Lessons from a Tiny Woman in Academia

He started to ask rather coyly…

“Would, um, would you want to maybe, um, go out som—“

“Are you done?,” I demanded.

He pauses, mouth ajar, looking down at the petite woman who is just a few years his senior standing before him. I revise for clarity.
“Have you turned in your exam?”
“Yes.”
“Have a good summer. Great having you in class.”
He flinches, grabs his book bag, and walks through the lecture hall. I turn to look at the rest of my students, about half of which are staring at their exam like it’s the most interesting sheet of paper they’ve ever seen, ever. The other half is looking right at me.

I’d like to say this is just a story. I’d like to say things like this only happened one time. I’d like to say that now, several years later, I no longer have to deal with these sorts of situations. I’d like to say that every semester I don’t get the male student who stands too close to be appropriate when asking a question, who does it so often I ask an office mate to be around when that student has a conference, who I make excuses to about meetings after class so they don’t walk with or follow me. Unfortunately, saying any of that would be a lie.

All the thoughts….

When Kelly asked me to write a guest post on being a “tiny woman in academia,” I instantly said yes. When she said that I could pick any other topic I wanted if I didn’t have any strong thoughts on this one, I responded, “OH, I HAVE THOUGHTS!”

But when I started staring at that blank page and wondering where to start with all those thoughts, I realized something. Quite a lot of my experience as a tiny woman in academia is tied up with my thoughts on being a young woman in academia.

This week I started my 5th year teaching at the college level. In the past 5 years I’ve developed a couple of “rules” for myself to follow.

1. Always wear a blousy or loose fitting top.

This one really has nothing to do with being tiny, but we will get there.

On my very first day teaching five years ago this month, I had everything planned. I had copies of my syllabus. I had an in-class writing activity thought out. I picked out my clothes the night before (a black pencil skirt and fitted pale pink top with black pumps). I even thought about how I needed to wear something a little more formal to combat my clear youth (I was at best only 3-4 years older than my students). I packed comfy shoes for my trek across campus to my classroom. Everything was going my way…..

And then I stepped outside into Southern Illinois heat and humidity in August.

By the time I made the 15 min walk across campus my sweat stains had turned my fitted pale pink top into a half pale pink, half dark pink spotted hot mess.

Having reached my classroom building with less than 5 minutes to spare, I ran to the nearest bathroom and started attempting to pat my sweat stains dry. Clearly, a losing battle from the start. I felt myself start to panic.

Then I looked up in the mirror (cue Rocky theme song) and told myself, “it’ll be fine! Just go in there and own it, sweat stains and all.”

I learned two things that day that I’ve held on to every day since. Always wear blousy tops when it’s even moderately warm and…

2. Confidence is everything.

Over the years, I’ve learned that speaking, walking, and teaching with confidence is  necessary. This seemed to be especially true for myself and for many of my other young, female colleagues. There’s a fine line between confidence and cocky, but once that line is distinguished, confidence can be a tiny woman’s best friend. Let me explain.

I learned pretty early what it meant to be a confident woman. Perhaps my fondest (and earliest) memory of a woman who exuded confidence, comes from elementary school. One day before leaving for school, my mom saw a muskrat swimming in our pond. In case you don’t know, muskrats can mean death to a pond that relies on an earthen dam. They have the tendency to burrow straight through the dam, and, well, there goes the pond.

So, my mom sees the muskrat. Meanwhile, I’m standing at our living room window, looking into our backyard, down to the pond. I watch as my mom slowly walks across the damp lawn dressed in a maroon pantsuit and heels, raises the rifle, aims, fires once, turns on her heel, and marches right back inside to take me to school. When I look back at the pond, the muskrat is floating belly up.

But that image of my mother has been etched in my mind ever since. While at times she may be a little or a lot clumsy (all those stories are for another day) and makes some of the best faces you could ever imagine, when it comes to work, she’s one of the most confident women I know. She taught me how to trust in myself and my capabilities, and above all, the importance of a firm handshake.

3. Speak up and speak out.

I was blessed with a family filled with strong, confident women. And also women who know how to show that confidence through their voice (it has a tendency to carry and demand attention quite naturally). I use that voice when I teach and interact within academia. I have to. After all, I’m pretty much shorter than almost everyone I meet and I am rather petite all around. I’m easily lost in crowds and have never used the top shelf in my kitchen.

4. Being a hard teacher does NOT equate to being a bitch.

Every semester (including the period when I served as the person disciplinary actions and disruptive behavior was reported to) it seemed like if someone was having a problem with a continually disruptive student, the instructor was more likely to be female than male. More and more of my female colleagues had to have harsher policies in class than they would have liked, and would get student evaluations that said things like, “Her expectations are ridiculous. It’s just a comp course,” or “She’s such a know-it-all and mean and so rude,” or simply, “She’s such a bitch.”

On the other hand, our male counterparts seemed to get comments like, “He’s really hard, but I think I learned a lot,” or “He clearly really loves what he’s teaching.” Some of my male colleagues to whom I’ve voiced some of these thoughts express surprise (and outrage) over the harshness of our evaluations. They can’t believe students would ever have the gall to say such things, even in an evaluation!

The first time I got one of those comments, it was rough. But when I started to notice that other women were getting similar comments I realized that the two were inextricably linked. I’m not “too tough” or a “bitch.” I expect my students to do their work and do it on time. Holding my students accountable doesn’t make me a bitch. It makes me a teacher.

5. Stop being surprised by other women.

I leave you with one final anecdote. I was chatting with a female friend a while back about courses, teaching desires, and various work related projects. Over the course of the conversation, it came up that a mutual female friend had recently said in reference to my work/teaching aspirations, “Megan constantly surprises me.” The friend who relayed the comment clearly saw it as a complement and wanted me to see it as such. I’m sure that it was likely said as a compliment. But that’s not how I saw it.

Why should my desire to teach new subjects or in new ways be unexpected? Why are my actions to create a more in depth teaching portfolio something out of the ordinary? And worst of all….

Why is being a hard working, confident, determined, goal oriented woman in academia surprising, especially to another hard working, confident, determined, goal oriented woman in academia?

Megan Vallowe is a PhD student at the University of Arkansas focusing on Indigenous Literature of North and Latin America. When she’s not researching or teaching she likes running and watching bad movies with her adorable cat, Little One. Follow her on Twitter (@MEVallowe) and check out her blog, The Wandering Academic, for more updates on her life and work. 

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