Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus – but don’t hold your breath for a meritocracy, honey.

I had an experience recently that started me nostalgically reflecting on my undergraduate days and the path that has since led me to become my current jaded, cynical self.  I’ve wanted to be an archaeology professor since I was 12.  A life of teaching in the academy, mentoring students, undertaking research, reading and learning, designing curricula; even serving on committees seemed exciting and fulfilling.  Don’t get me wrong, I know I romanticized the life: I always pictured myself living in a modest, yet adorable, Victorian house, but never lingered on the idea of a salary so low I could not make mortgage payments.  I imagined my worldly and engaged children, reveling in our summers spent together at fieldschools, yet I did not anticipate surly teenagers who don’t like dirt and whose care takes me from writing up research.  The list of these delightful juxtapositions goes on, of course (tres amusant, n’est-ce pas?), and I’m sure you could make your own: helping students find their academic voice sounds important, grading 500,000 crappy papers feels thankless; forging academic policy sounds invigorating, spending hours in committees whose decisions are then over-ruled by administrators, now that’s soul crushing…

Nonetheless, I loved the academy, and fundamentally this was because it was the closest thing to a true meritocracy I had ever experienced.  My love was pure.  My faith was bottomless.  And I honestly believed that if I worked hard, did the most work and the best work, was creative, easy-going, funny, dedicated, etc., etc., I would be rewarded commensurately… In retrospect, it’s touching, really, how fervently I believed this with my whole being.

I still remember the day I had the rug pulled out from under me, and, yes, I fully know that you may laugh when you read about it.  It’s simple really.  When I was in my sophomore year of college, my undergraduate advisor began to plan to go to into the field to do some preliminary research.  It was a small school, with a small cohort of archaeology students.  Please excuse my tooting my own horn – but I was the best by several measures.  I had been doing archaeology since I was a young teen; I had the highest GPA; I had taken the senior year archaeological theory class in the spring semester of my freshman year and gotten an A.  I had even trained for three months in the field in the very river valley the advisor was fixing to research (unlike any of my peers).

So, when it happened that one day sitting in my professor’s office he mentioned that he was finalizing his plans for the trip and some other student was being invited to join him – I was shocked, truly shocked.  He saw the look on my face and I remember him being surprised at my surprise, and then bemused.  He carefully explained to me that the student he was planning on taking with him was male.  They would save money being able to share a room, the student would be able to carry lots of equipment, and (once more for emphasis) I didn’t really think he could take a 20 year old woman alone to the field with him, did I?

I was the best…wasn’t I?   It has absolutely nothing to do with merit, he assured me.  Nothing to do with merit?!!!! Was I hearing this correctly????

That’s right, it had never, ever, EVER occurred to me that my sex (or my gender) might be a factor in his decision.  The realization of what I was hearing slowly sank in – I was being passed over for the chance to do original field research because I was a girl.  None of the other things I had done (or not done, frankly) mattered in the final assessment.

Okay, okay,  I understand that in the grand scheme of life this was a minor incident (and in the end the trip was cancelled and nobody went),  but it was a watershed for me.  My faith in the meritocracy of academic life had been rattled. Over the years my faith and I would sustain MUCH harsher blows: insults to my integrity; academic betrayal; as well as, personal harassment, intimidation, and assault.  Each event made me recall  this first incident.  My advisor had been the greatest archaeologist and most impressive intellectual I had ever known.  He was my mentor and I trusted him completely.  In retrospect, of course, I’m far more sympathetic to his situation than I was back then.

Why is this on my mind?  Well, recently I was passed over for participation in a project in favor of an older male (here it was symbolic capital being sought) and I felt that old familiar feeling again – a mixture of anger, frustration, heartache, and resignation (read = bitter).  Maybe I wasn’t so unambiguously the best in this particular situation, but I was an excellent choice for many reasons, and once again it was a decision made by a person I trusted completely.

I have been discriminated against for reasons other than my gender (although that one is surprisingly consistent), and in settings other than the academy, of course.  And this is definitely no story of horrific treatment compared to apartheid, slavery, ethnic cleansing, hate crimes, etc., etc., but as I have learned over the years, these incidents need to be spoken of and spoken to.  So many of us spend our lives accepting them as part of the cost of doing business with a uterus.  We excuse, ignore, rationalize, and blame ourselves.  For years I tried to make sense of my incident in a way that preserved my idealization of the academy as a meritocracy – I must have misunderstood what my professor said; I must not have been the best; there must have been more to the story.

I don’t really have a witty conclusion for this.  It is what it is.  When I taught a seminar on topics in gender and science, I had fellow female faculty members come and talk to the class about their lives and careers, and my story was hardly unique.  (Let’s just say, physics grad school can be a real bitch for the ladies, folks!)  We all agreed it feels good to share, however, and if you, the reader, have never had a moment like this in your life – it bears consideration.

Well I’m not blogging either, so there.

Cindy’s not the only one not blogging.  Here are a few things I’m not writing about:

1)Transparency. Mark wanted me to write about it ages ago, and I’ve thought about it, and don’t know what to say. Part of what troubles me about HTS is the overt lack of transparency (does that make them transparently opaque?), in the name of national security. Is this just a question of degree? Because, really, none of us who do or who have done research among our fellow human beings are completely open books. I have yet to post my undiluted field notes for all and sundry to see. I did, however, file a human subjects protocol, and I wonder if one could look it up at the office at my PhD-granting institution if one wanted to. I like to think that being forced to think bureaucratically (that is, having to file paperwork certifying that you have thought about it) about risk, and harm, and doing thoughtful research, is one of the best ways to try to ensure, as a discipline, that such thoughtful and responsible research is carried out. Sort of like, if you think someone is watching, you might behave better.

So at what point does the difference in the degree of transparency, between the run-of-the-mill anthropologist (moi), and the HTS practitioner (not-moi), become a difference in kind?

2)How damn hard it is to write when you are not in graduate school anymore. And have kids. And work a little bit. And want to have time to fart around on the internet, go for walks, and occasionally interact in meaningful ways with spouse, friends, family. No one speaks of this while you are in graduate school! Maybe they did, and I wasn’t listening. This sounds like whining, but I really do have a point: in graduate school, all you have to do is read and write. The whole setup is supposed to facilitate that. So those people who were doing grad school at the same time they had other obligations have a leg-up on those of us slackers who Just Did Grad School. Now, in my ostensibly grown-up life post-graduate school, I’d like to write a bit, and read some intellectual stuff that’s not just what I’m making my students responsible for, but the energy and inclination is not there. I’d have to form an infrastructure from whole cloth. Find writing partners. Schedule time for “writing.” Schedule time for “research.” And carve that time out of the rest of my existence. This sounds like a very sorry-ass-tiny-first-world-problem, I’m sure, but part of what I want to point out is that there is no systemic anything that gives young academics in the non-tenure-track workforce support to write. I suspect the non-tenure track thing might also be key, because there are infrastructures in place to facilitate tenured faculty writing. The rest of us are On Our Own.

In graduate school, the motivational structure around productivity is external. Outside of graduate school, and in the absence of tenure requirements, the motivational structure needs to be internal. Clearly, I am finding these conditions challenging.

3) The fact that Barack Obama’s mom was an anthropologist. Ruth Behar has already written movingly about this, so I don’t have to, but I’ve been pondering anthropological thoughts throughout the campaign, and even after the election, and wish that there had been some sort of Anthropologists for the Anthropologist’s Son group around, pushing us as a discipline into some kind of spotlight. Surely, his mother’s passion for anthropology, the one that led her to eventually settle and build a family in Indonesia (among other places), informs the choices that the President-Elect makes/will make about how to move through the world? About his approach to his own racial identity? About his perspective on the role of government in society?

There’s another blog entry waiting to happen, and clearly it is not coming from me.