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What Does it Mean to ‘Care’ About our Students?

In Lee's Posts on 2014/05/18 at 22:32

A Gallup poll came out and the headline reads “A Caring Professor May Be Key in How a Graduate Thrives”. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, and it is the same conclusion that the recent book How College Works comes to (read my review here and Just Visiting’s review here): the relationships that students forge with faculty, staff, and their peers is the most important factor in their persistence and success in college. Those students who don’t connect drop out. Those students who do connect don’t just thrive in school, but beyond.

My question, however, has to do with the language used in the headline to describe the ideal professor: caring. The gendered nature of the language can’t be ignored; it calls for an increase in unrecognized emotional labor, often on the backs of female professors (I’ll get to the adjunct issue in a moment). But if you would, compare the description of the findings from two different publications covering the report. Fromthe first:

College graduates, whether they went to a hoity-toity private college or a mid-tier public, had double the chances of being engaged in their work and were three times as likely to be thriving in their well-being if they connected with a professor on the campus who stimulated them, cared about them, and encouraged their hopes and dreams.

And now, from the second:

The poll didn’t measure graduates’ earnings. Rather, it was rooted in 30 years of Gallup research that shows that people who feel happy and engaged in their jobs are the most productive. That relatively small group at the top didn’t disproportionately attend the prestigious schools that Americans have long believed provided a golden ticket to success. Instead, they forged meaningful connections with professors or mentors, and made significant investments in long-term academic projects and extracurricular activities.

“Caring” here is more than just mentorship (which is still different from “caring”), it is also “sponsorship” – where the person actively promotes and pushes the student in ways that benefit their academic careers. The long-term academic projects. The increasing responsibility within extracurricular organizations. Caring about the students has to also come with opportunities for the students to benefit from.

Language matters. And there are still professors (largely, but not exclusively, old and male) who rail against this kind of treatment of undergrads. You know, the ones who say that we are their teachers not their parents and our job is to educate, not baby-sit. However, many of these same professors will in fact sponsor students that they see potential in, students who stand out, students who they want to help succeed. The focus for this particular demographic is not that they care (a feeling) but that they act.

Which bring me to my next point: how much good does “caring” do if you are not in a position to back up the emotion with any sort of concrete action? Adjuncts and other contingent faculty often lack the capital, both personal and institutional, to actually act on the fact that they “care” about their students. Beyond a sympathetic ear, what can an adjunct do to help the student feel more connected? What opportunities can they provide for the student beyond the three-credit-hours of the course, with no office, no time, no established place within the larger university or college (or multiple universities or colleges)?

care about my students. And these findings and the contrasting language used to describe these findings have finally allowed for me to articulate the problem I’ve had with rhetoric that we just need to “care” more or that adjuncts and other contingent faculty don’t “care” as much – we don’t have the time and energy to “mother” them, and even if we did, we have limited access to the really important aspect, which is showing we care by providing opportunities for them beyond the walls of our (temporary) classrooms.

Holding Women Back in Higher Education: International Women’s Day

In Lee's Posts on 2013/06/10 at 23:34
Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Morehead, Kentucky, in the US. 

There were plenty of people who were quick to jump all over me when I said that I didn’t want my daughter to grow up and want to become a teacher or a professor. And there are more who criticize my tendency to discourage students from going into graduate school. My wish, as it stands, would be that my daughter goes to graduate school and becomes a professor. My wish is that plenty more people, especially women and other historically underrepresented groups, go to graduate school and get jobs as professors, shaping the lives and dreams of the next generations.

But that’s not the reality. The reality is that women of color are presumed incompetent within our supposedly progressive system of higher education. The reality is that women make up a strong majority of those working off the tenure-track. The reality is that there are plenty of services available now for women, by women, to help them try to crack that glass ceiling, but we have to pay for them ourselves and often keep quiet about them for fear of being seen as weak or less competent.

I wish that education was more universally available for girls and women, and that there didn’t still exist places where going to school means taking one’s life into her own hands.

Today, I drove a car by myself to an airport, flew in a plane, checked into a hotel, ate dinner, all alone. I wore a dress (that I selected and bought for myself) that stopped at my knees (but it was long-sleeved;it’s still cold!). I read a book that I selected for myself. I dropped my son off at an excellent childcare center while my daughter (who is the smartest person in her class) went off to learn in kindergarten. My husband (who I chose and chose to marry) is taking care of the kids (that I chose to have) while I’m away learning about technology tools (among other things).

All of these things are a part of the privilege that I enjoy as an educated white heterosexual woman living in the West. More was promised, but I’m not doing too badly. However, I’m working so that for my daughter, it’s not just a promise, it’s a reality. I work for girls all over the world, so they can choose for themselves who and what they want to be.

And I write. I share and promote the words of my friends who are working towards the same goals.  I build networks and communities, and I try to connect people and ideas for the better. It’s not a lot, but it’s something. I teach. In my classroom, I try to awaken students to the possibilities in front of them, to embrace the opportunity to learn and connect.

This post, ultimately, isn’t about me, but about all the ways that each of us work towards a brighter future for our daughters here and around the world, and for ourselves.

Morehead, Kentucky in the US.

Lee Elaine Skallerup has a Ph.D. from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an edupreneur. You can visit her blog at  College Ready Writing and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting). Lee is also a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

Social Media, Parenting, and Remembering

In Lee's Posts on 2013/03/12 at 11:23
Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Morehead, Kentucky in the US.

“Mom, take a video of me and put it up on Facebook!”

My five-year-old daughter is a (relative) wiz with technology. She was using my iPhone with ease before she was even 18 months old, playing memory games, shape puzzles, and phonic lessons. Both she and her younger brother have our old iPhones for when we travel (said one nine-year-old to his mom when I took them out on one trip: “THEY have iPhones!”). She loves to take pictures with her phone, and complains bitterly that she can’t also take video. The two kids are used to interacting with screens, so to speak, as they regularly skype with their grandparents and other extended family members. We use Facebook to share pictures, videos, and funny stories about our family life with family and friends, most of whom live far away from us.

My daughter continually wants me to post things on Facebook because she knows that that is how her grandparents will see what she is doing, and they will usually make note of it during our weekly Skype calls. My son is even starting to get in on the act, especially if it involves taking copious amounts of pictures of his many (many) toy lions. I also enjoy sharing the various adorable/frustrating things my kids do or say with my friends, many of whom are parents themselves. The street runs both ways; we’ll often share in the experience of watching videos or seeing pictures of their friends (often the kids of my grown-up friends) who they don’t get to see often, helping them to still feel connected to a larger community of friends and family. Because my professional (Twitter) network began to bleed into my personal (Facebook) network, when I now meet people at conferences, people ask me about my kids, not just in the abstract, but with particular stories that they enjoyed or could relate to through my Facebook posts.

We used to keep baby books; my mother has given me hundreds of pages of notes and letters and journals she wrote about my development when I was a baby (although I doubt that my younger brother has that kind of documentation available). I also have hundreds of emails that I wrote to my mother during my  daughter and son’s first years; often no longer than a few lines, I wrote my mother every day, often from my iPhone while nursing or while a baby slept on me. Even though we lived far away, this was a way so that she could still feel connected to her daughter. I don’t have very detailed baby books for either of my kids (or photo albums, for that matter), I know that between my Facebook history and emails, I have a pretty detailed account of my kids’ various milestones and accomplishments.

Of course, these new technologies bring up the very real issues of privacy. How much should I reveal about my kids online? How much should I share? I am still very conscious of these boundaries; my kids have names on Facebook, but not when I blog or on Twitter. My profile is locked down as tight as I can get it on Facebook, while my Twitter and blogging identities are quite public. And it’s not like I go crazy (anymore) with the Facebook posts about the kids; I perhaps post an update once a day, with a spontaneous picture about once a week, and maybe a video once a month. To me, that doesn’t sound like too much. Often, I have to remember to put these pieces up after the kids have gone to bed, so it is only the most memorable things that make it on the Facebook timeline now. But I am becoming increasingly conscious, especially now that my daughter has started school, of how much or what I should share about my children online.

The virtual connectedness that both my kids have always had access to (but embraced differently) is, I think, a strength; they will hopefully embrace new technologies and experiment to find ways to connect and create communities. As my daughter gets older, I am beginning to ask her if it is ok if I share things “more publicly,” from twitter, to facebook, to even an email to Gramma. I can see a time in the not-so-near future where she won’t want Gramma to know everything (not that Gramma knows everything now – I perform a selection process, too). That we can have these conversations already about social media, sharing, and exposure, I think, is a really good thing. I’m hoping that it means they will make responsible choices later on.

I also wonder how this facility with online communities will evolve as they get older, particularly in light of pressure both from their friends but also from a school system that doesn’t readily embrace online engagement. I see many of my friends who are also parents banning social media outright, fearful of the bullying, cyber-stalking, and poor decision-making skills. What I don’t want to see happen is that my kids approach new technology with at best, a feeling of fear, and at worse, a feeling out outright hostility, like many of my students do. It is here that my role as a parent and as an educator conflate to become one: I cannot allow my fear overwhelm what I know are valuable and meaningful learning opportunities for my children.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Dreaming of Disney

In Lee's Posts on 2013/01/20 at 04:39
Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Morehead, Kentucky in the US.
Thirty years ago, my family went to Disney World for the first time. I was five and my brother turned three while we were away on our trip. We stayed in Daytona Beach, visited Cape Canaveral, watched the Space Shuttle Columbia launch from our balcony, hung out at the beach, and made the aforementioned trip to Disney and the newly-opened Epcot Center.

I have very clear and vivid memories of this whole trip. I remember arriving late into the night and insisting to “see” the ocean and ending up riding the elevator up to our room soaking wet. I remember that my brother refused to go into the ocean after a piece of seaweed brushed his leg.  I remember seeing the Space Shuttle streaking the sky and then running back into the room to see the same thing on TV. I remember that neither my brother or I would eat scallops at the restaurant built over the water with a glass floor so you could see the fish swimming under your feet.

And I remember Disney. I begged my Dad to go on Space Mountain. So we went, and I don’t think I had my eyes open the entire time. My brother and my mom went on some rotating, “flying” rockets ride that was right next to Space Mountain in Tomorrowland, and she was green the rest of the day. I was possibly more excited about visiting Epcot Center, filled with dinosaurs, science exhibits, and other geeky delights. I met Mickey, my brother got to meet Goofy (sort of; he wouldn’t let go of my mother’s leg). I got Mickey Mouse ears. I made my family ride “It’s a Small World” repeatedly. My mom refused to ever ride the Teacups again.

In total, I went to Disney three times, and once to Disneyland when I was older and living in Southern California. Those are some of my best memories of my childhood. And, now that my own kids are three and five, I want to share it with them, too.

It’s expensive, it’s commercial, it reinforces the worst gender and body norms for young girls, it has a checkered history of how it treats its workers, and yet I still want to go and take my kids. It has Star Tours, and Muppets, and Pixar, and… My kids have been raised on a steady diet of Disney and Pixar movies, as well as Star Wars, Muppets, and other properties owned by the Disney entertainment conglomerate. I’ve been seduced by the Magic Kingdom, and I’ve clearly worked to place my children under the same spell.

Part of the reason is that there are few places from my childhood that I will be able to share with my kids. The cottage where my mom spent her summers when she was a kid and where we spent many weekends growing up doesn’t belong to us anymore. The Prairie landscapes and farms that were my Dad’s childhood and where we would often visit for family reunions are gone from the family, too. Same with my husband’s cherished childhood places, like the piece of land his grandparents owned that they would go camping on.  The one place that still exists, in many ways exactly the same way it did thirty years ago, is Disney.

And that is the power of what Disney built on a swamp in Florida; certainly it has grown and adapted, but you can still ride It’s a Small World, still sing with the birds in the Tiki Room, ride on Splash Mountain. I only have happy memories of Disney, and I know that the place is still there, waiting for me to bring my kids to create their own happy memories. The academic in me knows how problematic all of this is, but my heart…My heart wants to see the smile on my kids’ faces the first time they high-five Mickey or get to hug Merida.

I know there is a problematic man behind the curtain, but I still can’t help be swept away by the magic he produces.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Report Card

In Lee's Posts on 2012/12/16 at 02:32
Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Morehead, Kentucky in the US.

The same day that I read Afshan’s post on taking her 7-year-old daughter out of public school in order to homeschool her, my five-year-old daughter came home with her first report card. Although there were no letter grades, she had clearly done outstanding work, particularly in the “Social Skills/Behavioral” area. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise to us. She taught herself to write her own name when she was only three, prompting her new preschool teacher to declare that she would do well in Kindergarten the next year. Except, she was only three. My daughter did the 4-year-old pre-k curriculum at her preschool twice, and was more than ready for Kindergarten this year. We tried to get her placed directly into the first grade (she continually comes home complaining that everyone in her class thinks she’s six) but for now, we’re sticking with, and stuck in, Kindergarten.

This isn’t much of an issue for the moment; unlike Afshan’s daughter, mine still hasn’t mastered reading (although we’re almost there), but she has mastered all of the other literacy skills. Her math skills are advanced, as she has been asking to do workbook activities and math “games” on my phone since she was two. Mostly, though, she enjoys going to school, hanging out with her friends, and being praised continually by the teachers for doing so well and being so bright. She reminds me a little bit of Lisa Simpson when the teachers went on strike, begging her mom to grade her and praise her. She’s not yet bored, nor has she been targeted negatively by her peers for being smart. Occasionally she comes home upset because the kids didn’t like a picture she drew, but generally she seems to be well-liked and has a good group of friends.

More troubling, for me, were the results of her first standardized tests in literacy and math. On the one hand, I think standardized tests are ridiculous at this age and can’t be taken seriously. On the other, she scored in the 99th percentile, an important piece of the puzzle to get her into enriched programs offered by our school district. I, too, live in a rural area, but the private schools are religious in nature, and not attractive to most of the university parents, so we have fairly rigorous and well-integrated enrichment opportunities in the public schools. I’m hoping that these opportunities come sooner, rather than later, before my daughter gets bored and disillusioned with school.

I see how my students view learning and school, and I have previously written about the moment I dread most – the moment when the light behind both my children’s eyes is extinguished and replaced by the dead-eyed stares I am often met with in my Freshman Writing classes. I read their literacy narratives that pinpoint the exact moment that they gave up on school, on reading, on learning. I also know how hard it is to reignite that spark once it has been out for so many years. Can my husband and I intervene in time to keep that from happening? I also worry about my daughter’s “good girl” personality, insofar as it could evolve into a fear of failure and risk-taking that stifles her potential. How can I create a space where she is at once validated and challenged, fearless and full of curiosity?

I know every parent thinks that their child is gifted and special. I now have (some flawed) empirical evidence that my daughter is, in fact, gifted. As a parent and as an educator, I know that this presents a unique set of challenges, challenges that I currently feel wholly unequipped to meet, at least in any sort of productive way. I can do what comes naturally to me (research, read, and then read and research some more), but at the end of the day, I do (as every parent does) need to do what is best for my child and my family. Maybe it’s homeschooling. Maybe it’s advocacy. Maybe it’s a mix of both. I don’t know yet, but, like Afshan, I find myself in strange and uncharted territory.

Lee Elaine Skallerup has a Ph.D. from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an edupreneur. You can visit her blog at  College Ready Writing and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting). Lee is also a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Turning a Corner

In Lee's Posts on 2012/11/10 at 02:51
Lee Elaine Skallerup, writing from Morehead, Kentucky in the US.

I was outside yesterday, enjoying some early fall weather after dinner with my son. I was pushing him on the swing, doing exaggerated “karate” moves and noises whenever I pushed him. He loved it and was giggling uncontrollably. The more he laughed, the more ridiculous I tried to make my moves. And in that moment, I realized something: I’m having fun, too.

This realization came as an immense relief to me. Since having the curtain pulled down around me towards the end of last semester (and probably earlier), I haven’t really enjoyed spending time with my kids. This sounds like a horrible admission, but it’s not that I didn’t want to spend time with them, it’s that I derived no real pleasure from it. In fact, it became a source of real anxiety; I forced the time, forced the fun, and spent the whole time worrying that I was somehow scarring my children from my lack of authentic pleasure.

But just as things got imperceptibly heavier and heavier until I could barely lift my head, things have gotten gradually lighter and lighter. The good days outnumber the bad days. My mind is clearer now, making it easier to make decisions and feel good about them. I’m not as tired, even with a heavy teaching schedule and a busy life. I am looking forward to things (like teaching), things that I had to look forward to before, but instead were sources of dread and gloom.

I have been working hard to try and get through and past and over my depression. I started eating better (ok, my body decided that eating fast food would cause me to get sick, so I stopped), I started swimming again, I got help, improved my sleep habits, took a vacation, etc. I read for pleasure again and bought music, discovering new (for me) artists that I liked. And it still took more than six months. Given that I’ve spent more than a year in phases like this, back when I was in denial about being depressed, I know that I am doing ok and progressing well. And I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to know that the hard work is finally paying off.

I worry about sustaining this effort over the course of the entire semester and academic year. Already, my Kindle sits unused, and there are more and more weeks where I only get to the pool once. Teaching a 5/4 course load of writing-intensive classes, coupled with my research agenda, does not leave much time for self-care. Right now, I am enjoying teaching again, while my research is as intellectually stimulating and fulfilling as ever. But as I pour more and more of myself into these parts of my life, I dread the day that they will once again end up being a source of darkness rather than light.

Finally, I worry about passing this to my children, genetically or otherwise. I worry that one day I will slip underneath the darkness and not be able to pull myself out (or be pulled out). On the bad days, these worries consume me with guilt and grief for my family. But if this latest bout has taught me anything, it’s that I am not alone, and neither will they ever be alone in this. If they inherited this from me, then they hopefully also inherited the strength to get through it.

I might not be able to change their genes, but I can change how we deal with them. Silence is not the answer. Their strength, our strength comes from being in this together. For those of you who were in this with me, offering me strength and support, I thank you. Someday, my kids will thank you, too.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Bad Female Academic: Putting Myself First?

In Lee's Posts on 2012/10/13 at 04:38
Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Morehead, Kentucky in the US.

I went to see a good female friend of mine this week. I was feeling pretty low about not hearing about a new job and the grind of the upcoming semester. We have both been traveling quite a bit (me more than her, but she just got back from a vacation) and have been busy. When all of the chaos surrounding my job application happened, there wasn’t really time to consult with my friends here where I live (nor did I want to announce it, in case I didn’t get an interview). We hadn’t really spoken about it yet.

When she asked me how I was doing, and I told her, I was surprised that she wasn’t very sympathetic. Didn’t I realize how lucky I was? Why didn’t I just accept my position and move on? Why couldn’t I find satisfaction in the health and success of my husband and children? Didn’t I realize that I was the author of my own misery? How dare I even consider breaking up my family for a job?

Sitting there, being attacked by a close friend, was not a good feeling. Doubt crept into my heart. Was I being selfish, greedy, insensitive? I couldn’t articulate why the job was so important to me, why I wanted to move up, why I couldn’t just be happy for my husband and children and learn to live with what I have. I agreed with her that we in part the author our own happiness, but I couldn’t remember why I wasn’t able to do that here. I felt ashamed, embarrassed, but also hurt. Hurt that my friend couldn’t recognize or understand why I was upset, or muster any sympathy for me.

Her lecture was well-meaning; basically, it was a slightly harsher version of, suck it up and make the best of it. I’ve heard that speech countless times here, in the comments of my blog posts. But I can’t help but wonder if my husband had applied for a better job if her reaction (or the reaction of the commentators) would be the same? Good for him, being ambitious, looking to be paid what he is worth, going to a place where his skills are utilized and appreciated. No matter that his wife and kids have are settled in jobs and schools, in the community, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! And, after all, a better job is better for the whole family. If he is unhappy in his current position, it’s important that he find something that suits him better, and we all need to support him in that goal.

Isn’t that what we say when men, husbands and fathers, who look to move up the ranks? That isn’t what I hear from a lot people when I tell them about my job dissatisfaction, my ambition, my plans for the future. My plans should be about making my husband and children happy, that their happiness must be the source my happiness. My job will never satisfy me, I will always be paid less, always underappreciated, so I’d better just accept it and make the best of it.

I just didn’t expect it from such a close female friend.

I’m still trying to make plans, to make the best of where we are right now. I need challenges, intellectual challenges, something that makes me feel like I’m moving forward instead of staying in the same place, like I’m building something meaningful. I want these things for myself, but I also know that having this will make me a better wife, a better mother. No one is going to give me these opportunities, and I know I am going to have to fight (unfortunately) to get them. But it’s a hard lesson to learn sometimes that the people we think we can rely on don’t actually think there is any reason to fight at all.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

To My Husband

In Lee's Posts on 2012/09/14 at 07:48
Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Morehead, Kentucky in the US. 

At the end of July, my husband and I celebrated our 7th wedding anniversary. This year, it really feels like a celebration for having survived. This year has been a really hard one for me, mentally and professionally, and thus hard for him. There have been intense highs followed by deep lows. My husband has been there every step of the way with me, with our children, while making sure he stays on track to earn tenure. So wrapped up in my own head, I forget sometimes how hard he works, how trying it must be to be a married to someone who isn’t a good faculty wife, who is full of as much anxiety and dark thoughts as I am.

We are, and have always been, husband and wife. I understand that it’s controversial to call ourselves that, especially in academia, especially in an English department, where I am. Partner, people say, or significant other. But, like other terms that have been used to oppress and repress in the past, I guess I want to reclaim “wife”, redefine “wife” and “husband.” If the role of “wife” is being redefined continually, the role of “husband” too is filled with uncertainty and fluidity. What makes my husband a good husband?

There is no one prouder than my accomplishments than him, and no one who gets more upset at the injustices that I am confronted with in my career. He encourages me professionally while supporting me emotionally. When the opportunity of a lifetime fell into my lap recently, he quickly realized that I needed to take it, even if it meant living apart. Although I was wracked with guilt because I thought he would think I valued my career over him, he never even considered that as a possibility. We may have agreed early in our relationship, before we were married, that we would never live apart, he understood that rules were meant to be broken, especially when the mental well-being of the person he loves hung in the balance.

Our children get more visibly upset when he leaves for his trips than when I leave for mine. They adore him, having spent so much of their early years being cared for by him. He has infinitely more patience with them than I have, and knows when to step in, but also when to step aside. I see mothers fretting about their kids in the care of their husbands’ when I am traveling; I enjoy my trips all the more because I know I don’t have to worry about them. And even if things aren’t going well, he won’t tell me, as not to spoil my time away.

A year ago, our immediate and more distant future seemed set and secure. Embarking on our eighth year together, things are less sure. Academia, especially when you are a dual-career couple, can be hard on a relationship, when the work never seems to leave us, and the stresses of being in higher education seem to multiply daily. On the one hand, we understand what the other is experiencing, facing, and as a team, we approach our careers, mutually putting our own strengths to the other’s advantage. On the other hand, there is no escaping academia, even at home. When I talk about my need to find a better work-life balance, I actually mean “we” because I can’t find the balance without his help, and vice versa.

I am forever grateful that I met my husband 11 years ago. I am grateful for our marriage and our two wonderful children. I am grateful for his influence and support, just as I am grateful that he is someone that I am proud to influence and support in turn. We are making it work, and we will continue to do our best to make it work going forward. Higher education doesn’t do much anymore (did it ever?) to support what we have worked hard to grow.

Here’s to making it work.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Who Am I, Digitally and IRL?

In Lee's Posts on 2012/07/25 at 22:03
Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Morehead, Kentucky in the US.

Before I start my post, I’d like to sincerely thank everyone who read, commented, and reached out to me after my last post. I have sought help and that blog post was the first step in opening up and being honest about myself both to myself and to the people around me. I still have trouble admitting what I perceive is weakness and asking for help, but that’s getting better, as is the depression; the good days are beginning to outnumber the bad days, even if it is only by a small margin. Again, thank-you for sharing your own stories with me and the other readers. Hopefully, this will inspire others to open up and seek help. 

The rush of the end-of-semester, then the let-down, then the onset of the summer months can often inspire reflection in academics on our classroom practices, our research, and our other responsibilities. Have I achieved a manageable work-life balance this year? (Haha, surely you jest.) How can I make this class work better next semester? What can I hope to accomplish this summer in terms of my research? How am I going to pay the bills (those off the tenure track and/or have 9-month contracts paid over 9-months understand)?

Those of us who blog can also face an existential crisis at this time of the year, especially if the demands of the past semester meant that the blogging output went down. Given the demands of our jobs as academics, why we blog is an important consideration when deciding how and what to prioritize in our lives. Summers are particularly hard for me to blog regularly, in part because I’m not teaching and in part because I concentrate more fully on my research. And, honestly, I get burnt out from 8 months of non-stop teaching/writing/blogging/childcare/etc. My summers are nice because it becomes about my family first and my research, so blogging, while still important to me, can take a secondary role.

This also leads me to re-examine my digital identity more generally. I was playing with this idea of who I am digitally when fellow UVenus blogger Bonnie Stewart led her #Change11 section on Digital Selves. I participated in her online seminar/discussion and it really pushed me to think more about the different performances of myself in my various virtual guises. Initially, I started blogging and tweeting in large part so I could be more like myself professionally than I felt I was allowed to be in real life (IRL) as an academic. My Facebook self, on the other hand, was entirely deprofessionalized; this was where I would keep old friends and family appraised of how the kids were doing, how the banalities of life were moving forward in our small town, away from them.

But a funny thing started happening this year. More and more people who I would consider “professional friends” from Twitter and elsewhere began friending me on Facebook. I started getting to know their kids and families, their banalities, while they got to know mine. On top of that, because of the professional support I received through Twitter and through blogging, and also because of a favorable professional situation, I started to allow myself to be more like my digital self IRL; rather than there existing two halves of my professional self (digital and IRL), I became more like myself regardless of the (professional) situation.

My digital identities, both personal and professional, were initially safe spaces where I could be myself in a way that I internalized I couldn’t be as an academic in higher education. Apparently, I don’t need to divide myself in these ways anymore, at least not to the extreme that I was practicing it previously. So, then, who am I online, and, more provocatively, why do I even need a digital persona at all? Clearly, I blog and tweet (and share pictures of my kids) for more reasons than simply because it’s a policed and politicized part of myself and I am offering resistance; I value the communities I have become a part of, the connections I have made, and the support they provide me, not to mention all of the things I have learned. But the question still lingers in the back of my mind: who am I?

All of this to say, I think I just need to relax, stop over-thinking things, and enjoy the ride.


This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Becoming a Cliché

In Lee's Posts on 2012/05/31 at 11:02

Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Morehead, Kentucky in the US.

I’ve been struggling with writing this post. I’m “burying” it here rather than sharing it on my regular blog post. I’m publishing it in the early summer hoping for fewer readers and that if anyone I know on campus reads it, they’ll have forgotten it by August when school starts again. I am going to be going to conferences and other activities soon where I will be meeting a lot of people face-to-face for the first time, and I hope that this isn’t the only thing they remember, being perhaps the last thing they read by me, about me.

I’ve been told more than a few times that I am brave for what I write in these spaces. What has come before this, I think to myself, has been easy. A friend of mine noted to me that I talk an awful lot, and I write just as much. I read voraciously, do multiple things at once, juggle as many things as I can, just to keep at bay that thing that I know is there but I most want to ignore and forget. If I stay busy, no one will notice, least of all myself. If I keep talking and writing about everything and anything else, stuff that I know people will react to, they won’t be tempted to ask for the truth from me, and I won’t be tempted to tell them.

I am depressed. This sounds like a flip or glib admission, and I don’t mean it to be, but I’m not sure how to put it any other way. I could use metaphors or imagery, but somehow it makes it worse, sound worse, more cliché than it already is in my ears. Ah, a depressed humanities academic. How quaint. How many times has it been done. What would she like us to do, award her a medal? No, I don’t want anything, really. But I also don’t want to be alone in it anymore, because it is too easy to bury it, ignore it, suffer in silence, tough it out, try to get over it, reasoning with myself, by myself, and failing.

Because there is nothing reasonable about this. My life is going well: good job, great family, a career on the (relative) rise, opportunities, community. And yet, I enjoy none of it. In high school, I listened to Denis Leary’s NoCureForCancer, laughing as he told those people who just weren’t happy to shut the f- up. But I’m tired of shutting up about it. I’m tired of my family not talking about how this is something now three consecutive generations of women have struggled with, leaving me to try and make sense of everything by myself.

This is not my first episode, far from it. But I could always blame it on something else. In high school, it was hormones. In university as an undergrad, it was acting out/finding myself/stress. It was easier, however, in university to hide (this was before cell phones) than it was in high school. My tiny res room became a place where I would hide, in the dark, for days, weeks, barely going to class, rarely going out with friends. Or I would embrace the most debauched elements of being an undergrad, once again to try and ignore the blackness, the unease I was never quite able to shake. At one point, during my masters after I had completed my course work, I didn’t leave the apartment I shared with two friends for months.

I figured I needed a change of scenery. Like I had so many other times before, I completely turned my world upside-down in the hopes that it wasn’t me, it was everyone and everything else that was making me feel …anxious and listless. Academia also provides a nice set of rules and guidelines, ones that I could fairly easily meet, and people would see me as “normal”. Above all, I wanted to blend in and appear normal. When I realized somewhere late in high school that what I felt and the thoughts I had weren’t what everyone else was thinking and feeling, I became increasingly self-conscious about trying to blend in. I don’t want to say that I was looking to fit, as I realized that it wasn’t going to happen, but at least remain, if on the fringes, acceptably so. And you could always fall into a hole for a while and no one would question where you were and why.

My life, at the moment, has become performative. I go through the motions of being happy, excited, optimistic, a loving wife, a good mother, a careful and engaged academic. But really, I’m just barely hanging on. The problem is that this status I am in comes and goes; I know what I should be feeling (but am not) and I also know that at some point, it ends. Now, however, a lot more is at stake than one more year of grad school or a lost weekend; I have relationships, people who live with me every day and see and notice a difference. I have two very small people who understand even less about what’s wrong with Mommy and one very large person in my life with whom I pledged to share everything and to whom I can’t even articulate exactly what’s happening. Or why.

So this is who I am right now. If I’ve appeared more disconnected, more distracted, less engaged, it’s because of this. I would take a break, but all of my activities are what keep me moving forward; if I stop, I worry I might never start again.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed