If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Agony of Grading

Just finished grading papers from my undergraduate course. I required a first draft and gave them extensive feedback. Here are a few stats:
  • 5 out of the 35 felt handing in the draft was optional (it wasn't)
  • So far it seems 4 out of the 35 think handing in the final is optional
  • 2 students fit categories 1 & 2 above
  • Of the 31 I received, 6 were plagiarized
  • Approximately 1/3 of the papers were either excellent in the draft or improved--maybe not to excellent but still substantial
  • Not counting those who plagiarized, a handful actually got worse and many stayed the same.
  • I offered extra credit just for visiting the writing center between the draft and the final--6 took me up on it.
Tomorrow they get the bad news. The last chance to withdraw from the class without penalty is fast approaching and I'll be encouraging several to do just that.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Doula Training Update

To become a certified doula I have to attend childbirth classes and a breastfeeding class in addition to the actual doula workshop I attended. Of course I will also need to serve as a doula for three births (only one of which can be a cesarean to count), read 5 books, write up my birth stories as well as an essay on the importance of being a doula. So it is no small process.

Luckily the program for teen moms in my area makes a lot of this possible and I don't need to arrange all of the logistics. This past Thursday we started our 7-week childbirth classes. The class is actually much smaller than usual, with only 7 or 8 teen moms (and 13 doulas-in-training!). I was hoping to get matched up with one of the girls as a mentor but alas they're aren't enough to go around. Pumpkin did get matched and I'm very happy for her. She is the type of person that needs a connection to make it real.

The first session was more of a meet and greet with paperwork so it wasn't much fun, however next week we get our actual childbirth educator. This morning I went to a 3 hour breast feeding class. Most teens don't breastfeed and while its not our job to persuade them it is our job to support them in their decision and to give them the information they need to make that decision. The discussion today brought back many memories for me. I loved breastfeeding but was not well supported. It came very easy to me, so all of the problems I heard about today were surprising. However I weaned Angel at 4 months even though I didn't really want to and I've always regretted that decision. I had been back to work for 2 months by then and had no support for pumping and storing in the office. It seemed like I was making things worse for all three of us (me, Angel and his dad who was home with him during the day). When I made the decision I was under the impression I'd have at least one more child and thought I'd be in a different position when that happened (one that supported breastfeeding). Unfortunately that never materialized.

I thought I'd share this poem by Sharon Olds on childbirth. Its been on my mind with all that I hear and see in these trainings.

The Language of the Brag

I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw,
I have wanted to use my exceptionally strong and accurate arms
and my straight posture and quick electric muscles
to achieve something at the centre of a crowd,
the blade piercing the bark deep,
the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock.

I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body,
some heroism, some American achievement
beyond the ordinary for my extraordinary self,
magnetic and tensile, I have stood by the sandlot
and watched the boys play.

I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire
and the crossing of waterfalls, I have dragged around

my belly big with cowardice and safely,
my stool black with iron pills,
my huge breasts oozing mucus,
my legs swelling, my hands swelling,
my face swelling and darkening, my hair
falling out, my inner sex
stabbed again and again with terrible pain like a knife.
I have lain down.

I have lain down and sweated and shaken
and passed blood and feces and water and
slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have
passed the new person out
and they have lifted the person free of the act
and wiped the new person free of that
language of blood like praise all over the body.

I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,

I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.

-Sharon Olds

Friday, September 25, 2009

Wonders Never Cease

Angel called today and asked if I hadn't received his 2 phone calls from yesterday (I hadn't because the younger generation no longer believes in leaving voicemail but rather "missed call" is supposed to clue you in to call them back--I rarely check my phone for missed calls). He was calling to say that he was thinking of stopping in for a visit this weekend. But now he's not so sure. Seems he has a tickle in the back of his throat and possibly a wisdom tooth coming in.

We still may be getting a visit but he won't know until tomorrow (when he wakes up and sees how he feels). I was rather blase in my response--since it seemed/seems rather up in the air and I don't really want to get my hopes up or change my plans (ok my plans all involve work but still). The most amazing part of the entire exchange was that he got insulted I wasn't acting more excited.

It is an exceedingly delicate balance with grown (or almost grown) children--like dancing on the head of a pin.

I told him I would love a visit from him (which of course is an understatement) and that seemed to satisfy. We'll see what happens.

On rereading this post I realize that there isn't another man in the world I would allow to treat me this way. I did once and that was with...oh right...his father.

Monday, September 21, 2009

State of the Semester

I've really been feeling it this semester--more than the start of any other semester so far. Everyone around me--faculty and student alike--have been reporting the same. However I'm not sure if this is just the normal level of complaining. Every other semester I feel rather good and people around me complain and I--generally--ignore them. Now everyone is either agreeing with me and I'm agreeing with them. I feel like I've joined the pod people in The Stepford Wives, only instead of looking and acting perfect, we're all looking, feeling and acting miserable.

We're in the fifth week of the semester, which is about 1/3 of the way through. I don't think I can really call it the start of the semester anymore, and yet I don't really feel any better. Courses are stabilized now--students know what to expect from us and we know what to expect from them. Committee meetings are up and running; expectations and agendas are set and in motion. I don't think my workload is any greater than any other semester and, quite frankly, is lower than what it should be since I managed to trade a larger class for a much smaller one.

But yesterday something occurred to me. I worked very productively on my research all summer long. I did manage to relax and enjoy myself but I spent fairly full days working on my research and, more importantly, I made considerable progress. I think I developed a subconscious expectation of being able to do "my work" that consciously I know I cannot meet during the semester. My subconscious expectations have been ruling these past four weeks in spite of my best intentions. So I need to find away to adjust the subliminal pressure I put on myself early on in the semester. Acknowledging it is a good first step.

This realization does make me wonder if this means that the more productive I am in the summer the more likely it is I'll be miserable in the fall?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Single Life

b is away this week. He is UpNorth with his family. We email and/or IM daily. Angel is at school and I assume things are going well because I haven't heard from him in a while. Pumpkin is obsessively studying for the GREs--although not a day goes by without a text message, phone call, IM, and or brief face-to-face visit with her. So I am quite connected through technology but otherwise quite alone. I have to say that so far its been rather enjoyable.

Unfortunately I am completely swamped at work and had a computer snafu this week that set me back even further. [I VERY stupidly upgraded to Snow Leopard without checking for compatibility first. For those mac users out there, Snow Leopard is NOT compatible with SPSS 17--or 18 that is coming out soon--or Parallels. I need both of these to do my job so I had to go back to Leopard and, while I thought I backed up everything first--yeah I didn't. Luckily I am able to recreate everything that is important but it is a pain and time-consuming.] So a lot of my alone time is spent working to catch up, with no real chance of getting a head.

But what am I doing to entertain myself? Mostly I am watching TV (Netflix has brought TV back into my life in a way I totally didn't anticipate). I'm catching up on old seasons of Brothers & Sisters before Season 4 begins next week. I'm working my way through Dead Like Me, which unfortunately won't take too long. And Survivor started this week. I also visited my local used bookstore and I'm currently reading Anne Tyler's The Amateur Marriage. It has been raining here for most of the week but today is actually cool and dry (so far) so I'm off to take Pupzilla for a trail walk. Its been a long time since we've done that together.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What Exactly Is Feminist Mothering?

This week I received the proofs for a chapter I have coming out in a book celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sara Ruddick's Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politic of Peace. The chapter represents a stretch for me in terms of professional writing and I'm happy with how it turned out. This same week I also read this post over at Hoyden About Town and this response post at Blue Milk--both on the practices of feminist mothering (you may want to take some time right now to read them...I think you will enjoy the posts and the comments). I also took part in a survey on feminist mothering that I saw referenced on Blue Milk. Needless to say all of this has gotten me thinking about feminist mothering this week and I have to say: I'm very confused. Did something happen to feminism generally and to feminist mothering specifically while I was busy doing other things?

For those of you who haven't read Maternal Thinking, Ruddick makes the claim that (a) engaging in the practice of mothering (which she does NOT define as exclusively female) creates a unique way of thinking--the same as the engagement in any other practice creates a unique thought process (i.e. lawyers end up thinking like lawyers); (b) maternal practice ultimately consists of three factors--preservation, nurturance, and training; and (c) since the definition of training is preparing your child to be socially acceptable--as defined by the social groups to which the mother is a member--there are multiple instances where the tasks are in conflict and mothers must figure out how to resolve these conflicts. For example, raising your son to be a soldier, if this is the socially acceptable adult role in a woman's social group, is in direct conflict with the task of preservation. It is the resolution of these conflicts that forces mothers to think and, thereby, creates maternal thought. Now Ruddick also speaks of maternal inauthenticity--when these conflicts arise and mothers are not true to their own beliefs. However she notes:
"It is not when they submit or are prudent or timid that mothers are inauthentic. It is when they loose sight of the cost of prudence, deny their timidity, and tell their children that unquestioning obedience is actually right. Inauthenticity is a matter of form, not content."
To me, being authentic in this sense is feminist mothering. It is not whether we do or do not make concessions to the established order--to the institution of motherhood, as Rich would phrase it--but when we are false with our children and pretend what we believe is not valid, is not true.

However my other run-ins with definitions of feminist mothering this week seem to center on what I would term mothering (or even parenting) tasks--not practices--and many of these tasks seem to be related to styles of parenting (i.e. attachment parenting--which I freely admit I don't know enough about to discuss in an intelligent fashion) or even to other belief systems and practices (i.e. environmentalism). Now I have nothing against either attachment parenting (what little I know of it leads me to believe I would have endorsed it when Angel was small) or environmental practices but I don't think that is what defines feminist mothering (assuming we believe this term is meaningful--as opposed to their being people who are feminist and who mother--which is more how I think I would describe myself).

I also need to say that this post is not in response to either Lauredhel's or Blue Milk's thoughtful posts or any of the comments on their blogs, but rather as a response to the original post that generated their posts and, mainly, to the survey on feminist motherhood that I completed. I can do no better justice to the original post than Lauredhel herself, so I will put that aside. However the survey bothered me and I feel I can discuss it here. Again, I must start by applauding the researchers' efforts to study feminism and motherhood but I found it incredibly difficult to answer the survey. Below is a description of my main problems:
  • The survey represented motherhood as only consisting of the mothering of young children and did not acknowledge that some of us are mothers of grown children, yet our practices and attitudes may still hold some value.
  • Items of mothering practices revolved around specific tasks like breastfeeding, bed-sharing, and keeping children on a strict schedule. Given my definition of feminist mothering above, I don't see that there is necessarily any association between these tasks and a person's identity as a feminist. Take breastfeeding, for instance. The question asked (as I best recall) what length of time you felt breastfeeding was beneficial (it also asked how a "typical feminist" would respond--more on that later). Now there is quite a lot of data out there on the health benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and child and there are also recommendations for length of breastfeeding. However there are many reasons why woman either choose not to breastfeed or stop breastfeeding earlier than recommended time frames, would this mean she is not a feminist?
  • A significant portion of the survey was devoted to the percentage of time the person spent engaged in household tasks, including but not limited to early childcare tasks (i.e. diaper changing, getting up in the middle of the night). While I understand that equality in household and childcare tasks is a feminist issue, I don't think it is associated with feminist beliefs or identity. That is, there are many women who identify as feminist and who hold (so-called) feminist beliefs but still end up engaged in more than 50% of these tasks on a daily basis. I believe the reasons for this involve deep-seated gender constructions that we all hold (even us feminists) and, more importantly, shape our institutions. Rallying against them is a battle most of us (especially those with small children) are too tired to take on on a daily basis. Now keep in mind that the stated purpose of the study is to learn more about how women feel about the relationship between feminism and motherhood. I'm not convinced that looking at associations between feminist identity, mothering practices, and time spent engaged in house/childcare work is going to provide that understanding.
  • What exactly is "a typical feminist"? By asking me to rate responses to all of these items as a typical feminist would, you are assuming that I believe feminist are a homogeneous group. Would a feminist believe that?
So this post has turned into a bit of a rant and I feel bad if it sounds like I'm trashing this research. There is so little research out there on this subject and I do not know the specific aims of the study, nor do I think I was the correct demographic for completing the survey, so I don't want to appear unfair. It was more that trying to answer the questions was frustrating for me and it brought to the forefront these questions I have about the concept of feminist mothering. It seems I thought I knew what it meant, to me at least, but now I'm thinking there is another definition out there and it seems a bit too narrow for my comfort.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Angel Update

The start of sophomore year is sooo very different than freshman year--for both of us. This year he is in a different (bigger & better) dorm room and his roommate is one of his frat brothers rather than one of the lacrosse players. [The young men in this college mostly fall into one of those 2 categories from what I can surmise.] Last year his dorm room was the hang-out room for the lacrosse guys. Angel liked them well enough but probably not enough to enjoy giving up his room to them. This year I hear his friends are always around, making it challenging to get schoolwork done, but it doesn't sound like a complaint. While Angel was growing up our house was NEVER the hang-out house. Angel rarely hung out.

He originally signed up for 18 hours of classes (something I thought was NOT a good idea) to make up for the previous term where he only took 12 hours (something I thought was NOT a good idea). However he decided to drop a course because he thought he would have trouble getting everything done. He is taking a creative writing course and that's the one he seems most excited about (or at least that's the one he talks to me about). They read a Hemingway short story the other day, which he really liked (I HATE Hemingway). Now he has his first story to write for next week. He is also taking Spanish, which was the bane of both of our existences when he was in high school. Luckily it seems fairly familiar to him now.

He found a job, running food at a local pub. He started on Friday but then got a call for a second interview at a country club. At the country club he would be serving at events--which is what he did in his last job and what he prefers. I've actually heard from him several times this week because he needed to discuss pros and cons of each job and figure out how to extrapolate himself from the pub job, should the country club become an offer. Angel is very loyal and hates the thought of quitting right after he's agreed to work there.

Probably the strangest bit of news I heard from him this week is that he has a reputation of being a d**chebag among his friends. It seems my son has developed an attitude. Now this may sound like a problem, but it seems that his friends prefer him this way and when he's not coping an attitude with them they ask him what's wrong. Angel was ALWAYS the gentle soul; the kind friend; the team player. It seems that he took too much abuse from his friends the first semester of freshman year so he started developing this other persona. He feels its working for him.

I know young adulthood is about trying on different personas and exercising different aspects of your personality. I also know that he'll probably experiment with a lot of behaviors I haven't seen at all or much of before. And while I'm not worried about him becoming this way permanently (actually I'm impressed that he recognizes what he's doing) I do think it speaks to the rigidity of masculine norms. I find it distressing in general that kind and caring young men don't fit in and that they need to act like jerks to be liked and respected. I can only hope that in time he realizes he doesn't like being this way and that popularity is not worth the act.

It took me many years to learn to surround myself with people who bring out the parts of me that I cherish and avoid the people who bring out the worst in me. I can only hope he comes to the same revelation.

Drafts Versus Finished Products

When does a draft turn into a finished product? Many of my students (graduate and undergraduate) believe it is when they have covered all of the required fields and (hopefully) proofread/spellchecked the document. I often believe it is after I have written several drafts for myself--taking it as far as I possibly can with my limited knowledge/skills--and then, after receiving feedback from external sources, complete another round or two of drafts to incorporate that feedback. This takes a long time but "finished products" eventually get out the door.

Unfortunately they are not really finished products at this point. Inevitably, no matter how much work I put into a manuscript/grant and/or how much feedback I get on it before it is submitted, the peer review process quickly shows me it is but a draft. I like this about the peer review process. Yes it is painful to get the feedback. It stings in a very special way to have something you produced and believe to be "done" come back as "try again." However once I actually re-read the manuscript/grant I realize it is far from done. Ultimately when the product is truly finished it is a much better product and so I remain grateful to the process.

I have had the fortune/misfortune of having 3 NIH grants funded on the first submission. I have never had a paper accepted without at least 1 revision--usually major. This makes my grant rejections sting far more than my manuscript rejections. I have faith manuscripts will eventually become papers (even though I have a drawer full of manuscripts that never made the grade). I know persistence pays off with grants as well but the work often seems more futile. A manuscript is reporting on work already completed. The work is done so how can I NOT see it through to publication? A grant is potential work; a grant is an idea for work; yet it takes a considerable amount of effort to package that idea into a fundable application. If it is not funded that idea may never come to fruition and I get very attached to my ideas.

On the flip side, I have had manuscripts that--after a round or two of revisions--I know is done. There is no more or no less to the paper and if reviewers don't agree with me there is no choice but to either trash the paper or find another journal and start the process all over. I am currently there with one manuscript. After 3 revisions I gave up and sent it to another journal. If the reviewers of this journal need major revisions, the manuscript will end up in the dead zone drawer.

I am getting close to that point with a grant application. I am about to submit a version of it for the third time. I knew it was a draft on the first submission. The second submission seemed like a finished product (fortunately/unfortunately it was kicked back for a technicality and not reviewed) but working on it for this submission I realize it was still a draft. I am sending this current version out to many people (those who know me and those who don't) before I submit. It is not a finished product yet but there is a good chance it will be before it is submitted. With NIH now, we only get 2 submissions. Through another technicality this will actually count as its first. I can see doing one more revision if necessary, but if more are required I will (a) not be eligible and (b) not be motivated.

For me there comes a time when I'm finished with a product. If others still see it as a draft then I have to believe it was not meant to be.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Observations At The End Of Week 3

  • I can talk for an obscenely long time and with great passion about research methods.
  • The workload generated from having a doctoral program multiplies exponentially each year.
  • There are some students I simply adore and admire so much that it is extremely difficult for me to be objective. This probably does them a disservice.
  • The line at the "Starbucks-Friendly" coffee shop will not decrease until all classes cease. At that time I'm sure it will be closed.
  • Being a "favorite" professor is detrimental to one's research career.
  • When you give good feedback, people want more feedback; when you don't give feedback, people want feedback. People are feedback hogs.
  • A week without faculty meetings is sweet but does not necessarily increase my productivity.
  • Overhead while walking across campus (young man talking into his cell phone): ....to relieve your anxious little mother mind....

Some Days I Wonder...

...will I ever stop missing him?

And then I wonder....

....would not missing him be worse?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Desperate Academics

Academic did a lovely job hosting Scientiae Carnival this month. The theme was Inspiration or Desperation and, while there seemed to be fewer entries this month than some others, they are all great posts. However, as Academic noted, most of the posts were of the Desperation variety. This both saddens me and makes me think. Are academics a desperate lot? I can think of several possible answers:
  1. Yes, academia is a stressful work environment where faculty are asked to produce too much, in too little time, for too few dollars and the stakes are incredibly high (i.e. unemployment) if you don't deliver;
  2. No, academia is no more stressful than other work environments however there are particularly stressful times of the year and September is one of them (possibly one reason there were fewer entries is no one has time right now to post);
  3. Yes and No, academia is more stressful for some people than others--particularly women of a certain age trying to balance their passion for their work with personal and societal expectations of womanhood.
I am sure there are other possible answers but these are the ones that come to my mind. It saddens me that academia is seen--by women--as a place of desperation and not inspiration. I believe most people come into academia because they were inspired--by a teacher or some other introduction to their field. I believe academics start out full of passion (albeit a nerdy passion) and optimism and yet are quickly brought down. Most of the entries were written by students, post-docs and/or junior faculty. Of course it is not just in this carnival that we see the desperation but rather it is a daily theme across the women found in the academic section of the blogosphere.

There is good cause for women, especially women in the hard sciences, to feel this desperation. In spite of all the advances in our society, achieving the standard measures of success in academia is harder for women. In addition, although our definitions of fathering is slowly changing, for the majority of women the responsibilities of home and hearth fall squarely on their shoulders. Many students have a naive belief that academia--with its flexible schedule and summers off--offers the ability to balance home life with a career. It doesn't take long for that myth to be shattered.

Having said all of that, I do need to add that I love my job. My work life inspires me on a daily basis. Yes the years I balanced graduate school, work, publishing, Angel, my husband, paying the rent, and living a healthy lifestyle were incredibly hard and--at times--desperate. And even now, with Angel out of the house and a very healthy tenure packet submitted, I still struggle to balance time with b, time with myself, time to exercise, and time spent working. For the most part time spent working wins out. This is not because the demands of work are so high (although they are) but because my work is what I love to do. If my work did not sustain my soul I would find another job--one that pays a reasonable salary for the level of effort it demands and actually pays me for the full-time work I do every summer.

But where else am I going to find employment that rewards me for reading and writing and thinking and talking about the ideas that have filled my head since I was a child? Where else can I be surrounded (both physically and virtually) by colleagues that produce research and share concepts that fascinate me? Where else would my nerd-dom be not only welcomed but celebrated? Where else could I share my passions with younger, less experienced, but fresher minds? What other job would give me a front row seat to see these young minds and lives bloom?

Academia is where I belong--at least for now. If I leave, I don't believe it will be from desperation but rather from a new inspiration.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Inspiring Faces

Snow Leopard was released last Friday and b, who is crazy for all things Mac, picked us up a family copy that afternoon. Now this latest operating system doesn't have a whole lot of fancy bells and whistles for the user (actually since installing it I've lost my ability to print at the office)--although it does take up considerably less hard drive space than Leopard and that's always a plus--but the install forced me to reconsider my screensaver.

Both my work and home offices have nice large screens and, since my computer is always on in one of those places, my screensaver becomes a pretty important visual accompaniment to my thoughts. Previously my screensaver pulled random pictures of my family from one of my files and threw them willy-nilly on my desktop. This was a comforting backdrop to my academic world.

I have another file of author photos from my favorite writers. They are all women and many are in their "later years." I love looking at older women's faces--those that are "real" and not sculpted or botoxed--so these images inspire me with their natural beauty, their strength, and their wisdom. They also are a continual reminder--as I slave over scientific jargon--that there is another world out there; a world of words that sing while they tell truth. I thought I'd share some of the faces that are now inspiring me on a daily basis:

Ursula K Le Guin...of course

Probably my favorite image of Virginia Woolf

Toni Morrison...one of my all time favorite author photos (and authors)

Anne Carson...another favorite author photo

Maxine Hong Kingston...absolutely stunning

Adrienne Rich...I dream of growing old this gracefully

Jamaica Kincaid...I love her expression in this photo

Sharon Olds...as beautiful as her poems

Octavia Butler...the world is a poorer place without her in it

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Random Observations...

...from the second week into the semester.

  • My campus has gotten smaller. I used to be able to take a nice long walk across campus to get a cup of coffee without seeing anyone I knew (except maybe to nod at). Now I can't go three steps without running into a colleague/former student/current student and getting engaged in conversation.
  • The campus is overrun with students. Seriously its like an infestation: they're everywhere. Enrollment has skyrocketed and we have no place to put them.
  • When someone says "I'm not just saying this to make you feel better"--they really are. Similarly when someone says "There's no hidden agenda"--there probably is.
  • I really dislike the phrase "work-life balance" because it implies that my work is not part of my life. Its not all of my life but it is a big part of it. Why can't we just work towards a balanced life?
  • Faculty who study women and gender issues need to add a lot of big words to a sentence before they can feel comfortable with it. They also congratulate each other for engaging in long philosophical conversations at faculty meetings.
  • When colleagues tell me my tenure review is going to be a "slamdunk" or "a walk in the park" or "over in 5 minutes" it makes me uncomfortable. Also I'm not sure what to say in return and the "I hope so" that has been coming out of my mouth sounds really lame.
  • Most students are really eager to please as long as you show them how.
  • On one of my across campus coffee outings I overheard the following "I really want to be a stay-at-home mom, I just don't want to have kids."