Friday, March 8, 2013

Superwoman and Tiger Mom get off my back! A DIY feminist guide for mentoring and mothering in academia

Superwoman and Tiger Mom get off my back! A DIY feminist guide for mentoring and mothering in academia

By Laura Kina 3-8-13

“How do you do it all? You have so much going on…your edited book, your art show…and you're a mom of two and you always seem so put together,” a fellow Asian American arts organizer leaned in to compliment me as I was wrapping up a session at the College Art Association conference in NY last month.

I blushed and pretended not to hear her and changed the topic to ask her what she’s working on. Have I been bragging too much? Was she being sarcastic or sincere? Am I trying too hard? I was relieved that I didn’t look like the mess I feel like inside half the time. The truth is that the creative and scholarly projects I’ve been working on collaboratively and consistently on for the past five years are all coming to fruition at the same time so it’s harvest season, it’s time to celebrate. But behind her seemingly benign compliment are a host of issues and anxieties that are often taboo to discuss.

In the spirit of mentoring and mothering, I’d like to talk shop. For she is not the first Asian American female academic to pull me aside to ask – how do you do this? “This” can be as basic as “If I have a child, will I be taken seriously as an academic? Will I tank my chances at getting tenure? Will I have time for my research?” This may sound crazy but we know the odds and once you have spent half your life working for something only to have your biological clock collide with your tenure clock, it’s a real concern. These aren’t naïve questions.

Yesterday I was asked to speak on a panel, “Women’s Journeys: Passion, Purpose, and Perseverance,” at DePaul University, where I am a tenured associate professor of Art, Media, & Design. It was put on by our Women’s Center and DePaul Women’s Network. The moderator, Joy Boggs of DePaul’s Office of General Council, sent my fellow panelists Katrina Caldwell (assistant Vice President for Diversity and Equity, Northern Illinois University), Dawn Dalton (Executive Director ChicagoMetropolitan Battered Women’s Network), and Claudia Garcia-Rojas (Social Media Fellow The Op Ed Project), and I questions ahead of time to consider. My esteemed panelists are "real" experts in women's issues. I consider myself more of an accidental feminist who also accidentally became a tenured professor. I'd still like to share some stories from the trenches in hopes that this can help other women. Warning...this might be bad advice too so take it with a grain of salt.

1.     Mentors and Networks: mentors come in a variety of forms and not all mentors are professional in nature.  For example, the most profound mentoring I ever experienced came from my grandmothers. How do you cultivate mentors and, or networks?

Mentoring with a capital “m” can imply an asymmetrical relationship (e.g., that of teacher/student or parent/child) and can be both incredibly nurturing but also risks infantalization and can stifle your ability to assert differing opinions than your Mentor as it might be construed as disrespectful. Worse yet, if your Mentor happens to be an alpha “Queen Bee,” you can even be cut down or blocked from success if you try to surpass her. This dynamic is especially exacerbated in between women of color in academia where achieving tenure and significant senior and executive leadership roles remains a challenge. It might also be widely known who your Mentor is and your research is then perceived as being from this or that camp of thought or practice or you are seen as disciple of this great scholar. If your Mentor happens to be a colleague in your same academic unit, you can also be seen as a voting block. So these are just some of reasons why you should carefully choose whom to study under or professionally align your work with.

But it is also a great honor and responsibility to be a Mentor and to have someone you can call your Mentor. For me, this is reserved for just a select few women like my Mom!

This is not to say I don’t believe in mentoring with a lowercase “m.” I very much do. I don’t frame it as mentoring though but rather as people I collaborate with, consult with, and network with or even my students (yes, you do learn while teaching). Some of these “mentors” I hire but there is also a gift economy of skill swapping, an understanding that you must pay it forward and clear paths…karma. I'm a Connector. I have an entire production and support team I rely on to get my work done as an artist/academic including: a graphic designer, photographer, programmer, carpenter, copy editor (and no my blog posts aren’t copy edited so please forgive my typos and redundancies), readers, studio critic partners, nanny, husband, mother-in-law, mom and dad etc. So the honest answer to “How do you do it all?” is that it is “we who do it all” and not “me” or “you.”

Networking. I used to be painfully shy about 20 years ago…you can ask my husband. I could barely make a business phone call if I had to ask someone for something. He works in sales and is very comfortable being assertive and loud. He always tells me that people are too busy thinking about themselves to really be listening to what you are saying anyway. This has given me great confidence to just speak up and over the years I think I’ve started to be a little like him. From his sales background, I also know that it’s all about odds too. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. It used to be that “Coffee’s for closers” but you have to take time to stop and get to know people in a sincere way. So I am open to collaborating and networking as opportunities present themselves. I usually have multiple projects going at different stages and scopes with a deep pipeline of support. I’ve been doing this totally intuitively and organically. I read an article on LinkedIn earlier this week that said there is a
70-20-10 rule of networking - 70% “contacts who work within your direct core area or similar role,” 20% in related or adjacent areas to your core interests, 10% “outrageous outliers.”

What this looks like for me right now - In addition to service roles and organizing in my home institution on departmental, college, and university levels, I’m an active member, and in some cases leader or even a founder, in ad hoc groups of scholars or artists, professional associations and non-profit community organizations that are local, national and international in scope. Like many people of my generation or younger, I use a mix of tools to accomplish networking – online social networking, face to face meetings and information exchange at meetings and conferences, referrals, collaboration, cross-promotion of events or research, co-organizing, problem solving…all of these lead to investments in relationships and there is a high degree of cross-pollination.

2.     Navigating and managing in systems not designed for you:  what do you do to rest and refresh your soul? How do you keep yourself encouraged?

For the fist part of the question about navigating and managing systems - I build networks, such as Critical Mixed Race Studies, and try to transform systems from within, with help from my friends. I make sure to have agency, build alliances, but at the same time I don’t assume entitlement. I’m not usually the person on the font line yelling and angry but you will find me in a back room drafting up a strategic plan on how to solve issues and I have determination and patience to see these things through over long periods of time.

This entrepreneurial spirit comes from my mom via my Grandpa and Grandma Smiley. They came from working class families but they managed to start and run a string of small businesses over the years – scrap metal business, gas station, hardware store, a roadside motel, mini warehouse storage, a cable company…I watched them constantly transforming themselves and taking risks and finding creative ways to work within their limited resources, employ and give back to the local community in big and small ways. I also learned from my dad, who was born into a sugar cane plantation family in Hawaii. He was determined to become a doctor. So this scrappy American Dream crazy work ethic infected me.

Part of this must be from being Asian too and Confucian ideals of filial piety (or perhaps the model minority stereotype) that have seeped into our family even though my parents are Christians and I’m Jewish. The stakes seem really high. If I mess up, it’s not just me personally but it reflects on my family, my community, even my ancestors. Conversely, if I succeed, I realize that the credit for this is not entirely my own either.

Since I am by no means an expert in dolling out advise on how to navigate or manage racists or sexist systems, I want to refer you to a few suggested readings:

Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia by Emily Toth (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). - This is a humorous survival guide book. It’s a quick and fun read. Laughter is important.

Presumed Icompetent: the Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Utah State University Press, 2012). Edited by Gabriella Gutierrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Neimann, Carmen G. Gonzalez, Angela P. Harris. - In a Huffington Post review, Khanh Ho summarizes, “women of color are recruited to universities in order to represent intellectual change, to burnish the image of so-called diversity. Yet so many people have a hard time getting promotion, achieving that holy grail of the academic ladder -- tenure.”

In a discussion about these issues in the Association for Asian American Studies, my colleagues also suggested,
Transforming the Ivory Tower: Challenging Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia in the Academy (University of Hawaii Press, 2012). Edited by Brett C. Stockdill; Mary Yu Danico

To the second part of the question about “resting my soul” and “staying encouraged”:
I probably don’t do that well at the resting part. My dentist and my husband remind me of this. I think I’m OK but I’ve cracked all of my back teeth twice this past year and my shoulders are permanently in a knot from stress. I need to exercise more. That’s a big part of the problem. Seriously there really isn’t anything wrong with my life that warrants being so wound up and anxious so maybe it’s just the cumulative result of micro aggressions or racial melancholy? Maybe artists just feel things more intensely? I should be happy.

But I do every day things that “rest my soul” like cooking and eating dinner with my family during the week and making a big Friday night Shabbat meal, playing with my daughter, watching TV and enjoying a nice glass of wine at the end of the day. We also celebrate a lot of holidays since I have a mixed Jewish and Christian family and we also have Japanese American and Hawaiian cultural traditions so we can be going from a luau to a sedar dinner. I find that visiting with family and friends and traveling to places together, and learning about family history are the best moments in my life. This is all rather ordinary stuff. No magic here except that I’m aware of punctuating time and celebrating communally and I’m with multiple generations. There is something very life affirming about spending time with both the very young and very old.

3.       Staying the course and encouraging others: what keeps you going in your work/career?  How you do find value in giving back?

What keeps me going - I have a clear sense of purpose in life in relation to being an artist (I think this sense of purpose is called “ekigai” in Japanese). This might not always match up with my career and I have to occasionally check myself that no, I’m not supposed to go dash out and get an MBA and go make more money in the private sector or quit it all and stay at home and paint all day. I feel very lucky that the two things I love to do the most, learn and make art, fall within my current job description as a university professor. I have piles of books that I’m reading and I get recharged by this and by spending time in my studio making art or going out into the field for research. Administration, paperwork, teaching, community service and event organizing, which are all parts of my job, tend to wear me out after a while but when I get to do my own research, it’s like going back to the well. That said, I also get a rush out of problem solving and so this is why even things that are supposed to be “work” are actually tasks that I get a lot of energy from. I think it might be a misnomer that you have to separate work and pleasure so much.

I’m a compulsive list maker and strategic planner (this can be read as way too bossy too). I have to do lists for the day, week, for the month and even 1-2 years out. If I put it on a list, I usually plug away each day a little and before you know it, I get to my goals. As with building and utilizing a network, the work takes a life of its own and has a momentum that is really hard to stop even if I want to.

Equally important for me is knowing how to play, experiment, let my mind go blank, and be open to collisions and new possibilities and ways of seeing something. The list can’t rule all. To get to this space, I have to set the table and be intentional. What does this mean? I need my lists and for my space to be physically clean so I can see my tools laying out and ready to go. I have to make myself be patient and just sit sometimes…I drink a lot of coffee too and listen to music. I have a favorite place where I get my most of work done, one for writing and one for my art, and then occasionally I try to go away somewhere else to do my work to mix it up. This could be a coffee shop or a residency or even at my parent’s house.

I also try focus on one problem I want to solve before I go to bed each night. I’ll think about this right before I go to sleep and when I wake up, the first thing I do is see if an answer or solution has arrived. More often than not, it has. This feels like a secret magical gift and I get annoyed when I’m using this to solve work politics issues or family strife and not for creative projects. There is really only so much energy to go around so what I have to be very careful about how I spend my mental and physical time.

Giving back – first of all giving for me is not charity but it’s an investment in a person or community and a crucial part of an economy of activism and social change. I pull people into my orbit to work on projects, I refer people to others in my network, I write letters of recommendation, I look for ways to bring people together and create opportunities for people. This is one of the great joys of being a teacher, that I have the ability to help the next generation. I want to respect those who came before me and contribute back to my communities so that I can be part of these communities. The balance of what I get back is not always in synch though. As a woman of color in academia, I feel like there might be a disproportionate demand on the “asks” of my time. Do I really have to be a counselor and fundraiser? Giving is not an issue. Knowing how and when you need to say “no” is. But your question is about the value of giving back.

This past November on Non-Profit Tuesday, I actually wrote a blog post, “Why Give? What you might now expect in return,” where I made a case for looking at giving as an investment and that the best returns take time. I made a case for four non-profits I’m involved with and shared a bullet list of what I gave and also what I got in return. The cause and affects where pretty astonishing. You see an investment of time, money, and expertise and then all of these returns of professional and personal opportunities but also things that you really can’t put a price tag on like friendships or being part of a community.

Closing Q - If you could go back in time, what advice and, or counsel would you give your younger self? 

This was oddly, the hardest question Joy Boggs asked us to consider. I’m usually so wrapped up in “what’s next?, what’s next?!” that I’m not very good at self-introspection. Maybe I’m scared what I’ll find? As I’m nearing 40, maybe there is enough past in my past to look back in the rear view mirror? Through my current artwork about my families history in WWII in Okinawa and Hawaii, I’m beginning to realize that there are currents in motion that I was born into that are propelling me in a certain directions of assimilation and whiteness that I’m frankly not comfortable with. I need to get my head above water, look to the stars and see if there is something in the distant past that I’m supposed to retrieve or remember and bring to the present to redirect my path. I don’t know what the answer is to all of this yet since I’m in the middle of this journey.

But I realize this question of going back in time isn’t really about me per se but rather for the audience, for a young woman out there who is just beginning her career. With this in mind, I think there are four “G” words that have and continue to plague me that I wish my younger self was more cognoscente of: gratefulness, grousing, greed, guilt.

Gratefulness - by this I mean that I feel that I might not have really earned whatever it is that I’ve succeeded at and instead I am burdened by a feeling that I just out to be grateful that perhaps I am only a token of diversity. Do I have the right to assert my place?

Grousing – complaining or gossiping about people is just not helpful but sometimes I can’t help myself. Life can be tough and I get mad a lot and feel like it’s justified. My dad, who is a fundamentalist Christian, always tells me to pray for and bless people and situations that bother me. He even insists that I buy the person I am currently mad at a present. This is really hard for me but I try my best. So watch out if you start getting presents from me!

Greed – I’m very ambitious and competitive and I think these are really good traits but it’s hard for me as both a woman and specifically an Asian woman to shake a feeling that I’m being greedy and taking up too much space, time, and attention that maybe I’m being impolite and selfish.

Guilt – this is the biggest issue for me as a working mother of two. I was watching the PBS special the Makers the other day and I started crying when they were addressing how women today are starting to reject the 1980s ideal of the Superwoman who can do it all. That’s all fine but who is going to pay the bills? I feel like I have Superwoman monkey AND the Tiger Mom narrative on my back! Since my mother was able to stay at home with us four kids, I know how wonderful it was to have her attention and I want to be able to give my kids the same opportunities, if not better, than I had. Part of this isn’t even about being a woman or a woman of color but about the state of our economy. My husband has two jobs and we are just barely holding on to the middle class. I thought that if I did well in school, went to college, got a good job…I thought things were going to be different, that our quality of life would be better. But we are just rushing around so much and there isn’t much of a cushion, other than our loved ones, to catch us when times get tough. So I struggle with feeling like I’m not there enough or really present enough for my 7-year old daughter and 18-year old stepdaughter. If I can’t get dinner on the table each night, if the house is messy, if the laundry isn’t done, when unexpected guests pop in and I can’t be a good hostess, or I’m gone on a long business trip, or the kids don’t do well in school, I just can’t shake feeling like a failure and that I didn’t do enough, didn’t try hard enough, didn’t pay close enough attention. I’ve even gone so far as to ask my daughter how her childhood is going. She just furrowed her brow, laughed at me and exclaimed, “I’m fine!”

So instead of my four G’s of Gratefulness, Grousing, Greed, and Guilt, I would tell me younger self to learn how to say four “F” words – Fxck it, Forgive, Forge ahead, and it’s ok to be just “Fine.”

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