Thursday, April 19, 2007

Old Girls' Club

The other day I am in the bathroom at school. I notice the shoes in the next stall over. 95% chance of Esteemed Department Chair. 85% chance of awkwardness at the sinks. Better not dry my hands on the seat of my pants... EDC is just a little fastidious like that.

Magically we land in the awkward-free 15%. EDC is in rant mode. She explains that several of my less-advanced graduate student colleagues have been bitching about a lack of department community in their Ph.D. reviews. She is put out because she has been working her ass off to create community. I don't disagree. EDC is no angel (frankly I like her all the more for this), but in this regard she deserves major credit. And she is a badass.

EDC is our department's first ever female chair. She is one of the first ever tenured female professors in the department. When she first arrived, male students used to joke that she was the secretary because she had to pick up her printouts in the main office. EDC is in her 40s; she first arrived in 1991.

(Incidentally: We are not engineers, physicists, chemists or cellular biologists. We do not work in labs; we barely use computers. We are members of a small, humanities department where this kind of misogyny is supposed to have been dead for almost a generation.)

So EDC has reasons to take offense when accused of chairing a department where someone feels like a second-class-citizen.

Back to the ladies' restroom: I assure EDC that she has been doing a fine job, and I explain that some of my younger colleagues have a tendency to confuse community with communal binge drinking. We agree that the faculty who engage in the latter tend to do it alone.

Later on, I discussed this event with a few graduate student colleagues. While we agreed that we have all had desperate, dysphoric feelings of isolation and neglect during our graduate careers, there was an interesting divide: A Fellow Brilliant Female and I blamed ourselves. We weren't good enough to win the attention of our advisors; we weren't demanding enough support. The prime offenders on the blame-the-department side, on the other hand, were male. They externalized what we "took personally".

In fact, the initial bathroom incident fits this same pattern: Even our Esteemed Department Chair internalized the criticisms students made in the Ph.D. reviews. The comments were not necessarily directed at her or her behavior; she could have assumed that the students who made them were simply whiners. (This, in fact, is what I believe to be the case.) Or she could have set them aside as "not her problem". Instead, however, her thoughts went to her own efforts to build community. She took the comments personally and seriously. She was not the only faculty member at the Ph.D. reviews (in fact, she attended only in her capacity as department chair--and is the first department chair I know of who has done so). I doubt, however, that these comments led her male colleagues to vent insecurity and personal frustration over the urinals.

In venting, furthermore, EDC looked outside herself for confirmation that the critical comments were, in fact, misplaced. Though a giant in our field, she sought reassurance from a far-junior colleague (me). And when I agreed that she had, in fact, done plenty to build community, we nevertheless discussed re-starting the old department Women's Group. End result: EDC is going to hit up some junior grad students to re-start Women's Group. In other words, she is personally going to undertake yet another act to build community.

The embedded irony: This was not the first time I have had a meaningful conversation with EDC or other woman faculty members over the paper towel dispenser. Nor is it the first time EDC has revealed to me her ongoing struggles with insecurity, either through her behavior or explicitly in conversation. These revelations not only validate my own experience of insecurity but also make available to me exactly the kind of faculty-student community and person-status my colleagues complained our department lacks. And the women's bathroom is a venue entirely closed to my male colleagues. I have one word for them: Ha!

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