My daughter has been lurking at my blog. Though she shows every sign of being unimpressed with my work, apparently she follows me online whenever she can, and has listed me as a “famous author” in a school assignment. I suspect the latter is primarily because she doesn’t have to do additional research on some other author.
Anyway, the other day, she asked me if I was an “Assistant Professor.” Oh boy, I sighed to myself: I know what’s coming, and the hackles of my professional defensiveness rose. This has happened before, when a babysitter described an employer (a well-regarded scholar of ancient history) as “not a real professor, just an assistant,” and – much as it hurt – I then had to explain that I, too, was “not a real professor, just an assistant.”
I explained to my daughter that an Assistant Professor was just the first rung on the ladder of professional promotions, and that the next one was an Associate Professor (which, really, also sounds like “not a real professor.”) The next one is a Full Professor, which really just sounds extra-defensive. Like, I’m a full person, not a pretend one. Maybe an Assistant Professor is akin to a green card of citizenship, but in my daughter’s world that just means I get kicked to Customs and Border Protection and out of academe.
What I didn’t explain to my daughter was that I should by now be an Associate Professor or even a Full Professor, had I not been hit by a bad market, fiscally non-viable employer institutions, and (let’s say it) the trifecta of racism-Islamophobia-sexism, with a dash of let’s-attack-the-prey-weakened-by-breast-cancer. It sounds awfully whiny to say that, but it is the truth. I started a tenure track job in 2008, and after breast cancer and its aftermath brought out the true colors of my employer, I hopped over to another institution. There – a truly White faculty, where I was one of a few faces of color – just before tenure, the budget crisis hit, and a new job-slasher-president cut my position. According to my Department Head, the Dean knew well that my position would be cut months in advance, but did not bother to inform me, holding his cards close to his chest as he told me how well I was doing and how I could spend more time being visible on campus, in addition to my service and administrative work. When my nationally award-winning book came out, I was already scrambling to find another position, and spent a year in limbo. I was then hired at an institution where I was a valued member, but where tenure wasn’t in place yet.
That longish narrative hangs together well, but it is still a long explanation. I’m well aware that letting my pain and vulnerability hang out there puts me at further risk of being shunned, but let’s not fool ourselves: I’m already marked. After I explained the academic hierarchy and the designations, my daughter smirked at my defensiveness, and said, “I’m so disappointed.” She added, chuckling, “I had such high hopes for you.”
You and me, baby girl. You and me.