This blog has gone largely silent for far too long while I’ve put my efforts into trying to raise funds for CosmoQuest, and move other projects forward. At this point, all the proposals that matter are submitted and all the work that was deemed most dire is done. It has been an ugly year, and looking back on things, I can see over and over places where my efficiency and my health were impacted by a constant struggle to live up to impossible external expectations. Over and over, people laid out definitions of “real” and in an attempt to, well, stay funded… and in an attempt to not be judged negatively (because I apparently still try to conform to expectations) I got lost in these other peoples’ definitions of “real”.
I’m going to be honest here. I am not tenured/tenure track faculty. I have no job security, very few benefits, and I spend just about every day worried about where money is going to come from for me and for my team. I have to worry that if I fuck up, it’s going to cost me and my team that next donation, that next grant, or that next opportunity that would bring us just one small piece of stability. This lack of security means that when I hear expectations laid out by superiors and more senior people, I listen. The problem is, as Fraser Cain pointed out to me, the expectations are such that unless I, and others like me, are capable of walking on water, we have failed, and should just give up and stop considering ourselves “real [noun of the moment]”.
These are a selection of the things I hear, and I know others hear too.
“Real academics work 80 hour weeks.”: I don’t know how often I’ve heard this. It’s a throw away phrase, tossed out with a meaningful look by seniors who want you to know they are watching. You had better be there 24/7 answering their 8am requests for information and responding to their 2am requests for input. The work load gets laid out with the expectation that we’ll work everyday. I’ve even gotten 4am phone calls asking me to change websites. When I got sick and was only working 30 hour weeks (which is more than my contract required), it was suggested I go on leave if I couldn’t keep up. This constant “real academics work 80 hour weeks” background noise, which goes hand in hand with the expectation that on vacation I’ll still be able to submit last minute reports and do any needed tasks, leaves me with the anxiety that if I’m not able to perform instantly in any way requested, at any time and from anywhere in the world… I’m not a real academic and will lose out next time there is funding.
“Real women know they have to take care of their appearance to be taken seriously.”: My entire career I’ve had people tell me I need to be thin, be athletic, dress nicely but not too nicely, and that if I don’t, I won’t be taken seriously. I’m told by well meaning seniors to lose weight, because if you’re fat, negative assumptions are made about your intelligence and competence. It’s kindly pointed out that thin beautiful women are noticed more and have a better chance of being hired and of being heard. This is all said with the tone that makes it clear, I need to lose weight, put my hair up, and take more care about what I wear. Nowadays, when I’m asked to give talks, I’m asked for a headshot, and I have this feeling that if I want to make a career jump or get people to actually pay my full speaker’s fee, I need diet myself into a daily cosplay of Dr. Jane Foster.
“Real scientists don’t have beliefs, they only have facts.”: This is a sword wielded by too many as a way of claiming that anyone with theistic beliefs is dumb. It also means that I periodically have people telling me I am not a scientists because I believe in God, while at the same time they lift up untested theories, like the multiverse as string theory, as fact. I have too often gone silent when those around me went off on someone simply because of the cross they wore; I stayed silent because silence allowed me to stay at the table.
Accompanying these “Real [noun of the moment]” definitions, are a more myriad more comments layered with unspoken expectations. When relationships end, female scientists are told, “Well, now you’ll have more time for your research,” by the same people who comment on the marriage of a male colleague by saying, “It’s good to see him settle down.” When a woman complains about the constant barrage of sexist commentary in science, she’s told to get over herself, to chill out, and sometimes pulled aside by senior women and told she is doing herself and her career no service by speaking out. With men, well, boys will be boys after all. When a senior person of any gender does something asinine, well, they have to be forgiven because of their long a fruitful career. When a junior person missteps, this may be a career ender (and a misstep may be perceived instead of real).
Putting together all the messages, what I hear is a real female (white?), academic scientist is someone who works 80 hour weeks, never gets sick, finds time to maintain a healthy and athletic hobby that keeps her thin and fit, goes on amazing vacations but is available 24/7 to handle any needs that arise, and never lets friends/family/faith come up in ways that might imply they have priority. She is someone who always looks polished in her own style (but not too polished, because that would mean too much effort was spent). The real female, academic scientist can shrug off sexual harassment without letting it effect her work, and will not complain when she is paid less, promoted slower (if at all), and doesn’t receive awards/acknowledgement for doing outstanding work. She is basically someone satisfied with being allowed a seat at the scientists’ table in the ivory tower, and she will do anything she is asked and shrug off anything done to her just so she can keep that seat.
I’ve hurt my health, my relationships, and my sanity trying to internalize all these expectations, and at the end of the day, none of it is sustainable.
What I’ve learned is I suck as a “real” female academic scientist. I get the feedback through the gossip chain that tells me I’m too sensitive, too distracted by social justice, and I further suck because I’m a person of faith. What I hear is a continual undercurrent of comments that I’m not a real [noun of the moment]. No amount of hard work matters, there is always a reason to knock me down and “put [me] in my place.”
But these are all other people’s definitions. The only definition of real that I have ever tried to pass on to others is one that I learned as a child.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by
side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does
it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that
happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just
to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When
you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It
takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who
break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved
off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very
shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are
Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
– The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams
The definitions of “real” that I face in the my career world are ones that are surreally devoid of love.
I want to rewrite the definition of real [noun of the moment], to simply say: do what you love and do it well, but leave space to be with the people you love; wear the skin (and skin covering) that makes you comfortable; praise often and raise up people of unnoticed excellence; avoid asshats when you can, and when you can’t do what you can to call them out so maybe they will learn (maybe) and so that those around you (the real audience) will learn asshattery is not acceptable.
I want to change the definition… but I can’t alone. Will you help? Will you help bring humanity and praise (where praise is earned) into what is accepted as normal, and work toward ending the current culture of asshattery and unrealistic expectation?
header image credit: © Igor Nikolayev | Dreamstime.com