Friday, September 24, 2010

The Personal is the Professional

The student who had an appointment was waiting outside my open office door as I came back from the mailroom.

"I would have gone in," she said, "but ..." She gestured towards the minefield of unsteady book towers blocking off the door from the chairs, one sideways glance away from toppling. And toward the chairs, one spilling over with rogue transparencies, the other covered in dirty tupperware, my wallet, a child's leotard, and other personal effects I had dumped out of my purse while looking for a (lost) flash drive. A laundry basket by the window overflowed with computer cables of all kinds, and yellowing newspapers.

"I'm so sorry," I apologized, shepherding her through the maze and clearing her a seat. "My daughter is just starting junior kindergarten and we've had no daytime child care for three weeks. So my husband and I have been taking care of her while still working full time, and this is the kind of office you get when that happens. Now! Let's talk about your plans for grad school ... I've read the documents you sent me and here's some feedback I have for you ..."

And so on. Looking back later on the interaction, I was appalled that I had talked about my personal life in that professional context. Am I making excuses for poor performance? Am I oversharing? Am I having boundary issues? Am I being, in short, unprofessional?

I have always imagined that being a professional means being competent and impersonal, manifesting that kind of demeanor, focus, and restraint called to mind by the phrase "she is a real professional" or "she acted very professionally." But who exactly was it that decided that being a professional means omitting all traces of the rest of life from the workday?

To return to the theme of mentoring, I think that drawing down an iron curtain between what happens At The Office and At Home can be artificial, misleading, demoralizing, and crazy-making for both professors and students. First, if I remove all traces of my outside life (I'm married! I have a kid! My pipes are frozen and I have to wait for the plumber! I went to school thousands of kilometers away from my family!) from my interactions within the university I risk setting myself up as some kind of model of superhuman perfection and accomplishment: a featureless fembrainbot with obviously very nice hair asserting frictionless agency on the world. Ooooh. Not true. Second, sometimes a car accident, or lactation, or a move, or a spouse's job change, or a death in the family, or a yoga injury can materially impact anyone's capacity to do her (or his) job: why not be up-front about it, seek a reasonable and temporary accommodation, and model for everyone the practice of muddling through a tough bit only to shine all the brighter once the crisis passes? Life isn't always a bowl of cherries; what's the harm in acknowledging the pits?

If I admit that trying to be a stay-at-home mom (with equal help from dad) for three weeks means I haven't been able to do my job optimally, am I  setting the sisterhood back? I don't think so. It's not like I'm canceling classes or ducking out of reference letters or student meetings or peer review. I'm just having a harder time answering emails quickly, or cleaning my office, or getting November's readings up on the website. I'll get there, I want you to know, but I'm having a bit of a struggle now.

What might happen if I bring a little bit of my personal life into my work, asserting my competence and my challenges all at once? Maybe incorporating the personal into the professional in this way might be a feminist act: I am a fully-fleshed-out human being, just like anyone, and a pretty good professor, at the same time. Shit happens, even to female professors, and so long as the challenge isn't fatal, I have the will and the capacity to get on with the shoveling. Maybe to get ahead a woman, I might no longer have to pretend I'm not a real person. Hm.

One of my colleagues, popping her head through my door earlier this week, said sympathetically, "This is not the office of the Aimée I know." And it's not. Next week, it will be neat as a pin again. This week, I'm asking for a little indulgence as I burrow into the piles, trying to find that extra handout for you, okay?

7 comments:

  1. I think your getting to the whole role of the "perfect worker" in any industry. This is a person with no family life, no outside work responsibilities, their pure dedication is to their job. I think that both women and men are brought up to fit into this "worker" guideline that is perpetuated by employers of all kinds.

    Then all of a sudden when people see that we are humans and have needs outside our workplace...we feel unprofessional (as women), where men, i dunno what they feel, but when a man says he has to take care of his kids he's some kind of superhero. I wonder why it's more accepted for a man's office to be a mess when he's taking care of a kid, than a woman's?

    Maybe the term professional needs to change, and i think it will if ever the criteria of a "good worker" changes to fit parents. (hell that might change a few more things...like how many people are in poverty, and who has more opportunity even whilst having kids).

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  2. Great post! I agree that we need to be able to view ourselves (and talk about ourselves) holistically. For example, the other day as I was biking to campus on my way to teach, I had a close call with a vehicle, and arrived on campus shaken up and quite discombobulated. The first thing I did when I walked into class was to tell my students about the run-in, admitting I was feeling a bit "off" because of it. We were able to overcome my shakiness and get into class because my students knew why I wasn't acting like myself, and we were able to deal with it as a community, together.

    I believe in a certain amount of transparency. Especially if you're dealing with 35 people in a room who are relying on your energy as a guide and approach to the topic for the day's class. If I hadn't said anything, and just went into class grumpy and spaced out, then the class would have gone very differently. I think that it's important to give people insight into your life. It builds trust. Something we need more of in academe.

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  3. Meagan, it's very true that students read our body language and moods and take their cues from us -- it's totally possible that they might read a mess or a grump or something else 'amiss' as personal (related to them). So better to say what's motivating the alteration in behaviour. I hadn't thought of it like that, but of course that's true.

    Cheryl, the world would look a lot different if the definition of good worker changed to fit parents.

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  4. Being in both worlds--professing and parenting--is a strange thing. Sometimes I'll be chatting with a bunch of academics and I'll think to myself, "Wow, all these people care about is the next article they're going to publish." I'll feel this distance because I have a million other things going on in my life. Then, I'll be sitting in a mom's group and I'll think to myself, "Wow, all these moms care about is potty training--they're obsessed." And again, I'll feel distanced from them. Then I realize how ridiculous both worlds are, and I have to laugh. Sometimes it's best not to take ourselves too seriously.

    Aimee, I think it's totally acceptable to have a chaotic office, no matter what the reason. Although I'm kind of a neat freak most of the time, sometimes I just can't be. I actually find an office strewn with books quite inviting.

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  5. Interesting - I am a (female) t-t assistant professor in the US system with 2 small kids. I do keep both spheres separate as a general rule. Does this make me the dreaded BAD FEMINIST? I don't think so - it makes me someone who is guarded and private (which I am, in both professional and non-professional relationships), and perhaps more importantly to this discussion, someone who understands that subtle political actions are open to wide interpretation. Even though I might mean one thing by talking about the challenges of my family life with my class or my colleagues ("I am incorporating the personal into the professional as a feminist act"), I have no control over how they interpret it ("She is too preoccupied to be interested in this opportunity." "She isn't focused on me as her student.")

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  6. ShabbyDoll -- you're absolutely right, of course. Probably, our two different takes on this practice might stem from our different personalities. You describe yourself as guarded and private, and I am neither of those things, although I often wish I was.

    Here's an example that supports your point: once, I was among a giant, campus-wide group of faculty making a Big Presentation to a Big Donor, and I moved heaven and earth to get there, showered and prepared, by 9am, after a terrible night with my daughter, all of us waking up late, being exhausted and really cranky. But I hauled ass to get there looking like butter wouldn't melt in my mouth. It was hard, but I wanted it to look easy.

    Big name bigwig man walks in, ten minutes late, and steps up to the podium. "I'm so sorry I didn't get here sooner," he said, smiling, "I had to bring my daughters to school this morning and the teacher had something to tell me." I could feel the wave of "awwwww" descend upon him from the room, father of the year.

    I wanted to punch him, frankly. In that context, I felt totally powerless to be a real human being. And he was able to drop in a personal anecdote and increase his charisma and cultural capital.

    I feel a lot safer in my own classroom.

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  7. Thanks for your response...and I like the illustration that even though this guy might have thought that he was making an important statement about mixing the personal and the professional...and even though most people in the audience might have thought that he was admirable...at least one person (and I'm guessing more, too) wanted to punch him.

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