Taking Back My Happy Place

I get to teach Judicial Process and Politics this Fall and I am over the moon!! This may seem a bit ridiculous, but let me see if I can explain why it's such a big deal.

* * * * *

The last time I taught JPP was at American University, where I was denied tenure. I loved this class. It was truly my happy place. My PhD is in judicial politics and this class was a fundamental part of my teaching arsenal for nearly two decades. I taught other courses like civil liberties and constitutional law when I was on the faculty at the University of Kentucky, but JPP was the only court-related undergraduate course I was allowed to teach at AU because a senior colleague taught the others. I spent a lot of time on it — even co-edited a textbook for it — and enjoyed every minute; it was interesting and challenging, and my students learned a ton and had fun doing it.

After I was denied and during the first semester of my terminal year, I accepted another job but delayed my start date until the semester was over; I wouldn’t have left any of my students in the lurch at mid-term, but I had a particular soft spot for this course and the students in it.

Many years later, when I returned to teaching in my current position, I wasn’t offered a judicial course. But I didn’t care. I was overjoyed to be back in the classroom after 5 years, but relieved to not be asked to step back into old shoes. Even teaching my favorite course unappealing. For the first time since being fired, I didn’t have to think about political science or political scientists if I didn’t want to. And I really didn’t want to.

* * * * *

When I began looking for another job, it didn’t occur to me that it might be healthy to distance myself from the profession after being denied tenure. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wouldn’t be pursuing another tenure track job. I didn’t even look to see if there were open positions in my subfield. I was sure I’d be seen as damaged goods. In my early 40s with two small children, I’d just been fired — and from a pretty average program, especially compared to others in the area. I didn’t think I’d be competitive in a very tight academic job market. And even if I was, there was no way I was going through the tenure process again.

Still, I felt uneasy walking away from a career for which I’d worked so hard. So when a friend sent me a job listing for the American Political Science Association, I applied immediately. I had no idea what it meant to work for a nonprofit membership association, but staying connected to my field was appealing. And, well, beggars can’t be choosers, a bird in the hand, and <<insert your proverb of choice here>>. I was lucky to get such a good job.

But it came with some serious unanticipated costs.

I didn’t realize at the time how much of my self-worth was connected to the academy, and it surprised me. It’s not like being a professor was my childhood dream and losing my job was the end of some long-held ambition. It wasn’t. And it’s not like I couldn’t imagine a different career. I could. What really weighed on me — and came to a head a few years into my stint at APSA — was that I might not be capable of doing anything. Forget political science. I mean anything at all.

For decades, I honed tools that I relied on to overcome the setbacks I experienced in all parts of my life. Focus, commitment, persistence — these were keys to a work ethic that gave me confidence when I didn’t succeed. Yet, after I left AU for APSA, it became clear that those tools were the primary casualties of losing my job. Without them, I lost my moorings and my way.

At first I thought I might have a bad case of imposter syndrome, but the truth is that I never felt like a fraud because I had no illusions and made no pretenses about my abilities. I wasn’t one of the “cream of the crop,” not as a student or a professor. I wasn’t in advanced classes in high school and didn’t graduate at the top of my class, I earned As but as many Bs (and a C I remember rather well) in college; I did ok on the GRE, winged my way through a few of my grad school classes, and nearly lost my funding after the first year. There were many times when I felt—painfully—that I wasn’t capable of competing and worried that I wouldn’t get my degree, wouldn’t get my work published, wouldn’t be a good teacher, or earn tenure. Or earn tenure again. These feelings were par for the course for me.

The antidote for my insecurities and shortcomings has always been to push myself, do my best, and not give up easily. What’s the worst that could happen, I always ask myself before taking a new step; falling on my face isn’t usually reason not to try. I’m ambitious and want to do well, but experience tells me that not succeeding is always possible (even likely, at times). Through this prism, it made sense when I didn’t get As, was rejected from grad schools, struggled in my classes, had manuscripts and grant proposals rejected, was overlooked for jobs. Hurdles and setbacks like these don’t feel like failure. They feel like normal and necessary — however disappointing and sometimes discouraging — parts of a life-long learning curve that served me well as an academic.

Being denied tenure should have been the same, I thought. Another — albeit pretty substantial — setback. But it wasn’t. And not because of claims that my research wasn’t good enough, or plentiful enough, or whatever.

What I had a lot more trouble overcoming was the assertion that I was on a “downward” trajectory, the doubt that I would be productive in the future, and the judgment that this constituted a failure on my part. They questioned my focus, my commitment, my persistence — the very tools in my kit that had been anchors when I struggled, that I needed to combat my insecurities. With the implication that I’d let my work slide, that I wasn’t dedicated enough to the job, that I didn’t work hard enough to earn my place — that I was knowingly and even deliberately a slacker — they dismantled my defenses.

Of course, it was all code for having kids. They knew better than to say it out loud or in writing, but it’s what they meant.

Still, knowing this to be true — that the failure was theirs, not mine — didn’t make it easier to move on.

And working at APSA made it exponentially worse. Spending my days (and many of my nights and weekends) surrounded by political science and working in the service of political scientists was a constant reminder that I’d been found wanting in ways that were integral to my identify and self worth. I did my work with a smile on my face and even enthusiasm some days; I knew how to pull up my big girl panties.

But it took a lot of energy to continually push down the grief, sorrow, anger, and embarrassment that I often felt. I regularly compared myself to others, at once reassured that I was as good a political scientist as most of them were, and dejected that I’d been unable to get it done as they had. I forced myself to continue working on a couple of research projects, to review manuscripts and grants, to do other small things, to prove to myself — and others — that I was still dedicated, willing, and able to put in the time. But it made me feel worse. I felt diminished and ashamed for needing to validate myself, and guilty for not appreciating how lucky I was for everything else in my life, including this job. Self-doubt was a constant companion, creeping into every part of my life.

I had trouble sleeping well for years, a function of having babies and then small children, and medical issues. But when nightly panic attacks turned to sleepless nights that lasted for days, and then weeks, I knew I was becoming unmoored.

* * * * *

I’m not sure I’ll ever fully recover from being fired.

Yet, after a long slog that included invaluable support from my family and the expertise of professionals, I eventually turned a corner. I reclaimed my tools and made (enough) peace with the past so that I could take baby steps forward.

Or back, as it were.

First, a return to the academy and the classroom, on my own terms.

Now, a new — or rather, an old — class! I’m ready to take back my happy place!

We Get What We Deserve. We Deserve What We Get.

When I was about 7 months pregnant with my first child, a senior female colleague gave me some unsolicited advice: I should pump as much as possible so that my husband could feed the baby while I worked at night. I was surprised because it was so intrusive and presumptuous, and because I was a bit overwhelmed with the ever-increasing reality of becoming a mother. Was she kidding? I had no more idea of what kind of baby my son would be than the kind of mother I would be. The idea that I would strategize about feeding him before he was born—to make time for work, no less— was bizarre. Surely there’d be time to figure that out after I met him.

I shrugged off her remark as insensitive, and assumed it was her awkward way of helping me negotiate work and parenthood.

But it’s occurred to me over time that there’s something a bit sinister in the way some women react to other women and their challenges with work-life balance. I’m not sure my observations are unique or new, but we certainly don’t talk about it enough. And we should, for the sake of each other and the academy in general.

* * * * *

Work-life balance. We talk about it as if it’s a real thing. It’s not.

For a long time, I bought into the image of this balance as a scale. It seemed reasonable enough, especially when successful balancers explained how it was done: just identify required work tasks and requisite timelines, set aside the hours required to accomplish the tasks within the timelines, and do the work. Repeat on the life side. TADA! Balance.

But the analogy of a scale is all wrong. The weights are never even because we begin the balancing with work. There are good reasons for this, not least that work is usually non-negotiable; most of us have to work. Work is also relatively predictable: usually we know what’s expected, when it’s expected, and how to achieve it. And, significantly, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be selective, work is also intrinsically valuable and essential to our self-worth and life satisfaction. It’s not surprising, then, that we focus on work first when trying to figure out some semblance of balance in our lives.

For people in good health and with little if any responsibility for others, the life side of the scale can be predictable too. Even so, once we give work the first cut at our time and energy, there are few resources left for non-work stuff. In academia, work is a gas and it fills the space. We try to make the most of the life things in an attempt to level the scales. And it often seems like balance even though the scale tips (sometimes steeply) towards work.

Still, the imbalanced balance can be great — wonderful, even — in this relatively unencumbered world where the line between work and everything else is a bit porous. We value our work and it gives our life meaning, so we happily sacrifice the other things we might do with our time.

Eventually, though, many of us enthusiastically add a partner and children. We dutifully and even happily add sick and/or aging parents to our daily lives. We unfortunately experience personal health issues. And all hell breaks loose. Every bit of predictability disappears. And it happens—poof!— in what seems like a blink of an eye. Life as we know it changes into something completely unknown … and unknowable. And however joyous some of these life-changing events may be, the result resembles a massive cluster fuck that rests not on a scale but a precarious house-of-cards on the verge of falling to pieces at any moment.

Yet the work does not change. It goes on, it needs to be done. It is not negotiable. And for many of us, we want it to go on. Again, work is part of who we are. We want to work.

For those who have partners or other sources of assistance, stabilizing the house-of-cards is (more) doable because there is someone(s) or something(s) available to complete the life tasks. These ideal workers continue to meet work obligations because they are not responsible for managing the chaos that exists elsewhere in their lives. Historically, these workers were men with wives at home, and this is still largely true. Even as women have entered the workforce — and some men have exited — much of home and childcare tasks remain the responsibility of women.

Some working women seem to be able to do it all, and effortlessly. They are “superwomen,” who appear to seamlessly adapt to the various challenges posed by life changes. They can do — and have — it all.

A closer look, though, often reveals that the ease is a misperception as these women have various sources of help in accomplishing the many life tasks that make it possible to meet—or even surpass— the demands of work. It is not to diminish their intellectual merit and multitasking skills to suggest that luck—in terms of partners, financial resources, proximity to family and friends, severity of health issues, the personalities and needs of their children, and other factors—plays a significant role in their ability to keep their fragile houses relatively stable.

For the many more women with less, and sometimes no, support, the effort to keep the house standing comes with the high price of cutting corners at home, at work, and more often, both. There is a constant pull of one and then the other, with little relief. It is exhausting. And it produces a unique kind of anxiety and guilt, and feeling of incompetence, that is difficult to overcome, especially when there are superwomen—real or perceived—against whom we judge ourselves and are judged by others. In the end, some of us seem to manage it more effectively than others. While part of our ability to cope may be a function of merit and skill, a huge part of it is luck.

The very worst part of it, though, is that the process of becoming a working mother (or other caregiver) is seen by others and ourselves as some kind of rite of passage that gives value and justification to the sacrifices that we make.

We—us women— talk about learning from those who came before us, supporting those who are next to us, and paving the way for those who come later. But that’s not always the way it works. If we have struggled, made sacrifices, taken hits, then that is part of our narrative of success. And it is the way we perceive the appropriate narrative of others. I struggled, so should you. I struggled, it worked for me, it will work for you. If you don’t make the right sacrifices, you will fail. If you fail, it’s because you didn’t make the right sacrifices.

We are the Cans and the Cannots. We get what we deserve. And we deserve what we get.

* * * * *

My colleague may have meant well. But she was most certainly delivering a warning, one that I didn’t fully appreciate until many years later. She and others would be watching my commitment to work as I became a parent.

Hindsight being what it is, I now recognize some of the not-so-subtle signs over the years about expectations for my productivity as a mother. I suspect they are so familiar to so many mothers (and perhaps some fathers too) as to be trite: the off-hand remark about your leaving early from a late afternoon meeting, or not having been able to attend at all; the awkward silence in a discussion about the conference you missed because it involved travel; the knowing look when you turn down an invitation to serve on a(nother) committee; the query about how you’re doing that is as much (if not more) an evaluation of your performance than sincere interest. And, the advice that seems helpful but is a veiled message about the appropriate priorities for success.

If I noticed any of these, I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about them. In fewer than three years, smack in the middle of my probationary period, I had a baby, my father died, and I had another baby. And those were just the big things. I didn’t have the luxury of fussing about what people in my department or elsewhere may or may not have been saying about my ability to “balance” work and life, or to meet some artificial standards of behavior set by a few women (or men) who thought I had dues to pay for their long-ago sacrifices. I had a shit show (literally and figuratively) going on and every ounce of energy I had was spent keeping my very vulnerable house-of-cards standing.

By every measure—except the tenure one, of course—I did pretty well. Both pre-tenure reviews were positive; if I missed informal cues along the way because I was too exhausted to exercise my mind-reading super powers, I did not miss the formal written evaluations of my work performance. As for the rest of it, I managed to keep my children healthy and happy and I was able to provide some comfort and dignity for my dad in the last weeks of his life. I was (I am) lucky to have an exceptionally supportive spouse and loving family and friends who had my back during the many times when I thought I would surely lose my mind and fall to pieces.

Could I have accomplished more “at the office” during this period? Absolutely. I made a lot of sacrifices in my life to meet my work obligations, but I didn’t cut every corner. I know women who have, and do.

I could provide a list of my so-called choices—the decisions I made about what was important at any given moment—but I won’t because it shouldn’t matter. Every woman (every parent and caregiver) does what they need—what they can—to keep it all afloat. There aren’t “right” or “wrong” sacrifices, there are just difficult and sometimes impossible situations that require us to make hard decisions. Most of them go unseen by others as we struggle privately to do our best. We should be able to count on others not to judge what they don’t know.

I am fortunate to know many remarkable people in the academy—women and men—who see beyond themselves and their own experiences to support others in their pursuit of success, both at work and in life. They know that there’s little distinction between work and the rest of life, and that trajectories are rarely linear. They take the long view in supporting individuals careers and building institutions.

And there are many who don’t.

* * * * *

Several months ago, a woman posted to the PoliSciRumors blog in response to my tenure denial story and her words have stuck with me.


I don’t normally focus on a single post, but not only is she very angry, she also has some support, evidenced by the Yeas. If nothing else, it’s obvious that there’s some serious bitterness expressed here.

And it’s very personal. She Googled me or my dad (likely finding his obituary) and used his success to highlight my failure. She made assumptions about my upbringing to suggest that I hadn’t earned my achievements. And she found myriad ways to say that I deserved to be fired.

I admit that among my first thoughts (after “WTF?” and “Who are you?”) was, “THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU! THIS IS ABOUT ME!”

Except that it’s not just about me. She’s right. It IS about her, at least to some extent.

She sees in me someone who had every opportunity, every benefit of the doubt, every resource available, and squandered it all. She sees me playing a victim, blaming others— including my kids—for my failure. And it’s all made worse because she had none of these things and made all the sacrifices that she believes I didn’t.

The rite of passage. We each get what we deserve, she to succeed, me to fail.

I get where she’s coming from.

But her anger is misplaced. Taking aim at each other is short-sighted and counter-productive. She knows no more about the nature of my life than I do about hers. I didn’t create the circumstances that have caused her such difficulty any more than she created the circumstances of my tenure denial. And more power to her —and anyone else—able or willing to cut corners and make sacrifices that I was either unable or unwilling to make.

But my willingness or ability to make personal sacrifices—like pumping so that I could work instead of feeding my child—has no more to do with my merits as a scholar, teacher, or colleague than hers. Neither of us—none of us—should be the object of institutions that makes our individual sacrifices the price for success.

This is an institutional failure of the worst kind.

And this is the fundamental purpose of my blog, to shine light on one part of this failure by highlighting some of the serious procedural and substantive flaws in the tenure process. This is something everyone should care about—especially women and mothers—regardless of their views about the merits of my case and how it makes them feel about their own success or failure.

The consequences for not appreciating how institutions affect individual decisions are devastating, not just for the individuals affected but for the academy more generally. Maybe, just maybe, if we can take a step back to see the big picture and a step forward — dare I say, lean in — to support each other, we can find solutions to the many challenges that we all face in negotiating work and life.

No One Likes a Failure

I remember clearly the afternoon I learned my department would not support tenure.

My immediate response was shock. I thought I might get some pushback from higher in the administration, but I did not expect to be rejected by my colleagues.

The disbelief transitioned pretty quickly, though, from wondering how this happened to completely believing that I totally fucked up. And, for the eternity that it took to drive home, the loop in my head included questions like, Why didn’t I do more? Why didn’t I make different decisions? What the hell was wrong with ME?

The shame was palpable. It wasn’t just the overwhelming embarrassment (soon enough, everyone would know) and guilt (I had let down my family, but also mentors, colleagues, friends) that weighed on me.

It was the suffocating sense of failure that was a boulder on my chest.

* * * * * 

Short of bodily functions, there may be nothing more universal to the human experience than failing.

Everyone does it. Regularly. In small and big ways, we make mistakes, don’t meet our goals, fall short of our expectations, miss our mark.

Sometimes we fail quietly, alone, with little fanfare. And that’s how we like it. With no one watching. It’s painful enough to know our failures ourselves.

But more often, we fail in view of others. Sometimes in view of many, many others. And this is devastating.

Because no one likes a failure.

We dislike our own failure. It fills us with insecurity, remorse, regret. With shame. So much shame.

It is a well-worn narrative--at least in American folklore--that success derives from the strength and perseverance required to pull one’s self up by her own bootstraps. It is an individual accomplishment. We may know better intellectually, but this myth about personal agency, ability, and responsibility pervades our thinking about our achievements. It defines our beliefs about individual worth -- and worthiness. Succeeding is good; it is strength and fortitude.

And if we get to take credit for our success, then the corollary must also be true: we must take responsibility for our failure. It too must be a function of individual characteristics, like ignorance or laziness, that prevent us from achieving our goals. Failing is bad; it is weakness and incompetence.

Given this frame, it is rather unfortunate that most of us fail more often than we succeed. The burden can be enormous, and devastating to our self-esteem. It is little wonder that we are embarrassed, ashamed, and even afraid of failure. That we will do any number of things to avoid it.

As much as we are uncomfortable with our own failure--and perhaps because of this discomfort--we really, REALLY dislike failure in others.

I’m sure the psychology is very complex, but projection surely plays a powerful role in how we grapple with our real or perceived inadequacies. We take back a bit of the security and respect lost by our own failure when we highlight the failures of others. We deflect attention from our own deficiencies when we emphasize the shortcomings of others. We diminish our feelings of vulnerability when we make others feel exposed.

We all do it. A defensive posture against powerlessness, a natural response in a competitive, challenging world.

Add to this the social Darwin-like nature of that competitive world in which a so-called meritocracy rules not only how the game is played but how we frame our own strengths and weaknesses. Some win, some lose, we tell ourselves. Our success is meaningful only in a world where others fail. And where success is earned, so is failure.

Everything is relative, and success requires failure. Just let the failure be someone else’s.

* * * * *

That night after reading the Chair’s letter, I intuitively understood how the psychology of success and failure would play out for me, for the gatekeepers in the process, and for others who would learn that I’d been denied tenure:

Everyone would blame me.

Although the substance of the letter was devastating, the kick in the gut was the line at the end:

“Dr. Diascro knows the consequences of this failure.”

Her failure.

She’s a failure.

That’s what I read. That’s what I heard. And that’s exactly what they meant.

This line, more than any other, was intended to make me feel as badly about myself as possible, to assume full responsibility, and to withdraw into a corner in shame.

I was primed by my own sense of obligation and responsibility--and a healthy dose of self doubt--to believe it all, hook, line, and sinker. To be sure, there were reasonable critiques to be made of my record, at least on its face.

And I wanted to hide; that was certainly my initial impulse. I knew (I know) better than anyone the weaknesses in my record, and I felt very badly about myself for not having been able to publish more.

But it was more than my professional record. My perception of my personal weakness was profound. It was very easy for me to dismiss the challenges I faced in the years on the tenure track with children and the death of my father. I knew well that there were others who’d managed the hurdles of parenthood and life and death to achieve tenure. Surely there was something better about them that led to their success, and something wrong with me that I was unable to do it too.

If their success was earned, then my failure was earned as well.

But the sense of failure doesn’t end in our own heads. Much of it is comes from others. A significant source of my feelings of failure came from being called a failure by my peers. I’m quite sure I would have felt a little less horrible--perhaps it would have seemed a bit more private--had they not actually documented their perception that I had failed.

There is enormous shame that comes from the external reactions to failure. This is one reason we do our best to keep our shortcomings and challenges as secret as possible; it’s the reason we don’t talk about failure. As much as we blame ourselves for falling short of our aspirations, others blame us more.

With some notable exceptions, the responses to my “going public” with my failure have met with this kind of response.

And I get it. There is enormous insecurity and vulnerability in academe. The risk and experience of failure is everywhere, fundamentally inherent in the scholarly process of research and teaching. The opportunities for success are slim and highly competitive and coveted. The process is devastatingly unforgiving. The game is perceived as--and perhaps is--zero-sum. The anxiety about completing intellectually and psychologically rigorous doctoral programs, competing in a sparse and cut-throat job market, and achieving the brass ring of tenure in a constantly shifting higher education environment, is very real.

I understand why some people aren’t sympathetic to someone who appears to have benefitted enormously from the institutions of academia, only to throw it all away by her own actions. Someone who should have known better. Someone who should have known the consequences of her failure.

And I feel badly about this. I know I’ve been lucky in many ways, and I know that others have struggled in ways that I have not.

Yet, I think it’s worth taking a step back to reflect a bit. Despite some views to the contrary, my purpose in writing about my tenure denial was not to garner sympathy. That’s hard to believe because it’s hard to understand any other reason for exposing failure so publicly.

But take a moment to ignore the particulars of my experience and all the baggage that I’ve brought to it--and the baggage that you've brought to it as well. Instead, consider the underlying issues about the institutional processes that I’ve described, that affect all of us in academia. What’s the role and significance of internal and external written reviews? What are legitimate standards of excellence and how are they administered? What’s the purpose of different levels of institutional review? How available and trustworthy is advice and mentorship? How meaningful are the processes by which life events are accommodated in professional advancement, if they exist at all? What’s the commitment to diversity and how is it implemented? And more.

If you consider these questions outside the context of my failure, what do you think about them? What will you do about them? Can you get past your own insecurities, vulnerabilities, and fears, to constructively evaluate the current state of the academy? What is the state of play, and who benefits and loses? How might we develop processes that are at once rigorous and demanding, transparent and honest, and forgiving of the nonlinear paths that most humans experience in their lives?

What might we do to better to understand what success and failure mean for academics?

I know I’ve made some people very uncomfortable with this blog. More often than not, I’m uncomfortable writing it.

No one likes a failure.

But if you don’t dig it, don’t read it. If judging me makes you feel better about yourself, then so be it. Your choice.

Alternatively, if you’d like to constructively address the many challenges we face in academia, then let's do it. We can do better, and we should.