Teaching Ain't No Joke: The Trap of Domesticity for Women Professors
by Lana Hartman Landon
Recently two women colleagues and I were discussing the frustration we feel when trying to write and do research. We often find ourselves wondering why we never have time for any thing but teaching. Even though others might assume that it is the demands of family life that get in the way of women's scholar ship, in our experience it is teaching which seems to consume all of our time and energy. While we are, in fact, excellent teachers, we are not always sure that is enough. We know that in our profession advancement, recognition, and opportunity require a higher profile than one achieved by being excellent teachers at a small liberal arts college.
While we want recognition and have ideas for projects, we never quite get to the stage of setting them down or fleshing them out. Many of our male colleagues teaching similar loads with the same ratio of new to old preparations seem to accomplish so much more. Unless we are somehow lacking in ability because of our gender (which we are unable to accept), there must be some reason why we do not produce more than we do. I think that gender is relevant to what we are experiencing: we have turned teaching into homemaking.
I. They Call Me "Dr." Reed
"Housekeeping ain't no joke."
-- Louisa May Alcott
Growing up female in the age of June Cleaver and Donna Reed meant that many of us expected to achieve a certain style of competence in our domestic sphere. We can joke about Donna Reed's pearls and high heels as inappropriate clothing for mopping the kitchen, but we didn't really ever see her doing the nastiest chores of housekeeping. As girls who helped around the house, we were not naive about what those chores were, yet we were able to accept her calm and immaculate persona. We were attracted to this woman who was in control, on top of housework, in a way our mothers were not. Donna Reed was serene; she seemed to be competent. We wanted to be competent like her, not harried like our mothers. Most of my friends work outside the home, and our standards of household efficiency are much lower than our mothers' were. Chores that I remember my mother doing every week are done once a month at my house (and usually my husband does them). I am less a paragon of household management than any of the television moms of my childhood. It doesn't bother me much, either. I am beginning to think that the compulsive behaviors that would be necessary to have the fantasy home (with clean socks for everyone, ironed sheets, homemade bread, flower garden, and handsewn Halloween costumes for my child) and all the necessary drive (and with it all the fear of being incompetent, unprepared, messy, and disorganized) have gone into my teaching.
When I talk with my female colleagues, how frequently I hear of preparations that are redone every semester (whether they need it or not), of color-coded filing systems for each class of elaborate handouts, and of last minute lecture revisions by dawn's early light. I do it, too. I can't imagine why I spend much time on them.
But then, nothing's too good for my family.
II. Geegaws and Effluvia: Taking Time to Make Things "Nice"
"By the way,
The works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you're weary -- or a stool
To stumble over and vex you ... 'curse that stool!'
Or else at best, a cushion, where you lean
And sleep, and dream of something we are not
But would be for your sake. Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this -- that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps."
-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Teaching can become for women a work that is "symbolical," like the handwork Aurora Leigh sees as a substitute for art. If teaching becomes the sole focus of a professor's career and begins to take the place of scholarship, it can become all-consuming. Each carefully rendered handout or transparency, each carefully (and lovingly) graded paper is another doily, another artifact of care. But while the time spent on teaching and on preparation for teaching may represent care, it may not, in fact, achieve a significant academic purpose except to make us feel that we are the best because we care the most; we make things "nice." Like housewives, we may judge our work by the amount of time we spend, rather than the results we achieve. Do we need to change texts very year? Does it really benefit the students, or is it the academic equivalent of spring cleaning! Are we engaged teaching as a profession or as an exercise in womanly virtue?
My women colleagues and I spend a great deal of time on our teaching, but is it all that necessary? Do we take refuge in our classrooms/homes (making things nice) at the expense of our participation in the larger arenas of our profession? Josephine Donovan writes:
In the household women have historically created objects for use rather than for exchange .... Production for use means creation of material that is consumed by the immediate family and not sold off or exchanged. It is material that is valued for itself, for its immediate physical and qualitative worth and not for its abstract quantitative monetary or exchange value (102).
To make the analogy between the household and the classroom is to see the obvious: women professors concentrating on the immediate consumable lecture (an "object" for use) rather than writing the scholarly article which has exchange value. We turn the classroom into a domestic sphere and find (to on one's surprise) that teaching is valued less than scholarship, just as homemaking is valued less than working in the marketplace.
III. Teaching as Attachment/Scholarship as Achievement
"Instead of attachment, individual achievement rivets the
male imagination, and great ideas or distinctive activity
defines the standard of self-assessment and success."
-- Carol Gilligan
A Different Voice
The balance between teaching and scholarship is tricky for everyone. Women who privilege teaching approach it as relationship and see their work as moral work, as involving attention, care, and even self-sacrifice. The classroom is not a means, but an end. The classroom is not a place to try out our new theories or work on lectures which will become papers, which will become books, with the students benefiting from our insights. Rather, the classroom is a place where we help others, enable them to achieve rather than achieving ourselves; and, like a good parent, we feel satisfaction, even joy, in watching growth. Teaching as nurturing means that we react as often as we act. This reaction, this agility or nurture, requires constant attention to the needs of others and assumes that no two classes (any more than any two families) are ever the same or should be. Hence, the constant changing of preparations, texts, materials, and approaches is necessary because, since the students are always different, the needs are always different. A teacher focused on nurture is need-driven, and those needs are not necessarily her own.
While the nurture of students is admirable, it has the potential to be a trap. Our children grow up, but there are always more students, always new people to teach. Thus, we end up feeling that there is never time for anything else. And there isn't. The nurturing teacher sets up a situation in which she can't even take credit for her teaching because she sees herself as a collaborator, not the source. She dooms herself to feeling unappreciated or, even worse, unaccomplished. She is trapped in an academic feminine mystique: There is no time for traditional scholarship and nothing tangible to point to at the end of one's career except achievements of her students. A lifetime in the classroom has been consumed, a feast but not a feat.
IV. Alice Doesn't Teach Here Anymore
What is to be done, then? We value teaching too much slight it. We hunger for recognition, so we have to find ways to get it. It is dangerous to lose ourselves in a new kind of self-sacrifice. As Gilligan warns,
If mid-life brings an end to relationships, to the sense of connection on which she relies, as well as to the activities of care through which she judges her worth, then the mourning that accompanies all life transitions can give way to the melancholia of self-deprecation and despair (171).
We do not want to become the generation of invisible women, women who entered the academy, taught like blazes, and sank without a trace. Either we have to find a new, more visible way to recognize the teaching that is an investment of time, creativity, and energy equivalent to the most rigorous scholarship, or we have to approach the classroom differently. We cannot let ourselves become the domestics of our profession, the angels in the classroom.
LANA HARTMAN LANDON is Associate Professor of English Bethany College in West Virginia. Her primary research interest is the analogy between women as teachers/learners and women as authors/readers.
Copyright 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly (WILLA) of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is granted to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.