Respecting (All) Women in the (Academic) Workplace

BlogHer Original Post

A confluence of blog reading and personal reflection has once again drawn me to the question of women in academia. Specifically, I've been musing on women in the academic workplace--because I think when we say "academia" we're not always talking about the physical embodiment of its space in classrooms, cubicles, offices, and especially support staff members. But what brought on this reflection?

First, a piece in Inside Higher Ed suggested that academia hinders parenthood, and Dean Dad, Dr. Crazy, ScienceWoman, Janet Stemwedel, Addy N., and others weighed in on the question.

Then, Laura, a Ph.D. and instructional technologist at the forefront of her field, blogged about faculty requesting that she complete menial technical tasks for them.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick sent more of my synapses firing in a post titled Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy." She argues that academia's slowness--or unwillingness--to change the ways it validates knowledge and to adopt and adapt new media means it will (if it hasn't already) become irrelevant to public discourse. Laura responded with the hope that the academy will come to accept, if not embrace, different kinds of work as scholarship.

From Twitter and other conversations online and off, I also know other women who work in the liminal space between faculty assignments and staff duties have been wrestling with conceptions of what counts as scholarship or as leadership in their fields--and even what counts as their field. I'm in the same uncomfortable position--technically I'm classified as staff, but I have a teaching appointment at my institution and at another university so that I may teach courses occasionally. My intellectual work has been in American studies and the history of science; my employer is a teaching resources center; and my teaching expertise leans right now toward museum studies. I'm expected to produce, however, academic work related to pedagogy or instructional technology--and yet that kind of academic production isn't likely to be recognized or valued by the faculty with whom I consult.

This liminal space can be uncomfortable in ways that are not merely intellectual. Imagine an office where half the staff has Ph.D.s and the social status and privileges that come with such attainment, while the other half has very little college education, if any at all. The non-degreed staff, especially those who have been around the university block a few times, are likely to have been less recognized and respected by faculty than they should have been. It's likely, therefore, that they expect any newly arrived staff Ph.D.s are going to similarly lack empathy for where staff are coming from. Similarly, the Ph.D.s, who are used to the flexibility of an academic schedule and who feel free to come and go as they see fit, may not realize the hard feelings of staff members whose duties keep them at their desks from 8 to 5 every day. Intraoffice class warfare, anyone?

All of these issues--of academia being unsympathetic to working parents (and particularly to mothers), of nontraditional forms of intellectual production being dismissed with little reflection, and the tension between degreed and non-degreed staff--all boil down to a lack of respect for people's life experiences and choices.

I chose to be a mother and because of that decision, I no longer have the time to focus on long-term, sustained, traditional academic projects. Instead, I post on blogs--where I reach a larger number of actual academic readers than if if I published in a journal--and tinker with new media with the goal of producing more thoughtful teaching (my own and others'). Staff members without Ph.D.s at my institution are also tackling a lot of really interesting issues that are only tangentially related to their staff positions--and faculty (and other staff) may never understand the intellectual curiosity, passion, and brilliance half-hidden in the people who crunch numbers or answer phones for the department.

Digital media has the potential to level the playing field inside the academy because it allows for new kinds of collaboration to emerge. New technologies allow staff to showcase their intellectual and aesthetic interests; the same technologies can humanize faculty by allowing staff and others a glimpse behind the ivory curtain. Through faculty blogs that blend the personal and professional, for example, we might see the physiologist's participation in her daughter's soccer league or the model railroad a transportation engineer has set up in his basement.

If new media allows us to see people holistically--be they faculty or staff--then there's hope that the academy might recognize some "new" voices--voices that might better connect us with our communities and engender mutual respect.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

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