Today I want to talk to you about hats, both literal and metaphorical.
This topic inspired by a WtH curator from a few weeks ago, who asked:
So, what sort of hats do I wear? First, I live in northern England, and it's January, so hats are necessary. This is the one I wear most often:
This is the hat I put on every day, and I wouldn't wear it if I didn't love it (though, I will admit, I love the metaphorical hat a bit more than the actual hat. It's nice, but a wee bit boring. The metaphorical hat, however, is never boring).
Occasionally, I swap the serviceable, every day hat for this one:
Wearing the parent hat in front of the student is one issue, but wearing it in front of your colleagues is another. How to balance an academic career with parenting is a real and difficult problem many face in contemporary academia. I have been lucky in that the departments that I've worked in have always been supportive of the parents they employ, but one way that I know they are truly supportive is because I haven't bothered hiding that hat. My daughter has been a part of my academic life from the start. She was 11 days old when she attended her first Latin reading group; a month when she went to her first academic conference. She's sat in the back of the lecture hall while I've attended lectures and while I've given them. She's sat on my lap while I've run tutorials, and fallen asleep there while I've sat in departmental meetings. (I once offered her the option of going to a meeting with me or going home...and she enthusiastically plumped for going to the meeting).
There are many things that contribute to poor support for working parents (usually it's the mothers who bear the brunt, but I know these issues can also affect the fathers, so I want to keep this discussion as neutral as possible), but one of the underlying causes is fear: Fear that the parent will not pull their weight, not do their job, not contribute as they should. This fear can be combated by providing evidence to the contrary. Wearing the parent hat doesn't prevent me from being a good teacher, from being a good departmental member, from doing my job.
It's a metaphorical hat that I kept secret from my academic colleagues and friends for many, many years -- for who can take seriously someone who on the weekends dresses up in funny clothes, camps in drafty castles, and eats weird food? It was simply easiest not to bring up the topic -- even though my involvement in medieval re-enactment directly contributed to my choice of dissertation topic! My main academic interest had for many years been logic; then, I took an amazing class where I learned that they studied and taught logic in the Middle Ages, too, and I realized I could combine my primary academic interest with my primary non-academic interest and write a dissertation on it. I couldn't imagine anything better, but it did lead to some awkward conversations when people asked "So how did you get
into medieval logic in the first place?" Umm...I dress up in funny clothes all over the weekend and travel all over Europe to meet up with other people doing the same. No, this didn't strike me as very professional. So I kept that hat hidden for a long time.
Keeping that hat hidden meant not only did I have to skirt around conversations carefully, but I also couldn't admit to my colleagues the other thing I did in my spare time -- in addition to logic, I had long harbored an interest in names, names of people, names of places, modern names, medieval names. My first serious research project was onomastic in nature, and was started when I was 10. My weekend hobby provided me with an outlet for my research on medieval names and naming practices, but because that was under the auspicious of my hobby-hat not my academic-hat, I kept my lips sealed about it. One reason I did so was that I thought I should -- this was part of that fabled "work/life balance" that people talked about. While writing my dissertation on modalities in medieval logic during the days, during the evenings and weekends I drafted a book on Middle English bynames in early 14th C London. It was what I did to relax and recover from work, therefore it had to be "life", because "work/life balance" is all about balancing two disparate, unconnected things: The more work you have, the less life; the more life, the less work. At least, this was always the impression I'd gotten about how it works. I also kept the onomastic research hidden from the logicians because I didn't want them to think I wasn't "serious" about logic, or that I wasn't "serious" about academia/research in general -- surely someone who WAS serious about logic wouldn't devote her time to anything else!
Until one day, when I was outed. I was at a large medievalist conference, there in my capacity as a logician, with a couple of other logicians also in attendance (one who was going to be on my dissertation committee). But there weren't enough talks on logic to only attend those, so I spread my nets wider and went to other ones congruent with my interests -- including one on Scottish border names...which happened to also have in the audience my future dissertation committee member. When the Q&A came around, and I outed myself as knowing more about 12th C names than the speaker, I knew I'd blown my cover.
At that point, I had a decision to make. I could try to cover up the "blip" and continue to secrete my hobby away from my academic context, or I could not. I could instead stop pretending: Stop pretending that the only research I do is research related to my primary field. I could stop pretending that the only thing in my life was logic. And I could also stop pretending that my "life" was exclusive of my "work" when in reality, the two mutually feed upon and support each other. When I thought about it that way, there wasn't really any decision after all. In trying to keep my "work" and my "life" balanced, I was essentially pretending that one half of my life didn't exist to the other half. I was restricting myself to only one hat when I could in fact wear ALL THE HATS. So I stopped pretending. I have allowed myself to treat my onomastic research on a par with my logical research. I bring my hand-crafts to my departmental meetings. I bring my child, too, when I have to, and when I have to, I recuse myself from the meetings because I need to be at home to take care of her.
There is one last hat I'd like to put on, before I close this already rather long post.
Metaphorically, I'm putting this hat on to issue a royal whim to all academics who worry about how to handle having kids/a spouse/a hobby/a life outside of their academic confines. During my week as WtH curator, so many people confessed to side research projects that sprung from some aspect of their life that was not directly related to work -- the one I remember particularly was someone who, through her young child, was doing a side project on My Little Ponies. While I may not remember all the examples that came forward, what I remember was the shame that seemed to accompany them. People were ashamed to admit that they drew academic inspiration from non-academic sources, from that which was supposed to be balancing work, to be opposed to it.
So my royal whim is this: Do not be ashamed. Own those side-projects. Tell others about how your son inspired your research in My Little Ponies, or how your daughter's questions sparked your project on dinosaurs. These are the projects that will (dare I say it?) bring "impact" -- they're the ones that will allow you to talk to non-academics. They're the ones that people will find interesting, that people will identify with, that will allow you spread beyond your narrow departmental confines. They're the ones that will allow you to truly find balance, recognizing that the academic life cannot exist in isolation, -- that the phrase "academic life" itself show how "work/life balance" simply isn't the right way to carve up the world. The worry always exists that if one lets these two parts feed on and interact with each other, that one will overtake the other. But shutting the two parts off from each other so that they never talk, so that no one on one side ever sees the other, is not necessarily the most healthy way to go.
So, by royal command, I charge all of you: Stop feeling the need to pretend. Don't be ashamed when you put on more than one hat. Put ALL of them on, and show them off to everyone.