I was in my late 30s, finishing my Master of Arts thesis, when I finally understood writing as a process.
Admittedly, it sounds silly but in 1986, the “how-to” of writing was threatening an academic tradition once thought unassailable, at least in the English department at a small university in the Rocky Mountains.
It was the invincibility of that tradition that drew me to academia and it would usher me out. We would both find out of what we were made. Different stuff.
For the first time in my life I was consumed by my work, in complete awe of writing. It was alive, no longer an academic exercise in research. And for that matter, neither was I.
My thesis advisor, Jeanne, was having none of “my new process” and rejected the initial draft of my thesis after reading the first two pages. No matter what I said, she would not read more.
Jeanne was a friend, ever patient with my enthusiasm, but her life was the academic tradition. She railed against the canon of “white male fact” and was integral in establishing a women’s studies program but she knew her parameters.
In response, I drank my way to sobriety and an eventual decision. It seemed I was fine with not graduating. Writing was what mattered and that has never changed.
But no story ends without a twist or two, if we are true in the telling. We cannot be part of a tradition and simply pull away without consequence for others or ourselves.
So it was that my hands were in dishwater when the telephone call came.
“It’s Jeanne,” my then partner said, stretching her arm toward me, cordless white phone in hand.
“She just wants to talk to you.”
I shook my head and looked down at my hands in the dishwater, a master’s graduation ring on my fourth finger, left-hand, gold in suds. My mom had it sent to me. She was coming for graduation. I would not cheat her out of this degree ceremony as I had for my bachelor’s.
Other than my partner, few outside my academic life knew about the thesis stalemate or a tangential twist, my formal charge of sexism and breach of protocol against a tenured professor.
It began with a question, as these things often do. The graduate level course was American literature, 1930s-40s, and I asked why there were no women writers included. The professor told me there were no major women writers. His words reverberated throughout the department.
His breach of protocol was reading the student evaluations before submitting his final grades. The professor all but grabbed them out of the office secretary’s hand, saying he knew “they would be good.”
I was the only graduate student to challenge him in class and in my written evaluation of his course. Accordingly, I was the only one to receive a B, everyone else an A. It is the only B on my graduate school transcript.
Confident in his tenure, the professor never denied any of the charges and a committee of his peers ruled against me, which proved to be the catalyst for a department showdown.
A number of professors threatened to bring my complaint before the entire department for a vote: to overturn my grade (copies of my coursework were made available); to end the exclusion of women writers from all courses; to censure the professor for breaching University protocol regarding student evaluations.
The vote never happened.
The head of the department removed that course from the professor’s teaching roster. He never taught in his area of emphasis again. The student evaluation procedure was completely revamped and finally, there was a review of department courses, something many members had been fighting for, including Jeanne.
My grade remained a B.
“You can appeal this decision, of course,” the department chair told me. Very carefully, he explained the process.
I nodded, hoping my tears would not spill over. Some part of me knew my grade was no longer the point, although it had been the initial pain.
“What you need to remember is that whenever he shakes his tail, this issue will make itself known for years to come.”
And it did for the rest of the professor’s life or so I am told.
Jeanne was not among the professors who outwardly supported me but for all of us there is more than one bridge too far in life. At least that has been true for me.
Of course, those were not my thoughts as I stood at the sink with my hands immersed in what was left of the soapsuds. Mostly, I thought about the many differences between my mother and me, specifically that 1986 MA class ring.
I took the phone call from Jeanne.
I did not really “defend” my thesis but ours was a lively discussion regarding writing and women. Some 25 years later, a thesis committee member told me there was some concern about my not defending the thesis.
Jeanne knew I would travel a road not hers but she sent me with love (and a degree) nonetheless. As firmly, she stood in her truth, too, a world of the Venerable Bede, tawny port, and women finding their own way.
In the year of Jeanne’s death, she asked me to teach a session of her graduate-level women’s studies course, the one that gave me the idea for my thesis. It remains one of the greatest honors of my life.
The last time I sat with Jeanne was in the dark hours of a Wyoming winter morning, selecting the music for her funeral, her singing “this little light of mine.” She thought it a good choice.
I have now lived longer than the lifespan that was Jeanne’s. I cannot imagine her in the time of Trump. She thought the 80s impossible, “the me generation.”
Not surprisingly, that last year of graduate school was on my mind as I listened to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony. Like so many other women I knew how it would end but I also kept hearing, “every time he shakes his tail.”
That, I know to be true.
12 thoughts on “Every Time He Shakes His Tail”
I loved my years teaching at FAMU, but I got a glimpse into the dark side of academia, the arrogance of some academic types that feel their own work comes first, and all else is negligible. It seems to be a relic of the medevial era and is so dysfunctional in this day and age. And the thing about evaluations you described – that is astoundingly unethical!! Congrats to you for sticking up for what’s right.
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It is a relic, that kind of arrogance, and that is a good thing. So glad to know that you enjoyed your teaching years. There is a sense of natural teacher about you, one of the many fine qualities I have come to know in you. Thanks, Craig.
Your words resonate with the past and the present, reminding me of all those times when even a word was seen as rebellion against ‘how we always do things’ and when women and children were ‘seen and not heard.’ Even as we age, we still need to be ‘present,’ to have courage as we support inclusion with compassion for all those who yet are not heard. Whether we act through writing or talking with others, with voting or teaching through our actions, we need to participate in our communities, to not be silent. Thank you.
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Yes, Beth, even a single word. So insightful. And I agree with you about not being silent in our support because these are remarkable, even dangerous, days of change, and we have learned that it is through vocal support and action that change washes over what was, never fast enough (perhaps for anyone), but in equanimity, we are aware of the options with eyes wide open. Thanks, Beth.
There are too many guilty tails that defend each other — a flock of their own. I just participated in a writer’s webinar that had a Hollywood producer as the guest. A dirty tail in my opinion. He wouldn’t discuss women leads for films, citing women are “not marketable”. Women writers have to get louder, more vocal and push our agenda. This was a great piece, KM!
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“Guilty tails”–thanks for that–are really too numerous to mention, aren’t they? You and I will stay loud, I’m sure, in support of all the incredibly talented women who are emerging in the 21st-century. We both know that kind of support can never be too much. Thanks so much, Maeve!
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Well written, as usual! I must say I knew none of this. It only makes me esteem you more — if that is possible. — Jane
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So kind, Jane. As for esteem, the feeling is mutual. Thanks, Jane.
Your experiences sound remarkably similar to mine! I jarred with academia at the higher levels in part because I didn’t agree with the writing style and structure by which the academy defined intellectual status; but also because of the way marking had been weaponised by staff for their own political battles within their department and did not reflect student merit.
The issue you faced, where even course content was defined by the obvious prejudices and intellectual snobbery of the lecturer, to me presents as a part of that same mind-set. By my standards that sort of thinking fails the abstraction test. At worst (where the fortunes of students are at stake) it’s also corrupt, and I left Victoria University of Wellington after finishing my honours degree because I wasn’t prepared to continue struggling against a system that enabled lecturers to infuse their own personal prejudices and insecurities into marking, then hide behind the pretense of ‘impartiality’ and ‘the rules’ when challenged. They were absolutely bulletproof; there were systems to redress issues, but in practise the act of invalidating a student for the lecturers’ personal reasons also invalidated any real chance the student had of defending themselves via the system. I hadn’t finished my studies – but VUW wasn’t the place to pursue them. My subsequent academic career was much smoother at a different university, aside from my MA supervisor absconding to Georgetown University mid-thesis – I got the degree anyway (in 1986!). But my VUW experience was salutary and I never had any desire to find work in any academic department.
The irony is that a number of my books, since, have been picked up as university texts… but I never wrote them for that purpose, either structurally, stylistically, or in terms of the questions I was exploring, which were the ones that interested me, not what ‘the system’ requires.
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“They were absolutely bulletproof.” That’s how it felt. Exactly. I remember your posts about this issue, and with each one, I thought to reach out regarding our similar experiences. I am so glad you did. Obviously, it has taken me some time to write about this.
Interestingly, both our experiences are full of irony. I was asked to teach (by that same department), after getting my degree, and I did for one year, although I could have stayed for another. I wanted that teaching experience; it proved to be one of my best teaching years. I had to find what was left of me as a teacher (as a graduate student, we were required to teach two freshman courses each semester, in addition to our course load) and whether or not I wanted to pursue teaching writing elsewhere. I really loved teaching incoming freshmen (that was considered odd; no surprise in that).I would teach part-time at various colleges but chronic illness increasingly reduced that role. Through the years since, there has been writing, and my love for it. That love has been stronger than any force in my life, although I did not discover how strong until almost 20 years ago, its origin in this post. As bloggers, you and I have discovered various similarities in our life experiences including geography, acupuncture/yoga, history, and even coal!
BTW, I am now working on the revision of that novel I believe I may have mentioned a few years ago. Coal and coal mining are central to its story. I hope to take a look at your book, “Coal:The Rise and Fall of King Coal in New Zealand” for you capture story in history like few others. Thanks, Matthew!
I was asked, as the manager of the Key Largo Library, why I had so many books by women in the new book section. The asker was a man, and I was the one responsible for placing the orders. When I made the count of the new book shelf I found that the authors were about 50% male and 50% female. I pointed that out the next time he came in. But that was exactly what he was objecting to! A token book or two by a woman was fine, but equal representation? Book writing was a man’s territory. One of us was satisfied with the selection of new books, the other would never be.
“The other would never be” is precisely it because balance was never the goal and still isn’t, with some notable exceptions. Yours and mine are the stories we have given a new narrative to (at least tried), in the hope we get those shelves 50-50, even if that means our writing the books. In our going forward, and I believe we are, I don’t want us to forget the stories of old because they were once change, too. Thanks, Adrian!
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