A Quest for Balance
For many of us, the quest for balance in our professional and personal lives seems as elusive as the Holy Grail or even a good night’s sleep. In 1982, I arrived at my first academic position at the University of Texas at El Paso with a baby on the hip and one on the way. In reflecting on the days when I had two boys in diapers, taught two to three classes per semester, directed an institute for oral history (supervising a staff of six), began revising my dissertation, and commenced new research projects, I think of how young, energetic, and brashly naïve I must have been. Exhausted, I sported a perennially red, runny nose as a badge of fatigue. My dependence on tissues was so noticeable that during my panel at the 1986 Social Science History Association conference, I was introduced as “Professor Ruiz and her cold.”
This sojourn down memory lane introduces serious conversations about boundaries and obligations. The first step involves recognizing “the nibblers.” If we take a moment and look at our calendars, there is probably a committee meeting, task force, report, or group that nibbles away time better spent elsewhere. Indeed, we did not enter graduate school with aspirations of serving on the parking committee or the human subjects review board (though historians need to be at the table for the latter). Taking stock of current commitments and weighing one’s investment in a new project provide a time-out for prioritizing and thinking twice before uttering that ever-reflexive “Yes.”
For untenured colleagues, especially the overcommitted, a proactive chair can be a godsend. The late Roland Marchand helped by inviting me to vet all committee requests with him. At least once a quarter, I sat in his office as we sorted out the latest batch—ever mindful of my progress toward tenure. He would then call colleagues and, in his gentle, resolute way, explain why I could not serve.
Of course, platitudes abound for work-life balance, especially for women. Rather than leaning in, out, or sideways, we can set boundaries that work for us. There should be no shame in telling colleagues, “Oh, the committee plans to meet on alternate Wednesdays from four to six? I would love to participate, but that time does not work with my schedule. Could we meet earlier in the day?” (No confessions necessary.) As educators, our work follows us home, with lecture preparation, classroom blogs, blue books, letters of recommendation, and e-mail all competing for our attention, not to mention that wonderful (sometimes guilty) pleasure known as research. Though the subject line read “fall blizzard of work,” the e-mail message sent by my comadre Valerie Matsumoto contained the hopeful reminder to “have fun—there’s a revolutionary idea!”
Joli Jensen’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Face It: Your Decks Will Never Be Clear,” sets out the importance of taking responsibility for one’s time: “This is the life you have worked so hard to be part of. Prioritizing and protecting time for your scholarly work is how you honor your commitment to it.”1 This stratagem applies with equal force to our personal relationships and families. And honoring the two areas simultaneously is an improvisation at its best (or worst). One of my colleagues finds time to write at the local library near her children’s gym and, years ago, I scribbled on notepads at Little League, taking a book light to night games.
Even with all of the demands and negotiations I have experienced over the last 30-plus years of academic life, I acknowledge my extraordinary privilege. For many, part of our work as historians involves opening up the profession to people previously excluded and reclaiming experiences earlier ignored. Indeed, celebrated historian Darlene Clark Hine speaks of “getting new knowledge out to as many layers of the American population as possible.”2 Making the case for history and historical thinking is a shared goal across temporal, thematic, and regional affinities. Our research demands what writer Ron Carlson calls “staying in the room,”3 but, in the practice of history, we also expand the room to engage with students, colleagues, and communities.
Despite our overscheduled lives (by choice, necessity, or both), we should step back from all of our digital distractions to reflect on why we chose a path in history. We should think about our mentors and our own role in mentoring others. Mentorship involves more than a vertical relationship along the axis of senior-junior, professor-student. Observing undergraduates as they develop an appreciation for historical inquiry or PhD students as they find their intellectual footing renews the sense of wonder and enthusiasm I had when I entered graduate school. Working with community groups and public historians can also provide insight into your own research. My public talks on Mexican American teenagers during the 1920s and 1930s have always generated lively audience responses from individuals eager to share family stories. After one presentation at the Riverside Historical Museum, a woman informed me that her parents had eloped, and in order to do so they had locked her grandmother in the outhouse. These talks helped me realize the depth of generational tensions over the surveillance of young women’s bodies and behavior. Of course, community engagement can have surprising consequences. A talk to Arizona senior citizens about Spanish-speaking women on the frontier took an unexpected turn after I quoted a priest who believed votes for women would lead to the fall of civilization. “Damn right!” shouted a man in the front row, his declaration provoking both laughter and glares. In spite of challenges like these, community talks offer the general public a better sense of what we do in the archives and in the classroom.
Making history count also involves close collaborations with our colleagues. As an example, the AHA’s Tuning project forges strategic partnerships within and across departments. With over 60 institutional partners, the Tuning project encompasses much more than assessment and frameworks; it also includes dynamic discussions of the value of our discipline to students and society. With vision and corazón, Tuning’s leadership core (Anne Hyde, Patricia Limerick, John Bezis-Selfa, Elizabeth Lehfeld, Gregory Nobles, Kevin Reilly, and Stefan Tanaka) has cultivated philosophical conversations and teaching resources, as well as markers of student competencies. Rather than approaching assessment reports with dread, “tuners” seize the opportunity to reflect on our craft. I encourage you to explore the Tuning project on the AHA’s website: bit.ly/12noS9W. In “Tuning and Teaching History as an Ethical Way of Being in the World,” Anne Hyde beautifully articulates the Tuning mission:
This might be crazy, but imagine a first meeting of the academic year where no one talked about budgets, assessment, course assignments, or parking. What if we all started the year discussing what disciplinary ideals link us as historians and how we might best introduce those to our students? The Tuning project has now compiled dozens of examples of departmental and course level expectations for students and curricular maps to guide students in building knowledge and skills, all designed to clarify what we do and why.4
The Tuning project serves as a powerful model of how mentoring each other as peers is a healthy alternative to competition. As a former academic dean, I recognize that colleagues will in all probability not join hands and sing “Blowing in the Wind,” but a healthy respect for our differences and a shared mission should not prove that difficult. (Okay, so I don’t know your department.) Those of us who came of academic age in the 1980s or earlier have seen remarkable changes—family leave, gender equity programs, and diversity initiatives. I doubt that an expectant colleague in her last trimester would now encounter an earnest question about whether she planned to have more children. Yet, with few exceptions, I remember with great fondness the kindness and consideration of colleagues as well as the enormous bouquet sent to the hospital by my students in the US survey. Many challenges remain, but finding some semblance of balance is an important step. If you have made it this far in my inaugural column, I hope you will pause to reflect on our multiple identities and responsibilities. Let us continue these conversations as we research the past, live in the present, and mentor for the future.
Vicki L. Ruiz is president of the AHA.
1. Joli Jensen, “Face It: Your Decks Will Never Be Clear,” Chronicle of Higher Education (September 12, 2014): A33.
2. Chad L. Williams, “Awards and Honors: 2013 National Humanities Medalist, Darlene Clark Hine,” National Endowment for the Humanities, http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/national-humanities-medals/darlene-clark-hine.
3. Ron Carlson, Ron Carlson Writes a Story (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2007), 24.
4. Anne Hyde, “Tuning and Teaching History as an Ethical Way of Being in the World,” AHA Today, http://blog.historians.org/2014/07/tuning-teaching-history-ethical-way-world/.
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