WILLA v3 - The Question of the Personal: 'Woman' in the Academy

Volume 3
Fall 1994

The Question of the Personal: "Woman" in the Academy

by Carol L. Winkelmann

Recently, as I drove across town to the conservative midwestern university where I teach, I listened to a local rock station. This was a rare event. I usually listen to carefully selected compact discs: ones reflecting my own tastes, preferences, and understandings of music. The rock station reminded me that my taste in music -- like my feminist vision -- even in this day and age, is somewhat uncommon. I was disabused once again of the notion that the world dutifully trails along after theorists, teachers, and other do-gooders.

The moment of enlightenment began mundanely enough. A pair of Cincinnati rock station disc jockeys spun off a series of anti-gay jokes. The topic: WGAY, a new lesbian radio station in Denver. After a series of sarcastic jokes constructed from stereotypes of the physical appearances of lesbians, the two men called the Denver station and spoke to a WGAY disc jockey. On the surface, the conversation was amicable. As soon as the phone hit the cradle, however, the two homophobes burst out laughing. Then they turned their attention to asthmatics. No surprises in the city of the Robert Maplethorpe conflict.

I feel stifled, of course. In a matter of minutes, the dirty duo managed to strangle my delicate sensibilities. Then I arrive at school. On campus, my Otherness is simply "biological." I am woman. At a small, private, conservative university, this is enough.

I am going to describe what I have learned and painfully re-learned about what it means to be a woman at the university. No theoretical surprises here. Simply talk about what it means to experience the academy as a woman in a world where "backlash" means nothing because the new world order never arrived. I want to talk about what it means to be a woman in this setting. One woman. I am also teacher, researcher, and linguist. But, in the space of this text, I will construct myself as woman; later, I assume, I'll be deconstructed in your discussions.

In this construction/deconstruction business, however, women have had much too much assistance in the past. The WGAY disc jockey was only one example. My concern here is women in the academy. Women in academia -- like women in general -- have been categorized, named, labeled. (Then shrunk, shelved, deleted, or disappeared.) But the descriptors for women are many, and they are easily re-activated or transliterated -- from the biological to the social, from the professional to the political. For academia, women are or have been considered too frail, too fragile, too shy, too dependent, too emotional, too dispersed, too preoccupied, too bitchy, too hostile, too sexual, too coy. These personal labels can be traced throughout the historical records: the anecdotes of the past, you might say. And now I am here to tell you my anecdotes.

We know, of course, that the meaning of things is not locked into historical records. The meaning of things is constructed in human interpretive processes, in highly personal and contextualized processes. So what it means to be a woman in the academy is not locked into my own historical record so much as it is in how you are going to construct me as a woman out of the context of what you believe a woman or a woman in the academy is or should be; that is, out of your personal experience and knowledge, out of your anecdotes: not simply and solely out of mine. The same is true of my students in general: in part, they will make of me what they have been predisposed to make of me.

This is not to say that it's not useful to gather to discuss personal anecdotes. In the end, however, because the making of meaning is the way it is, YOU WILL DECIDE -- largely -- whether it is, in fact coy of me to begin with some anecdotes not from my own life in the academy as a woman, but some anecdotes about the lives of some men in the academy. These are true stories.

Anecdote 1

This is from a recent story in a Cincinnati daily newspaper : it was discovered that an entomologist in Washington DC, Harrison Gray Dyar, Jr. a well-respected Smithsonian scholar, deceased in 1929 -- had dug (literally -- dug) a series of mysterious, inexplicable tunnels beneath his backyard, tunnels which fan out some 200 feet out from his house. He secretly dug these tunnels and even finished them with cement walls. No one knows quite why he had done this, but the scholarly conjectures fly: was he involved in top secret or forbidden research? Did he have a secret, second family -- complete with wife and kids -- who actually lived in the tunnels and whom he clandestinely visited? Or was he just a plain old crazy kook? Maybe he thought he was an ant.

Anecdote 2

Now in the days before the computer, lexicography was a kind of work-at-home or home scriptorium job. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons why there were so many women involved in the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, who were, not surprisingly, unacknowledged). So no one even noticed that C. T. Onions, the very famous lexicographer -- one of those towering, lofty, scholarly figures who edited the Oxford English Dictionary -- was severely agoraphobic. He didn't want to leave his house. He had "an abnormal fear of crossing or of being in open or public place" (W9NCD). and no one even noticed this until, after years of working at home on the dictionary under dropping, peeling, crumbling paint, Onions had to be shoved from room to room while the house painters came in to repaint the walls and ceilings. He was such a phobic that he would not even leave the house for the painters.

Now, I'd like to suggest that what is so amusing and awful about these anecdotes (because while we do laugh, I believe we all recognize that there is something vaguely, but actually, awful about these anecdotes) is that they disrupt our sense, and the public discourse, about the scholarly life and the concept of the "academic."

(And just as an aside: I do recognize that there is quasi-public or semi-submerged discourse about the archetypal "looney" professor. Now the looney or absent minded professor (as we all know) is male. And so I'd also like to suggest that these stories may well be more awful to women than men or to anyone who is trying to gain stature or simply to locate herself or himself in academia and who may be having nightmares in the dark hours about discovering oneself naked in public.

Okay, so how do these anecdotes disrupt? They disrupt because they break the pragmatic, public, or political rule of male-driven, academic discourse that reads something like this: the personal and the professional are not to be related publicly. For "professional" here, we can plug in any one of many familiar descriptors -- intellectual, objective, detached, non-affective, impersonal.... Of course, every rule has an exception. In this case, it's a gendered exception, and I'd like to talk about that shortly. Yet this is the basic rule: the person al and the professional are not to be related.

But these two men -- the lexicographer and the entomologist -- were so embarrassingly human! And their stories are disruptive, I'd like to suggest, because they occupy a space in the gap we like to maintain between some of our treasured dichotomies: the personal and the professional, the public and the private, the rational and the irrational, the emotional and the reasonable. Once the gap is filled in with some hard existential evidence -- say, in the form of concrete-lined tunnels zigzagging from POINT A (that is, the entomologist's public life above the ground) to POINT B (that is, the entomologist's private life under the backyard) -- once that gap is filled with evidence like this, these dichotomies can be seen for what they really are: word games maintained to keep lexicographers constructed as lexicographers (as Samuel Johnson put it -- "harmless drudges") and entomologists constructed as entomologists and not as people who are irrational, unreasonable, thus irresponsible (that is, irresponsible in the sense of "not capable of public responsibility"). It is necessary to keep the agoraphobiacs hidden away in their houses, to see only the legendary lexicographers. The distance between the public and the private must be maintained at all costs, it seems -- even if it means constructing hidden, secret tunnels.

Yes, it is my experience (with respect to male oriented academia) that the personal is constantly denied. And the personal as political is absolutely rejected by all except those academics and scholars -- men and women -- who understand the meaning of the phrase "the politics of language."

So, in the end, I delight in these anecdotes about Harrison Gray Dyar and C.T. Onions because they disrupt the word game. They make visible what is usually invisible. These guys were painfully, simply human. Their stories make plain the secret: the professional is always underpinned, traversed, crossed, informed, by the personal. Professionals are people, with personal histories and lives. Their human anecdotes, however odd, inform their scholarship and shape their relations with colleagues and students -- whether we admit it or not.

In the private conversations of women academics, and in women's studies courses, and in women-oriented scholarship, the truth about this is recognized. Women do recognize the personal in the professional. And women do tell their personal stories: in conversation, in research, to colleagues and students. I teach a good women's literature course because I can offer so many personal examples for so many theoretical issues. This is healthy, of course.

The problem is this: many of these same examples demonstrate that the basic rule about keeping the professional and the personal separate is consistently violated. For example, I can share with my students this personal story: contrary to the male professors at the universities which I have attended or visited over the years, many women professors were known not as exemplary women scholars -- available as mentors and models; instead, they were known by highly charged names: the Queen Bee, the Dragon Lady, the Prima Donna, the Salon Whore. Sometimes the names they were called by others were generic: they were hostile, bitchy, mean. Sometimes they were given politically sexualized names: lessies, dykes, queers. All of these names are low, personal blows. Just saying these things out loud creates a highly charged, dangerous atmosphere in some settings -- such as the university where I now teach.

So the dichotomies are useful, after all. They are used in various ways for cultural-ideological/socio-political purposes. To put it bluntly: the dichotomies are used to keep women academics separated from male academics and ill-at-ease in the academic community, on guard, on the alert, dis-located. I don't have to remind you which half of the dichotomies are attributed to women. Intentionally proffered or not, conscious or not, the dichotomies are at the service of gender-gradations and inequities in our notions of knowledge and our view of the proper way to "be" or "do" the academy.

The upshot? Apparently there's a different rule as far as women academics are concerned. When the topic is a woman academic, the rule reads: use the personal to defuse the professional.

Other evidence for the existence of this (is it a woman-only?) rule can be found in the grievances common to women academics. They are told in personal stories. There are common themes. They come to me -- over and over again -- through the words of women I don't know: I read their books, articles, stories. The themes also come drifting to me from the past -- women who have worked at this university before me. The keywords are:

  • overachievement
  • under-recognition
  • incommensurate family responsibilities
  • incommensurate pay
  • incommensurate promotion
  • harassment: sexual and verbal
  • violence: sexual and verbal
  • good girl
  • bad girl
  • coffee girl
  • no history
  • no models
  • no voice
  • isolation
  • alienation
  • dis-location

Of course, by now, we know this litany too well. We've all known for some time that the separation of the personal and professional is an illusion. Yet, my experience as a teacher, researcher, colleague, linguist and, by the way, as mother, wife, woman in the academy, also suggests that -- in the case of women -- the exception to the rule is too frequently applied. It is alive and well. I expe rience it daily in the academy. Perhaps we don't talk about that enough. Because of the way women are constructed by others, the university is not always a supportive place, a place which facilitates the "pursuit" of knowledge.

Right now, in my career, I'm in a front row seat for watching how the politics of language works in regard to the construction of Other. I want to offer an example which demonstrates the typical obliqueness of the process-at-work: I am a new professor in my department. I watch with real interest (as a linguist, that is) and some degree of trepidation, as my colleagues (who are generally quite friendly) try to define me, name me: who is this new kid on the block? One of my favorite examples of this process: I have been repeatedly defined as "the working class" woman.

Now, I'm not even sure where this one comes from except that -- it's true -- I was born in Detroit. In actuality, I grew up in suburbia and graduated from a somewhat affluent suburban high school. My father has never been anything other than a white-collared, brief case-swinging accountant-type. In other words, I am about as boringly middle-class as a person can get. But there's got to be a reason why I -- a woman -- speak so darn directly about things, why I won't fit into the stereotypes, or the social construction, of what woman in the academy is all about. She must be working class: part of that unruly, undisciplined, unreasonable, mob. What do (working class) women really want! I guess I'll just have to step in line and take my whats-comings: a label, so that I can be constructed and then deconstructed. Defused, you might say. More generously: understood.

But I need to get myself out of this tunnel I've dug for myself! I've argued, in short, that women in the academy are constructed as Other by others -- and the premiere strategy is to "get down" and get personal. What makes the anecdotes of the genders different in academia is how gender differences get constructed. Gender is socially constructed. And the way in which it is constructed gets quite personal for women in the academy.

The practical implications? As I've implied, all aspects of women's experience at the university are affected. There's a whole woman-oriented literature -- hot off the press -- demonstrating just how poorly women have fared (still fare!) in terms of full-time appointments, full professorial appointments, laurels for research, perks, privileges, power, etc.... It affects more than pay and promotion. As we know, the general climate at the university is subtly or blatantly, inhospitable to women, especially for those involved in women studies or women-oriented scholarship.

This taints teacher-student relationships and collegial relationships. Who wants her or his prestige or respectability to be threatened by a person who is marginalized herself in the community?

In an attempt to mitigate the sheer awfulness of this situation, I've read and heard others maintain this: Well, this inhospitable university environment sets up a "creative tension." Women produce good scholarship not just in spite of the inhospitality, but in sheer spite of it. This reasoning -- I believe -- is perverse. The human spirit does indeed always rise to the challenge, but women academics would fare much better -- I'm certain -- in fully supportive environments.

Apart from these unhappy implications, some of the theoretical issues interest me. I'd like to suggest two such issues.

First, the stories of the lexicographer and the entomologist make clear this message: not any of us can separate the personal from the professional -- men or women, overtly or covertly. And we shouldn't deceive ourselves into thinking we can. All our dealings -- with colleagues, with students, with administrators, with texts -- are highly affective, highly personal, highly political. Life at the academy is highly charged! We have our attractions and our distractions. We are impelled, compelled, not to mention -- repelled, sometimes expelled. When we sit across meeting tables from colleagues we have headaches and heartaches. Personal family issues crowd in on us. We have our fears and our fantasies. And all of these are pushing and pulling on our professional lives. This is the human condition, not the woman condition. We all have our secrets, our ecstasies, our emergencies, our tunnels, our terrors. What condition did that lexicographer have? Fear of life in public, in open-spaces? It happens when the personal and professional are kept artificially separate.

This is what women in the academy know. They've learned it the hard way.

The second theoretical issue is this. To turn my last point inside out: given that the personal is so frequently used against the professional woman at the academy, it seems quite ironic really that I -- a professional academic woman -- should be asked so frequently to tell my personal anecdotes in public. Gender and ethnicity panels are routine academic business. Forums for formulating our personal stories are ever-popular. Yet, there is no safe place for women. Most likely, the WGAY disc jockey didn't realize she was being baited by the Cinti homophobes as she told her story, as she expressed her personal feelings about the birth of her radio station. She probably had no idea she was as immediately and directly vulnerable as she was, in fact. Her audience was primed. Her story had been embellished by a series of homophobic sneers.

Telling stories is always an act of vulnerability. Even here you are being allowed to construct and deconstruct me. I tell my stories and you are allowed to

observe. Perhaps you are simply voyeurs! Somewhat agoraphobicly, I tried to veil myself by offering you stories of male academics instead. But, in the end, the anecdotes are all mine. Those here who are at the center of the academia or the academic text will only be able to see that the folks at the margins are actually central to the text itself when all of us, all men and women, when you yourselves cast off the agoraphobia and come out into the open. So, I don't really mean to be coy when I ask: anecdotes, anyone? Testimonials, stories, or confessions? Where are yours?


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Bloom, Lynn Z. "Teaching College English As A Woman." College English (November 1992) 54.7: 818-825.

"Man's home tunnels mystify researchers." Cincinnati Post , 21 October 1992:2B.

Dubois, Ellen Carol et. al. Feminist Scholarship: Kindling in the Groves of Academe . Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1985.

Gallop, Jane. "Knot A Love Story." YJC 5 .3: 209-218.

Kramarae, Cheris and Dale Spender. The Knowledge Explosion: Generations of Feminist Scholarship. New York: Teachers College P, 1992.

Langland, Elizabeth and Walter Grove, eds. A Feminist Perspective in the Academy: The Difference It Makes. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

Todd, Alexandra Dundas and Sue Fisher, eds. Gender and Discourse: The Power of Tal k. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1988.

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CAROL L. WINKELMANN i s Assistant Professor in the English Department at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Copyright 1994, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation : Winkelman, Carol L. (1994). The question of the personal: "Woman" in the Academy. WILLA , Volume III, 24-27.