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.
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.