I’ll be teaching a year-long introductory college class on Catholicism again for 2014-2015. As I prepare to teach this class again, I’ve been thinking not only about the requisite alterations I need to make to the syllabus, but also about what teaching even is and what it means to me.

Here’s why.

I am recalling a memory I filed away at some point, and it has to do with women, the practice of teaching in a university context, and how we place those two things together.

One early September a couple years ago, I was at a departmental party, and I ended up having a conversation with another female graduate student in theology who was preparing to teach for her first time. We had never met before, so our exchange gravitated toward our most obvious common tie: starting a new semester and being relatively new university instructors (though I had taught once before).

I asked her how she felt about starting teaching for the first time.

She replied, “Well, I have always wanted to be a mom, so I am really looking forward to teaching.”

I could not relate to this sentiment, and not because I don’t want children some day. I had simply never intuitively indexed “mother” to “teacher” as a mode of pedagogical self-definition. So I responded, with a noncommittal air, “Yeah…hmm. Totally.”

The conversation petered out after that. I guess we didn’t feel a “sisterly” bond.

I think this exchange highlights some of the rhetoric that I hear about women, and the network of women with and for each other, and for students, as peddlers of knowledge– in the academic theological sphere.

Looking back, I realize I have also heard other academic women talk about teaching specifically as a maternal act (and some of these women have children, and some of them don’t). This was part of the message of my pedagogy training I received at my graduate institution, from certain female academics, when I was preparing to teach for the first time. Thus, it appears to be the case that some other academic women do indeed apply the paradigm of motherhood to pedagogy, as a way of understanding how they care for their students, help them grow intellectually, and make sure that they are approachable and available to their students.

On the one hand, I think I can relate, at least in part.

Speaking more generally, we younger women who are making our way in theology may want to give tribute to those whom we call our “foremothers”: those women who, in various ways, have made space for feminist theological concerns and for women to engage in the theological enterprise. I admit that I can catch myself thinking about somebody like Elizabeth Johnson this way. And for me, that means not only that I deeply admire and appreciate her work, but also that I feel, in some sense, nurtured and revivified by her example and her person as I move forward with my own work. The depth of gratitude I feel seems to lend a certain amount of fittingness to the label “mother,” I suppose. There’s some kind of…”work bond” there, or something, and it is probably strengthened because of the challenges of operating within a largely patriarchal and male-dominated academic context. It is for this same reason that I sometimes refer to my (female) advisor affectionately as my Doktormutter (though I don’t do this to her face, and it may just be because I enjoy German…).

Anyway, I can see why this discourse would be compelling particularly in light of the modern splitting between a masculinized, public work realm and a feminized, domestic realm. In this regnant binary, I think it’s easy to assign primary value to the “public” realm, and to assume that it’s where the Serious Men’s Work happens, while all the women stay at home, the angels in the houses, taking care of Frivolous Female Matters, including that pesky business about child-rearing. (Of course, the reality on the ground is actually much more complicated than this, with all kinds of couples dividing the workloads in all sorts of creative ways today, but, even so, when it comes to straight couples, there still seems to be a certain ostensible fittingness associated with women as titans of domesticity. It’s about our dominant cultural value judgments, stereotypes, and unchallenged, sexist associations.)

Of all the things that I could say about this fabricated dichotomy, the one thing I will say here is this, though: what we mean when we talk about motherhood and child-rearing certainly gets devalued, in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. When juxtaposed with work, with public business, and with economic interchange conducted by Men in Suits, the symbolic apparatus that constitutes “the maternal” (an ostensibly private affair that has to do with female bodies and emotions and managing the trivial effluvia that’s part of raising children) does get abjected, I think. Maternality gets treated more as frivolity than as work: women should be in the private realm, and the private realm counts for less. So…mothers get the shit end of the stick in all this. Even as a childless woman, I have come to think this more and more the older I have gotten.

So in this way, I can see why it would be especially powerful to insist on the relevance and fittingness of motherhood as a metaphor for speaking about university teaching (as public work). This association not only underscores the dignity and multiple labilities and potentialities inherent in the act of mothering (i.e., motherhood is meant to be good and life-giving, and, by virtue of its goodness, it can be used to describe the nobility of other kinds of activities). It may also helpfully expand our conception about what teaching is. For example, the metaphor may help us to pay more attention to the relational structure of teaching, to the fact that it is not just the trickle-down imparting of knowledge, but rather, a dialogical encounter that involves not only intellectual stewardship but also active listening and patience and attention to the emotional reactions of the students to the material, etc.

On the other hand, I cannot entirely dismiss my discomfort with applying the metaphor of motherhood to women’s professional activity, particularly university teaching. One danger is that such an application may in fact give us a toxic view of teaching that encourages self-expenditure sans remainder, a lack of boundaries, and a tendency to infantilize the students, etc., and I have seen the motherhood metaphor applied in this way, positively, as something exemplary for instructors. This is obviously dangerous; it’s shitty pedagogy (and, to be honest, the first semester I was teaching, I struggled to disentangle myself from my web of guilt for my inability to kenote for my students, day in and day out). However, I think it’s also a shitty view of motherhood, and one that is dismantled as soon as we employ a more grounded and respectful view of motherhood. I don’t actually think motherhood is absolutely self-sacrificial smotherhood. Correct me if I am wrong.

So I think the real issue, at least for me, is that I don’t understand why, when women engage in various kinds of professional relationships, we can’t just speak about those things on their own terms. For example, I tend to think about teaching as an activity unto itself. Though, I suppose that when I think about its relational aspect and am reaching for other descriptors, I think the paradigm that comes more to mind for me is mentorship, or maybe even coaching (that is, if I were actually into sports). That seems to be its own kind of relationship that involves a very particular kind of intimacy (a kind of stewardship and guidance) with a very particular set of boundaries (i.e., it’s a relationship that is very much not intrinsically familial, or romantic, or anything else overly familiar).

Furthermore, I have honestly never heard any of my male colleagues speak about teaching as a kind of fatherhood. I suspect that this is because men are allowed to have different roles and relationships and modes of intimacy in both the private and the public realms, and nobody blinks. Men are the norm, the starting point for being human, so obviously they can both “father” and “teach” and “publish” (and, if we are being honest, perhaps these latter, professional activities are expected to take up the bulk of the male’s time). “Man”= “human”, and that provides its own flexible pivot point for a variety of life activities. I can’t imagine having a conversation like that at a departmental picnic with a male colleague who says, “I really want to be a dad, so I am looking forward to teaching [at the university level].” Is that a cultural script? Nope.

I sense that women don’t get extended the same luxury of existential flexibility that men do. There’s a creepy elision that happens: a woman’s starting point for being in the world is being a mother(/wife), a domestic gatekeeper of sorts. So then when we women want to spend our time in professional pursuits like university teaching (whether we also have children or not), the way to protect our dignity and value in that is to expand the metaphor of motherhood, thus transposing that particular kind of relation into another context, so that we never really have to see ourselves and each other as human agents capable of giving so much and in so many different avenues, with varying and appropriate levels of intimacy. So teaching gets to be a derivative form of motherhood, so that we never really have to think about women as fully human, as fully labile, as men.

I say this not at all to devalue motherhood, but rather, to ask why motherhood, even as a metaphor applied more broadly to women’s lives, has to be everything.




5 thoughts

  1. I actually think the way I teach and the students I encounter impact the distinct role of parenting. The students I teach come from many different families and I am always curious, in getting to know them, what has shaped them for the better and the worse. On another note, I cannot imagine investing the same resources into each of my students that I do my own kids–just not possible–so the metaphor could create an entirely unrealistic expectation for women who teach. These students have mothers already, so I vastly prefer the coach and mentor metaphor.

  2. I agree that womens’ careers being thought of as derivative forms of motherhood makes me uncomfortable. It seems limiting for women depending on what they want to do with their lives – not a lot of mothering potential in being a pilot. Possibly as a side-effect of wanting to push women to be motherly or women feeling they need to be motherly, I see a lot of women asked to be mentors to others, which can be a compliment and a great thing, but also, again, may be limiting – the fact that they still need to grow and learn and ALSO need mentors often seems to be forgotten (maybe since mothers are supposed to know everything).

  3. I agree there are many socio-psychological models of women that seem to work against them in the professional working world. While these models represent some women in some circumstances they have been generalized across the spectrum and repeated so that they are the “normative reality.” It has long been recognized we live in a patriarchal world. Your personal experience has had a profound impact yet, nothing new is brought to the discussion.
    Your newbie colleague is speaking from her orientation & all that means. Were you to speak with her in a year or even ten she may have formulated a new point of view.
    Theology inherently takes on a different connotation than physics, for example, as it deals with our essence, our soul (spirit). Some religions call a priest “father” rather than their degreed title “reverend.”
    I have been striving to look beyond the wo/man physical appearances after reflecting on the Genesis passage of being made in the IKON of GOD. GOD is Spirit. As His creatures we are flesh & spirit (soul). The flesh is mortal. The spirit is immortal. Flesh serves a limited purpose in this life whereas spirit serves an unlimited purpose for eternity. Paul tells us there is no fe/male in Christ. Paul is revealing the true essence of our relationship with GOD. GOD’s Spirit meets each person’s spirit (soul). This is where the “work” of salvation is done. Finally, there is the Holy Spirit.
    May I suggest one look at another not as flesh and bones but see their spirit (soul). Your young colleague may be a woman yearning to be a mother who is meeting her immediate needs via “mothering” her students. Would someone in the psychology field say this is healthy behavior? Likely not. Would she describe herself as the “class mother” in a department meeting, or to the department head? Most certainly not. Maybe she used the term mothering rather than mentoring. Could you have missed a “teachable moment”? Maybe. Life is full of opportunities to learn & grow & teachable moments. You may want to reach out to her at semester’s end.

  4. E. Lawerence, your article definitely demands a read, for you touch on a very important and much-overlooked issue in theology.

    In traditional theology, motherhood IS “absolutely self-sacrificial smotherhood” just as fatherhood is godliness. You don’t see Mary, mother of Jesus, doing anything consequential after Jesus’ death. Stories of Jesus’ life give us too much a sense of his wanting to get away from mom and her influence, with his last reluctant obedient act helping him to break away from mother into his own public life.

    The only way we can get away from this stereotyped genderized theology is to focus on God as intercoursing Love…Love which is the ongoing, dynamic intercourse of its separateness and its oneness…ongoing, creative intercourse between self-ness and other-connectedness.

    Ilia Delio’s book, THE UNBEARABLE WHOLENESS OF BEING, is a good start in this direction.

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