. Thanks for posting! Mexican martinis! Soon!

  9. LN says:

    I want to participate in this amazing conversation, but there’s too much to say, and I choke on my words and can’t say anything. For what it’s worth, the gender stuff in this post didn’t seem buried at all to me.

    I don’t necessarily include myself in this, but the most dedicated and hardworking teachers around me these days are my female colleagues, and they sacrifice considerable personal time to do their jobs. As a result, the wage they earn measured against the quantity and quality of their work is frankly absurdly low. Sometimes I wonder if that’s part of why it’s hard for me to make the same sacrifice. I hate feeling like I’m being played like that.

    I have this fond memory of a woman I know, a physician, who turned down a job because it didn’t pay well enough. She doesn’t lack for confidence, and she explained to me that, “I like to be paid handsomely for what I do.” That remark and the arch way she delivered it have really stuck with me–what an amazing thing to say! Why have I never taken that attitude toward my own work? She’d never teach in a million years.

    This isn’t really true at my current job, but I have definitely held education-adjacent jobs on the long road to full-time teaching where I felt like I was having trouble establishing authority in a way the tall, laid-back white dudes who did the same work were not. I have to admit to feeling a certain frustration with some of my students under those circumstances. I remember wanting to yell one day, “Guess who’s lining up around the block to do this kind of work? Not tall, laid-back white dudes!”

    It’s certainly true that there’s a gap between what high schools prepare kids for and what’s expected of them in college. I used to feel that way all the time when I taught college students, even privileged ones at the U of C. Now I’m part of the problem, acutely aware every day of the degree to which I’m failing to prepare my 11th graders for college. It would be nice if there were more prestige (read: higher salaries) attached to the profession, for sure, but I’m not sure that’s even the problem. Most of the teachers at my school are caring and dedicated public servants. It would be nice to believe all my fancy degrees will one day translate into superior teaching, but I am really skeptical that that’s true. On the other hand, if there were more of us and class sizes were smaller and de facto school segregation hadn’t re-established itself in this country and we hadn’t increasingly abandoned the public sector starting in 1980 and the curriculum hadn’t been stripped of any authentic connection to our students’ experiences or the wider world due to the oppressive logic of testing, testing uber alles and and and

    I can’t finish any of my thoughts about this, and I should be grading right now anyway, but thank you so much for this post, Amy! It’s beautiful and I keep coming back and rereading it. It’s really hitting me where I live right now.

    • amyegentry says:

      Thanks for the excellent response! For the record, I’m going to go ahead and include you in the “most dedicated and hardworking teachers” camp, and before you protest that you put off your grading until Sunday night, I have one word for you: ADHESIVE. (My second and third words are “killed” and “it.”)

      I was writing a really long response to this comment, but I think I’m going to just do a follow-up post instead. I hope you keep (or start?) writing about your experiences as a first-year teacher, because I think a lot of people would like to know what is happening in that world, and how someone who discovered a gift for teaching in graduate school fares in the big scary world of public high schools. (And by “people” I mean “me.”)

      • Oh you know who i am says:

        Wait, I have even better news! Guess what the prestige-ifying of a feminized profession looks like?! Get ready to cry; this is a sad, sad story.

        Nursing is in the process of changing its image – it has been since that bitch Nightingale “cleaned up” the hospitals. Nowadays, it’s trying to gain prestige by distancing itself from its feminized past, i.e., internalizing patriarchy in creative, new ways. “Are you MAN enough to be a NURSE?” reads a recruitment poster, when male nurses *already* get paid more and promoted more quickly, just like in any other profession. On an institutional level, degree inflation makes it more and more difficult to get a license for EXACTLY those people – poor women of color – for whom nursing used to be an achievable and lucrative career goal. As nursing gets more prestigious and better-paid, those women get funneled into worse jobs. A diploma-RN I knew who had decades of experience (and was the best venipuncturist in her unit) was demoted to Nurse Assistant because the hospital in which she worked decided to go for “magnet status” (which is what it sounds like), and so it started requiring all its RNs to have AT LEAST a Bachelors degree. Tough luck, community college and diploma grads with tons of experience! This particular nurse is no longer technically allowed to perform venipuncture until she gets a BSN (I assume she does whenever there’s a tricky stick, though, because who else is going to).

        Oh, and guess what else is a feature of nursing’s new, more prestigious image? Why, “research” of course. It doesn’t have to be useful or good. It just has to be published in a peer-reviewed journal by nurses with PhDs (what kind of nurse needs a PhD, I ask you??? This is the new face of nursing).

        At my nursing school, there’s a caste system of teaching and research faculty – and guess who’s eligible for tenure, and who isn’t?

        When I think about how, as a society, we find it SO LITERALLY IMPOSSIBLE to value women and POCs, that in the very process of “valuing” them, we do crazy institutional somersaults to whitewash and masculinize, pushing out the very workers we’re supposed to be lionizing…

        The history of nursing reads like the saddest, most retrograde history of feminism that ever was, one that grinds to a halt at the end of “Working Girl” (which I love, but also hate because it’s the female version of the Highlander – there can be only one!) You know there’s never enough room for Melanie Griffith AND Sigourney Weaver to give sleazy Harrison Ford the effing boot (they’d have to drive off a cliff together). And, oh I just looked this up and it’s so perfect! Guess who Melanie Griffith’s secretary in the last scene is! None other than Harvard biology grad and Yale MFA, Amy Aquino (who is, need I even write it, Latina).

        How am I still typing? Awesome post, Amy.

        Seconded about blogging your teaching experience, LN!

      • amyegentry says:

        Oh goody, I was really hoping to hear from you about this! I’ve actually been thinking about trying to do a working woman round table on this blog and thought of you right away. I’m particularly interested in hearing about the experience of women in the “feminized” professions, and the overvaluation of men (and, as you point out, white and/or well-educated women) in those professions. The dynamic you describe is so depressing and yet so depressingly predictable. Gentrification on the job front, increasing the value of a ghetto by kicking all the poor and non-white people out. It seems so unfair that invading the high-status masculine sphere in record numbers (hello, election!) seems to be the only way to change perceptions of the value of what women accomplish, when so often that world is disproportionately punishing to women. (Remember that Atlantic monthly article that laid it all out? It’s actually a really interesting article despite the Atlantic Monthly-ified title.)

        Maybe we need two round tables–women who are trying to make it work in the high-status versions of their jobs (professors, doctors, lawyers at private firms) and women who made peace with the feminized versions (teachers, nurses, public-interest and state-job lawyers) only to see the kind of thing you’re talking about? And then stay-at-home moms and other women who work from home to accommodate family life, which is a whole different yet related can of worms. I don’t want to polarize our experiences like that, but at the same time I would be really interested to hear women swap those kinds of stories with other women who made similar decisions. What do you think?

  10. CLS says:

    Amy, I graduated from the same program. A few years ago I challenged the dept about the fact that they don’t list alumni with non-academic jobs (or show any interest in them). I was told that they couldn’t put such info on the website or it would tarnish the dept’s reputation as a serious program in the eyes of prospective students and applicants. Insanity.

    • amyegentry says:

      Thank you so much for leaving this comment, and for being a person who cares enough to challenge the department directly about this. When Deborah Nelson (my advisor, a great professor and a wonderful human being) was appointed Deputy Provost for Graduate Education last year, one of her stated goals was to destigmatize the decision some students make to leave the program and go on to other careers. I hope she reads this post

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