Sunday, December 6, 2009

Tenure-Track Tales, Part The Second

When I was hired at a small Maryland college , there were only three tenured women in the 80-something faculty. At the end of the first year, we were supposed to fill out a form indicating which committees we would like to serve on. “Don't get your hopes up,” colleagues in my department warned. “It's really hard for a woman to get on a faculty committee.” To be on the safe side, I indicated interest in serving on the maximum number of committees allowed—five.

I did not realize, however, that in 1975 the idea had begun to filter into the minds of male academics that it was suitable to have an occasional female presence on a committee, just to show their openness of mind and liberality of spirit. That is how I found myself in five committees. How that was going to leave any time for class preparations and scholarly writing, let alone bringing up children and milking goats, I did not know.

The Admissions Committee met on Friday afternoons to peruse the student applications that had come in over the preceding week. There was a relaxed TGIF feeling about those meetings, and committee members sucked on their pipes and reminisced at length about students they had rejected in the course of their careers. Needless to say, I was the only woman at those meetings. And I didn't have that TGIF feeling: I had children waiting to be picked up at day care, and dinner to think about.

In those days, college applications required a photo of the applicant. In each folder, along with the high school grades and letters from counselors and church ministers, a photograph of a lantern-jawed boy with bushy hair (this was the 70s) or an oval-faced girl with flat hair parted in the middle would look blankly out at us.

Slowly, deliberately, we would weigh the grades obtained versus the difficulty of courses taken, assess the letters of recommendation and the essays about “A Special Person In My Life,” shake our heads over the eternal cliches and misspellings. When we got to the bottom of the heap, decisions became harder. The decent-in-math track star with no verbal scores to speak of, or the Candy Striper with good grades but no AP credits?

In the case of the Candy Striper my colleagues would often point to the photograph. “She's nice kid, and I personally wouldn't mind a bit having her in class,” they would say with a wink. At the end of the long afternoon, the assessments would become more crass, “Oh, what the hell, so she didn't take four years of math. But at least she's not fat, like this other one, so I say go with her.”

I couldn't believe my ears. These were elderly (they must have been in their mid-forties) men, tenured professors, my superiors whom I should respect and propitiate. But what was going on? How could they decide to let one person in, and keep another out, based on a photograph?

After a couple of meetings, I raised my hand. The professors turned to me with benevolent smiles. What cute thing was I about to say? “Ummm...,” I began. Then, gathering speed, “I don't believe that physical appearance should count as an, you know, admissions criterion. If you know what I mean.”

They didn't know what I meant. Beneath their busy eyebrows, their eyes opened in disbelief. “But Dr. Cobb, we're not using their looks against these young ladies. Quite the contrary. Their looks are an asset to their application for admission.”

True, their looks were an asset, as mine had been in getting the faculty position. Still, it didn't feel right somehow. “But, but...” I faltered, “it shouldn't matter whether they're pretty or...fat.” I looked around at the circle of uncomprehending faces. My mind went blank, then I gazed down at their tweed-clad torsos. “I mean, how would you like it if...if you were applying for a job and somebody judged you on the shape of your body?”

There was silence, followed by some shifting in chairs, some sucking on pipes. The academic dean barked a laugh, then declared that we had worked enough for one meeting and it was perhaps time go home. I kept my eyes down all the way to the car, then picked up my kids and drove home to fix dinner.

11 comments :

  1. Again, I can't tell you how difficult is for me to get my head around this. And why in the world would a photo be required with an application?

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  2. Indigo Bunting where did you live in the 60s and 70s? I can feel these discussions like they were yesterday. So painful. This was the same period when they were unwritten quotas on all groups except male WASPs.

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  3. BTW: hope your Green Vermont is white!

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  4. This post makes my blood boil and has me cheering you, albeit retroactively.

    And thank God none of the schools I applied for in 1977 required a photo...

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  5. mrb: I lived in the same town as Lali, but I was a rather naive kid with liberal parents and I had a lot more faith in people. Faith that was completely unwarranted.

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  6. In hindsight, everything tends to look rosier, of course. Those weren't actively bad guys--just products of their age, and yes, insensitive and at times a little dumb. BTW, Elizabeth, by 1977, the photos were gone, thank goodness.

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  7. Yes, mrb, the green is now white, and gorgeous in its own way.

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  8. wow, i remember those days. i was one of the clueless masses that ha to send in a picture with my application.

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  9. What's funny is I didn't question why they wanted my picture. As a young woman applying to college etc in the 60s, I guess it seemed exciting to send a picture too.Duh.

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  10. Do you think that small liberal arts schools in Vermont would have had the same issues in the 1970's?

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  11. Dona, I wasn't in a college in Vermont in those days, but my sense is that those attitudes were pretty universal. After all, Maryland was supposed to be fairly enlightened....

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