Mothers on the Tenure Track

February 4th, 2009

Last fall, Elrena and Caroline had the opportunity to talk with Andrea O’Reilly (director of the Association for Research on Mothering) in a conversation for The Mothers Movement Online, moderated by Professor Heather Hewett, Coordinator of Women’s Studies and an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at SUNY New Paltz. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Heather Hewett: I’m struck by the fact that all of you agree that we need to change attitudes as well as policy — and I wonder if that’s why you all chose to collect stories, albeit in different ways. Is there something about personal stories that are particularly powerful for the situation facing moms in academia?

Caroline Grant: Yes, yes, yes. I think personal stories draw you in and make them relate on a level that a numbers report just can’t achieve. Elrena and I were challenged a bit on that point, early in our work on the book, and we felt strongly about making the book conversational, not confrontational.

Elrena Evans: I think it’s kind of like the research that’s been done on birthing narratives — why do women feel compelled to tell their birth stories again and again, sometimes to people they barely know — there’s strength in sharing these stories, in knowing that you’re not, as one of our contributors put it, a statistical outlier.

I like to think of personal essays and more quantitative research as parts of the same whole. Research can give us numbers, data, percentages, “facts” if you will, but the personal essay can provide the story behind the data. I know that for me, personally, it’s one thing to read that X number of women delay children until after tenure, for example; but it gives me a completely different perspective to read about what that was like for a specific woman, the longing, the waiting, the eventual fulfillment of her “heart’s desire,” as one of our contributors writes. And then I can take that story, and begin to imagine all the others behind the numbers, and it really makes me look at the research differently.

Andrea O’Reilly: That leads to another theme. I found Joan Williams’ concept of the wall in academe a fitting metaphor. Today I think that women, if they act enough like one of the boys, can make it academe… but once they become moms, they hit full-throttle that academic wall that completely blindsides them. So my work is looking at how moms are getting through and around that wall. And for many it is the detour route — i.e., taking an academic post that is more compatible with motherhood (not at a research university).

Click on over to The Mothers Movement Online to read the rest!

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