Preliminary Reflections on Ambition and Motherhood

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an essay for a magazine. It was a first for me. The call was for reflections on ambition and motherhood, a topic I figured was right up my alley. And it is. But, as it turns out, that doesn’t mean I have any idea about what I think or know about ambition and motherhood! Despite the pages of notes and my best laid plans, when I sat down to put it all together it was “eh.” Not only did it not flow as I hoped it would, but it turns out I’m not at all sure what ambition means to me. I know my understanding of ambition (such as it was) changed when I had kids, but the more I thought about it and started writing on it, the more I realized that I don’t know how to articulate it. Go figure. Still, I submitted the essay anyway because otherwise I’d perseverate over it FOREVER and NEVER send it out. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that it was rejected. I don’t know if it was because it didn’t fit the needs of their series and/or if they thought it was rather “eh” (or worse) as well.

Either way, I now have this essay that needs work. As I come to better terms with what I think about ambition and motherhood, I'm posting it here. This version includes a few tweaks to the draft I sent to the magazine. To be honest, they don’t make it much better, but I did cut about 50 words so maybe that’s something.

Here’s to works in progress …

* * * * *

Hitching Wagons to Stars

“Blah blah blah. Kids. Blah blah blah.” he said.

That’s all I remember from a casual lunch conversation with my then-boyfriend, now-husband.

I suddenly felt light-headed and more than a little nauseated. He looked up and asked what was wrong. I must have looked as green as I felt.

“Kids?” I blurted.

“What, you don’t want kids?”

I didn’t know. I hadn’t wanted kids before. It wasn’t that I didn’t want kids. I did want kids, with him. I thought. Of course I wanted kids. Did I want kids?

Oh, shit.

* * * * *

Until recently, I’d given little thought to ambition or what it meant to me. That’s not to say I wasn’t ambitious. I was. It’s just that it was an amorphous concept. Mostly, I assumed it -- whatever it was -- was a good thing. I was taught from an early age that I should pursue it, and I did, with little question.

At first, ambition was about homework and grades. The rule in our house was that you worked first, played second. As the oldest of three in a home that -- from the time I was 13 -- had a father as a single parent, I took this rule literally and seriously. And so did he, who I suspect was more than a little freaked out by the responsibility of raising a teenage daughter.

The message was clear. Working hard and getting good grades would be instrumental for college, and going to college would mean having choices. Career choices.

At one point in high school I thought I’d be an international banker who would travel the world; at another, I thought being a Supreme Court justice would be cool. I had fantasies about my glamorous and powerful life.

Not one of them included a husband or children.

My dad was raising a young woman who would be self-sufficient. Focusing on school and a career was the key to independence and discretion. The goal was to stand on my own two feet before I did anything else, with anyone else, for anyone else.

And this goal was unwavering through college and graduate school. I vacillated about what major to choose and what career direction to take (banking and judging passed relatively quickly with my teenage imagination), but I always knew that whatever I did, I would get there unencumbered by family responsibilities.

It’s not that I didn’t think about family. I did. In fact, it was one of several reasons I opted to pursue a doctorate rather than a law degree. My dad was an academic and my siblings and I had been beneficiaries of the flexibility he had. I didn’t dream of being a professor, but academia seemed like a good path and I took it.

With my nose to the grindstone, I went to conferences, wrote papers, taught classes, and wrote my thesis, all as expected, as one can do when she has only herself to consider. On the job market, I interviewed for faculty positions on my own terms with the freedom of someone who could make decisions for herself only. This was exactly as it should be. I was accomplished and happy.

I was 28 when I got my first faculty appointment right out of grad school. Before I began, though, I was already thinking about the next step, the brass ring in academia: tenure. My single purpose for the next 6 years would be earning tenure.

I dated a bit during the first of these years, but didn’t consider marriage--and certainly not kids. I simply couldn’t see getting tenure with those distractions. I hit the mute button on my biological clock and pressed on at the pace of my tenure clock instead. Everything else could wait.

And then I met my would-be husband. Smack in the middle of my trek to tenure. With hindsight, I shudder to think about the choices I might have made had we lived in the same city, our relationship an ever-present distraction from my work and a threat to my goal. But he lived several hundred miles away, close enough for regular visits but far enough so that I could stay focused.

Which brings me back to the nauseating lunch conversation. We weren’t yet engaged, so talking about kids--when I had never, ever, talked about having kids with anyone--took me by surprise. Getting married was one thing. What would my life--my career--look like with kids? I simply couldn’t imagine.

Happily, I didn’t puke. And a year or so later, we were engaged and I was promoted with tenure.

In my ideal world, I would have continued on an academic trajectory that included promotion to full professor and perhaps holding administrative positions. I would have had the freedom to write the book I dreamed of and to experiment more with my teaching. I would have fulfilled my ambition through this success.

But I wasn’t on my own anymore, making choices only for myself and in my own interests.

My wagon was now hitched to a different star. An “us” star, not a “my” star.

And at 35, the “us” star was the right star. To my surprise, it felt empowering to be part of a team. Why couldn’t I continue to pursue my professional goals and also have a family? I could do this! I could have it all.

* * * * *

My conception of ambition and what it meant to be ambitious changed gradually, but inevitability, over the next many years.

It started with moving. I left my tenured position for an untenured position in my fiancé’s city. He would have moved to me in a heartbeat, but that would have meant leaving his career behind. Academics are relatively mobile, though; it’s not always easy, but it’s doable. I would have to start over, but I’d earned tenure once and I could do it again.

Less than a year later, we were married. Just weeks before our first wedding anniversary, our son was born. Two and half years later, we welcomed our daughter to our family. The three very best days of my life.

By this time, I was only a year or so away from submitting my tenure dossier. I’d been productive and had only positive evaluations of my progress. My childhood observations about academic flexibility were (mostly) accurate and I’d been able to adjust my schedule to meet many of my family’s needs. While both kids had to go to daycare, I was able to spend more time with them than mothers with other jobs, while also fulfilling my obligations for tenure.

But my application for tenure was denied. Outside the academy, tenure denial is fundamentally the equivalent of being fired.

The claim was that I’d failed to meet the university’s research standards. But that was pretext for judgements about how having children would negatively affect my professional commitment and trajectory. The 180 degree turn from previously positive evaluations to a negative tenure review was suspiciously related to my exercise of a university policy that allowed new parents to pause their tenure clocks so they might focus on their children for a time without professional penalty.

Alas, it seemed there might be some flaws in the implementation of this policy.

I fought the decision with everything I had. I fought for my career and for the many years of hard work. I fought against the injustice and for the loss of my identity, which was so closely tied my work. And I fought because that’s what I’d always done in pursuit of a goal.

And then I stopped. Suddenly, it seemed, I didn’t want to fight for work--this work--anymore. It was no longer central to my identity, no longer the most compelling factor in my life, no longer the primary source of my ambition. I didn’t need it anymore.

The “us” star was my North Star, with kids the central source of light. With my wagon hitched to it--to them--my understanding of ambition changed to something much bigger than any particular individual or professional goal.

For the first time in my memory, I had no career goal, no career path, no career direction. My only concern was providing for my children.

I figured the rest would work itself out.

It was time to move on.

Infographics as Critical Thinking Assignments

I'm getting ready for a new semester to start next week and revising a few of my assignments. Several colleagues have asked about my infographic assignment, so I've posted last term's prompt and a few examples of student work from the last year or so in the Library. I still tweak the assignment based on issues I have in each class, and the examples are not perfect -- students are still learning how to collect and present evidence, and how to cite their sources -- but these illustrate their good, creative work and the fun they have doing this assignment.

My students are those who come to DC to do internships for academic credit, but they also take at least one course. The required courses are writing-intensive courses, something that most of them don't get on campus regularly due to the size of their classes. It's a great opportunity for them to do evidence-based research papers and other assignments that promote the development of critical thinking and empirical research skills.

Those who take my class write research papers on topics of their choosing related to the work they do in their internships. I want them to be thinking about and synthesizing the work they do at their "day jobs" with the work they do in class. Bringing theory to practice, and vice versa is important.

But after teaching for a couple terms here, I realized that I wanted them to think in different ways and develop various skills that will help them post-graduation. So I tried the infographic assignment. It's still a work in progress, but it gets rave reviews from students. They don't always like the additional work as they're finishing up long and difficult research projects, but it gives them something different to think about and exercises a different part of their brain as they continue to develop their research and presentation skills. And, importantly, they develop a new, very practical skill that they can add to their resumes. Not only do they learn to use new software, but they have a PDF of their work that they can print in color for a portfolio. For those who want to use them professionally, I edit and continue to give them access to the software until they have a product with which they're happy.

One technical note: I use Venngage and have been very happy with their product. I purchase a year subscription for about $100 for about 35 students at a time; I switch out the students each term. The paid version allows students to download their work as PDFs so that they can have hard copies and I can print them in color for them. I've been happy with their support team as well. There are other products that may be just as good if not better, but I'm familiar with Venngage and it's affordable so am sticking with it.

I appreciate constructive feedback, and would love to hear how (your version of) the assignment works for you if you do implement it in your class. Have fun!

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.