Shared Story: Two Lives in One

Every theorist has to wear several hats: we are scholars, performers, speakers and many other things, but we are also partners or parents and, in general, we have a private life.

Unfortunately it is very easy to misunderstand this division in one’s life and to mix up the roles.

My kids were taking private instrumental lessons since a few years with a professor of the Institution I am affiliated with as a PhD student in music theory. Recently the kids had their lesson in the afternoon. That same evening I received a strange email in which this Professor wrote something very confusing to me. The email was organized in this sequence:

1) “we could have a lesson on this date…”
2) a list of all his/her upcoming appointments,
3) he/she probably cannot make up all the lessons at the University
4) my kids need weekly private lessons
5) he/she cannot teach my kids anymore The final sentence was: “I hope you understand”.

I found that email confusing. It was like one of those texts you could read from the top to the bottom or from the bottom up and understand two very different things.

Obviously, as a parent and as a teacher myself, I was upset, surprised and really confused. As a mom my only concern was about my own children, of course. I felt that they were being dumped without any rational reason after their first lesson of the school year. We had a pretty rude exchange of emails from both sides, as no, I don’t understand and I won’t please any teacher telling that it is ok to dump my young kids in that way.

That Professor’s answer was that I should remember that he/she is a university Professor and I am still a “student.” Therefore I am not even allowed to share my opinions about him/her with anybody in the University. Mind you, it would be great if this would be possible.

While on the private side, as a parent, I can -almost- accept every offense (from being a careless parent to being humiliated about what I can afford) and while I think I also have the right to feel disappointed and angry with a careless teacher, I cannot accept threats to my academic work in that same context. Professional and private life are two different things.

I am a parent in that case, a teacher in other cases, and finally I am also a student who, as a music theorist, has nothing to share with an instrumental Professor.

“And that’s a private conversation. Keep it as such.” was my final sentence, from a mom to a private teacher I hired.

The takeaway from this experience is that as scholars we need to think about life in general as being divided in two parts: the academic life on one side, the private life on the other. And each one of us has the right to keep these two lives apart: as soon as we let personal feelings and gossip enter our academic world, we are not scholars anymore, but gossipers.

(Submitted on August 23, 2015.)

Shared Story: You Can Have It All

The minute I decided to be a music theorist, my priorities changed. I broke off an engagement and became incredibly career focused, driven to the point of strep throat and bronchitis more times than I can count. However, I was one of the lucky ones. During the final year of my doctoral work, I presented at nine conferences. I met people who liked my research and had two job offers.

I took the job at the more “prestigious” school and moved to a city where I knew no one. The teaching load was incredible and I was driven to keep up a research agenda similar to that from my doctoral days. By the 2nd year, I was newly married and had an ulcer. My health was quickly declining and I never saw my husband. One of the upper level faculty had taken a curriculum document I had written and began to present it around the country as his own ideas. I was young and fresh out of school and a woman. No one would listen to me or would even believe me. I was miserable. My husband was an administrator at the university, but agreed to leave so I could find a new faculty position.

I took a job at a smaller school in a very small town and my husband went back to teaching high school. I knew we would only stay a few years as I regained my health. But here’s what happened. In this smaller school, I found a place where women were more valued. The music faculty listened to me…from day one. This was a place where I could be an inspiration to female undergraduates highlighting that you can be an excellent teacher and scholar and friend. Faculty actually took vacations and I was told to “enjoy your winter break.” I was extremely happy and all of a sudden my research and teaching took off.

Five years into the job, I found out I was pregnant. Shocked. Excited. Nervous. I was up for tenure that year. How would this change things? The day before I was to go before my tenure committee, I was 8 months pregnant and exhausted. I fainted in the classroom and was told by my dean to go home and please to not come back until after my maternity leave. The next day, he called me at home to tell me my positive tenure review was unanimous and he would be at my baby shower the next week. My university gives a semester paid maternity leave, so I went home for 8 months and concentrated on being a new mother.

Since that day, I have been incredibly supported by my faculty and administration. I have written several articles and just finished my second book. (All written with my baby in university child care or in a bouncy seat beside me). I’ve only had one faculty member say “How can you be so productive and still be a good wife?” My teaching is better than ever. I have high level administrative duties and feel I have made significant changes. I still attend all my conferences, but maybe I fly home a day sooner or in some cases, my husband and child go with me. I pay someone to clean my house so I can have extra time with my child and husband. (smartest decision!) Sometimes I ignore email for 24 hours to play outside. During the summer months, I find myself at the park or pool during the day and tend to work on my research very early in the morning.

I surround myself with strong women and never give in to the guilt. It is all getting done and I feel better than ever, both personally and professionally. So while there are plenty of horror stories, I was able to find a place where women are valued (with minor exceptions). I distance myself from the men (and women) who think I’m not capable of handling all of this and continue to prove them wrong. I will not compromise my integrity for anything and everyone on the campus knows better than to ask me to do anything “shady” or “off the books.” I can not be “talked” into anything that I do not believe in. I’m stronger than that.

Oh, and my sweet child? She has a sticker up in her room that reads “Girls can do anything.” And she believes it.

Shared Story: Do Babies Matter in Music Theory?

I’d like to address a widespread and ongoing challenge, one that disproportionately affects female scholars: how to coordinate babies and tenure. What follows is a summary of my own approach and some of its challenges, along with a few reflections on the roles of gender and parenthood in academia more broadly.

I had a baby when my dissertation was about two-thirds drafted, far away from family and friends.  Everyone reassured me that the baby would sleep and that I could finish my writing then. As I discovered, however, not all babies are alike, and mine turned out not to be a “sleeper.” Naps were 20 minutes at the most, unless I held my baby (which meant I could only type with one hand), and night sleep wasn’t much better. My baby was underweight and still needed at least one night feeding at 6 months of age. Looking back, I’m not sure how I finished, edited, and defended my dissertation, while also preparing for conference presentations and applying for jobs.

The reason I decided to have a baby before getting a tenure-track job was that I knew that academic maternity policies are quite variable and not especially generous, and I didn’t want to raise a young family on a tenure-clock. What I didn’t realize, however, was that my decision meant that I would have no institutional support at all. Obviously, I had no income, but perhaps equally limiting, I had no development budget for conference attendance or pursuing my own research, something that was especially challenging without access to an academic library. I also lacked, at least in my own mind, a certain legitimacy, not having an academic affiliation to put on my conference nametag.

My “baby” is now 3, and I am teaching part-time at an institution near where my partner works.  My colleagues and administration are very supportive, but I am on the market for a tenure-track job. When I apply to jobs, I am never sure how—or indeed whether—I should explain the hole in my employment history. I have had successful interviews, but no job offers, which makes me wonder whether delaying full-time employment has already affected my career prospects.

The most frustrating part, however, is how differently having a baby would have impacted my career if I were male. In academia, married mothers are the least likely of any population to get a tenure-track position or attain tenure after the probationary period. Married fathers, on the other hand, represent the “dominant mode of success,” winning jobs and promotions at higher rates than any other group. (Mason & Goulden 2003) Academic approaches to families may be different in 2015, but unfortunately my experience suggests otherwise.

(Submitted June 11, 2015)

All-Male Panels at SMT 2015

Share Your Stories” (“SYS”) is a place where readers can submit stories of their own experiences with the assurance that readers won’t be able to comment on those experiences. That’s the rule, and it’s not going to change. However, the other day a male theorist wrote in asking for advice on how to respond to an invitation to chair an all-male panel at the upcoming SMT conference. His question prompted my last entry about how to post a question, because I realized looking over the blog that we hadn’t yet set up an obvious way for people to do that if they’re asking something relatively simple that might be of interest to a lot of readers, and they actually want to get an answer or start a conversation about it. Now that I’ve set up a contact page where you can send in your questions or blog post ideas, I want to address the question he’s raised. From now on, please send questions of this kind via our “Contact Us” page rather than SYS.

(Please go here to see the original Shared Story post.) So let’s get to the question of all-male panels. If a male theorist wants to support the increased presence of women on SMT sessions, what’s the best way of responding to a request for him to chair an all-male panel? (If you’re new to this issue, see the link at the bottom of the page to a good article in the Guardian a couple of years ago.) Personally, here’s my take on it, considering only the upcoming SMT conference in St. Louis — not conferences in general.

I would say that it depends on who’s organizing the session: has the Program Committee put it together from all the year’s accepted proposals, or is it an invited or volunteer panel set up independently by one of the interest groups? If it’s the Program Committee (“PC”), logistically it may be difficult if not impossible to ensure there is a woman presenting a paper at each and every regular session. This year, I’m told women submitted only about 25% of proposals to SMT (we’re still waiting for data on the acceptance rate, but in recent years it’s tended to match the submission rate). Moreover, there may have been no women at all submitting papers on a particular topic (or no men on another).

The PC — which itself has a much greater representation of women at 50% than the SMT as a whole — has more control over gender balance among session chairs. This year’s PC Chair, Joti Rockwell, has told me that so far women represent about 40% of St. Louis chairs (they won’t have final numbers until all invitations have been issued and responded to), well over their rate of membership in the Society. (He also noted that invitations to male chairs may well have been proposed by women in the first place, given the gender balance within the PC.)

Given all these constraints, and how close we are now to the conference, declining the invitation to a session organized by the PC because there are no women on that particular panel would almost certainly make no difference in the gender balance among the speakers. I would recommend asking why there are no women on the panel, and depending on how you feel about their answer, either accepting it having at least raised the issue, or declining it while also assisting the PC by recommending one or two women whom they might invite instead.

But what if the session is organized by one of the Society’s interest groups, where sessions may be organized more casually, either by invitation or by people volunteering to speak rather than blind review of proposals in answer to a CFP? I think wherever it’s possible in the remaining time between now and the conference, challenging the organizers to improve the gender balance on their panel is the way to go, whether that means suggesting additional women speakers, or declining to chair and recommending one or two women whom they could invite. Others may have different suggestions on how to approach this, and please note that these are my personal opinions and not necessarily those of the CSW — I’ll let individual members offer their own thoughts if they wish. Thanks to our reader for bringing this important issue up for discussion! Laurel Parsons, CSW Chair

How Do I Post a Question or Contribute a Blog Post?

Last week, we launched our “Share Your Stories” page, where readers can post their experiences. But since comments are disabled on that page, what do you do if you’re looking for answers to a question or want to start a public conversation? For now, just go to “Contact Us,” and send your question or blog post idea to one of the e-mail addresses provided. (Right now, on June 11, 2015, it’s my address — — but that will change in the next few months so if you want up-to-date contact info go to our contact page.)

If you’re asking a question, please let us know whether you’re ok with us answering it publicly (in a blog post with comments enabled so other readers can join in the conversation).

(If you’re looking for advice on a personal matter that you’d like to keep confidential, please see our Ask Me! situational mentoring page and contact one of our mentors.)

Coming right up — the question of all-male panels.

Laurel Parsons, CSW Chair

Shared Story: All Male Panels at SMT Conference

I am a tenured male professor and I was recently invited to chair an SMT session in St. Louis consisting of four male panelists.  What ought I to do?

(Submitted June 9, 2015)


To see how to submit questions for discussion, please see our blog post here.

To see a response to the question of handling all-male SMT panels, click here.

Shared Story: My spouse’s portability is no one else’s business

I was asked to interview for a tenure-track music theory position at a university several hundred miles from where I lived.  However, days before the interview I received a message saying that the committee had just discovered that I am married to someone who couldn’t move with me for professional reasons and that my interview was therefore canceled  (I had never mentioned my spouse; apparently this information came from a reference.)  Although I wanted to complain, I felt that it would reduce my chances of getting a job in music theory.  Incidentally, shortly after this incident I did accept another tenure-track position at a different university that was a significant distance from my spouse.