by Claire Bischoff
A few weeks back, I was checking e-mail at the library of the seminary at which I did my masters degree (probably dressed in jeans and a sweater, looking much like I did eleven years earlier when I was a student there). I was there because the WiFi always works (unlike the coffee shop by my house), I knew it would be quiet (unlike my home “office,” where I can hear my kids wrestling and arguing even with my head phones on), and the tables are big enough that you can spread your books out around you (unlike the other coffee shop by my house where the WiFi does work).
Before jumping in to write the conference paper that was on the docket for this particular chunk of work time, I came across an article by Robert Zaretsky, Honors College faculty at the University of Houston, which was entitled “Unburdened by an Office.” Zaretsky begins from the position that “there have been few greater markers of professional power and authority in the academy” than the size of one’s office, and he goes on to narrate the academic rite of passage that is taping cartoons, photos, and treasured quotations to one’s office door, an act he see “as symbolic as Neil Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon.” But having been asked recently by his dean to share an office, Zaretsky is led to wonder whether offices still hold the same importance and whether academics actually might find some freedom in giving up their offices.
At the risk of sounding like an irrational and emotional woman, something female academics are accused of with alarming frequency, I wanted to throw my computer on the floor and stomp on it. And not just because the author paired his ponderings with a Dorothea Lange Depression-era photograph of a homeless man, tastelessly equating his plight of sharing an office with actual economic destitution. Reading this post brought up feelings of frustration, built up over the past five years of combining part-time academic work with part-time stay-at-home parenting, frustrations I had no idea cut as deep as they did. Frustration with never feeling like I quite measured up, either as an academic or as a parent. Frustration with having so much of my mental energy dispersed by the daily demands of feeding, clothing, and otherwise meeting the needs of my sons that there is little energy left for the creative, sustained, and integrative work of scholarship. Frustration with having such a hard time with the seemingly simple task of even finding a place to work.
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argues that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I think the same must be argued about female academics, and this goes double for those who are mothering young children at the same time. It is fine for those who have tenure to wax poetically about the freedom that can come from giving up an office. But what about those on the margins in the academy? What about the pre- tenure faculty who are scrambling to publish their two books and seven articles so that they can be assured of a job? What about the adjuncts, like me, who have no room of their own in which to continue carving out a career as we wait for a more permanent position to open up? It behooves us to ask what basic material and social conditions make academic achievement a realistic possibility for mother scholars and for others on the margins in the academic world. A room of one’s own is a good place to start.