October 12, 2011 / Leadership

Discarded Role Models?

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The following article is cross-post with the express permission from the blog Female Science Professor. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

From an essay in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled Academic English Is Not a Club I Want to Join.

I can’t use women as role models because they are not like me. We think differently. What motivated me to go to graduate school was different from what seems to have motivated many tenured female academics I’ve talked to. Much of what I’ve heard from older women about why they became professors revolves around issues of professional acceptance, equity, the desire to allow other women’s voices to be heard, and wanting a place in which to say what’s on their minds. Also, many of the older female professors I’ve known were quite angry about those issues.

While I can certainly understand their drives, they are not mine. So, tipping my hat to women in English departments, I can discard them as role models.

Some commenters on the CHE website have already noted that it’s strange to discard all women English professors, however angry, as role models for these reasons.

The author of the essay seems to define role model in a very narrow way: the only viable candidates seem to be people who are remarkably similar to him in as many ways as possible, and unless he finds these people (men), he doesn’t want to be an English professor.

OK, that’s fine. It’s important to like the people around you, in your job and in your life.

I also think it is important to distinguish role model from mentor, and ask: role model for what?

There are many of us STEM-field women who have male mentors and friends, but depending on what we want out of role models, we may or may not consider male professors as role models. That’s not so different from what the author of the essay has done.

Nevertheless, I have had male role models in my career, and still do today: male professors I admire for their research abilities, commitment to teaching, and kindness. Those qualities have nothing to do with gender. The role models may have very different approaches to research, teaching, and life, they may have different motivations, and they make “think differently”, but model isn’t someone I want to emulate exactly, and I certainly don’t expect them to be like me. I don’t want to be them; I admire them and would like to try to be like them in some ways.

I have also had male mentors. These are people who kindly gave (good) advice and taught me how to be a researcher, teacher, and advisor. Some of them are still teaching me..

If, however, I consider other aspects of my life and look for people who have similar roles with respect to their children and careers, most (but certainly not all) of those role models are women. It is nice to have such role models, but it has never been such a concern for me that I have considered other career options because of the extreme scarcity of this type of role model.

I know little of academic English, of course, but I wonder why it was so difficult for the author of the essay to find female English professors driven by intellectual curiosity and passion, rather than “professional acceptance, equity, the desire to allow other women’s voices to be heard and so on. I am not sure I believe that he understood the motivation of the female English professors he met (because they are so different, and therefore can’t be role models.. it gets a bit circular, I guess).

Anyway, I know some (but admittedly not many) female and male tenured professors in academic English, and they all seem similarly motivated by a love of literature, language, writing, teaching, discovering, thinking, communicating, connecting, wondering.. the same things that drive many of us in academic anything.

Somehow I doubt the Female English Professors of the world are all that interested in convincing the author of the essay to reconsider his career choice, especially the older ones — perhaps because they are so angry — and I doubt if there is a long line of women queuing up to be non-angry role models for him.

That is why my main point*, such as it is, relates more to the difference between role models and mentors. Do you have any role models who are not mentors, or mentors who are not role models? I don’t mean the mentors who are assigned to tenure-track faculty and who may or may not be a good/sane choice; I mean the mentors we truly think of as wise and useful guides and givers of advice.

What do you want in a role model? Is gender important in your choices and opinions of either?

* Yes, I know the essay/author is not worth the time or ink. You can comment on this if you want, but if you do, I will get major points in Blog Comment Bingo. Just so you know. And just so that you know that I know, if you know what I mean.

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  • Bes

    Gender is important to me in a role model simply because a large part of my life and identity is being a mother. I look to my role models for information on how I can blend my various roles in life. Men don’t go through pregnancy and nursing and they don’t worry to much of an extent when they leave their children to work so they don’t really provide much useful information to me. I consider the relationship most men have with their children to be degraded from the relationship I desire with my children so I don’t look for info on how to relate to my children from men. However I did learn power brokering in the work place from men. So I would say most of my role models are women but I am open to male role models. Probably half of my mentors have been men but those men were able to see the value I place on motherhood and push me along in my career in a way that fit me.

  • Nancy Kallitechnis

    The American Heritage Dictionary defines “role model” as “A person who serves as a model in a particular behavioral or social role for another person to emulate.” Thus, the male author can still have a woman role model even if he believes women are “not like me” because by definition role models don’t have to be exactly like a person to be an effective role model. All that’s required is that the role model engage in a particular behavior that the author wants to do. For example, if the author wants to write a novel any woman who writes a novel could be a role model for him.

  • Nancy Kallitechnis

    Here’s the link to the American Heritage definition:

    http://education.yahoo.com/ref.....le%20model