Sunday, August 27, 2006

Telling Stories

I’ve returned after a month-long hiatus. It was extraordinarily productive, though not in an academic way.

Female Science Professor blogs about the value of “Old War Stories,” the stories that women in academia tell about "how it used to be."

Novices, whether women or men, can make good use of cautionary tales of others’ experiences. I think they can play an especially valuable role for women in male-dominated areas of academia. Stories that narrate what made it tough for other people can help us identify and avoid similar situations, and by naming a situation (as harassment or as discrimination or as otherwise unfair), the blame for failure can be shifted from the self/victim to the institution or individuals that have caused it. They make us aware and wary of acting in ways that reproduce the marginalization of women, especially since in competitive circumstances (like grad school) there is often something to be gained at others’ expense (“better her than me”). Sharing war stories, especially of recent conflicts, can build awareness of ongoing problems so that they can be addressed. War stories have helped us build our identity as feminists because the general patterns of discrimination are far too common, even when the details change from one person's telling to another.

Personal narratives, the good and the bad, are a necessary complement to feminist theory, since experience is where feminism begins. Their role is not just critical, but also positive: war stories don’t just identify obstacles, they can also point out alternative career paths when life circumstances (partners, children, preconceptions) block the conventional route through graduate education to tenure. Stories where the heroines have won their battles are just as necessary as the cautionary tales.

When should we not share our old war tales? Telling them too often, perhaps, is boring. Hearing them too often is discouraging. But the worst is when they induce a race to the bottom, a competition for pity: who has had the worst experiences? Or when they mask Schadenfreude. Or when they are used by one generation to put the next generation in their place: “Your battles are not nearly so bloody as the ones I had to fight.”

Some autobiographical stories have been published and are worth reading:

Linda Martin Alcoff, ed. Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy, 2003.
Constance Coiner and Diana Hume George, eds. The Family Track: Keeping Your Faculties While You Mentor, Nurture, Teach, and Serve, 1998.
Jane Roland Martin, Coming of Age in Academe: Rekindling Women’s Hopes and Reforming the Academy, 1999.
Christine Overall, A Feminist I: Reflections from Academia, 1998.
George Yancy, The Philosophical I: Reflections on Life in Philosophy, 2002.

But not all autobiographies are useful in this way. Stories from those who have led a charmed existence but can still find things to complain about are not as likely to inspire those of us with a more ordinary lot. Take Colin McGinn’s autobiography. He tells of being both surprised and not surprised to be offered a position over Christopher Peacocke:
“…soon after the interview I was offered the job. I was totally astonished. Rumor has it that the psychologists found Peacocke too difficult to understand…I, on the other hand, was as clear as daylight—whatever my other failings may be.”
But sadly, there is a grey lining in every silver cloud:
“I had my misgivings about accepting the job. I now liked living in London and felt apprehensive about living in Oxford, which is, after all, just a small market town.”

1 comment:

Sharon Crasnow said...

At the APA in Portland, the Committee on the Status of Women and the Inclusiveness Committee sponsored a session called "Family Matters in the Profession." Much of the motivation for the session is captured in what you say about the role of telling stories. The women on the panel told stories of getting the personal to mesh with the philosophical in a variety of ways: partners, children, and parents all part of the picture. The reaction of the audience and the enthusiasm of the panel made it clear that this was a worthwhile exercise. The panel wanted to do it again and so will at the upcoming ESWIP/SAF conference in Tampa (Dec. 1-3).