One woman's path through doula training, childrearing, and a computer science Ph. D. program

Friday, August 6, 2010

Book report: Soviet Women

Du Plessix Gray, Francine. Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope. 1991.

Stereotypically cold, characteristically large, disgusting, unmovable, and inhuman, these Soviet women pass, from mother to daughter, from woman to woman, from teacher to pupil, the self-destructive loathing which defines them and which they have grown to hate.  Overburdened, they deny help from anyone, especially their spouses; unhelped, they become bitter; embittered, they scorn men and purge them from society.  Stiffly, they are proud of their proudness, yet inside, they yearn for tenderness, which they can only obtain from their daughters.  Men are disposable; women are emotionally destroyed.  How can one survive in such a society?

Of particular interest to me was the chapter about reproductive issues.  Due to a lack of education about reproduction, contraception, and options, in her lifetime, a woman averages nine abortions.  Only two of them are performed legally, in a clinic, under dire third-world conditions.  The others are performed in underground clinics in even worse conditions.  Abortion is considered a ritual cleansing, meant to be embraced and anticipated like a well-needed shower after a long hike in the wilderness.  Childbirth is worse.  Women labor with no support, on their backs, in rooms of three women or more, as rats scuttle along the walls and a drill-sergeant-nurse walks up and down the squalid room, exclaiming: "On your backs, girls. Quit your yelping. You sexed your filthy selves into this mess, now own up and take it like a woman."  Men are nonexistent; women are painfully undervalued.  How can one be born in such a society?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reasons I am Superwoman

Here are nine reasons I am Superwoman.  Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of our accomplishments, else we can become discouraged with life and our daily responsibilities.  Some things I do, even if by accident, make me proud of myself (even momentarily).  Here is my list.

Feats of superhuman productivity:
  • At my peak, I made four extra ounces of milk a day for preemies in need of breast milk, and, later, our milk brother.
  • I can crank out two original 14-page papers in one month while making dinner, co-sleeping, and not missing a beat with my family.
  • My dissertation area hovers gracefully between four vastly different fields.
Feats of superhuman strength:
  • When I was 9 months pregnant, I silently rearranged the living room furniture as my husband napped.  He woke up when I tried to push the couch, on which he was sleeping, to the other end of the room.
  • When I was 2 days postpartum, I pushed the car a few feet up a slight hill to cover the chalk marks on the tires.
  • Now, I can walk a mile with my toddler balanced on my shoulders, and a bag of produce in my hands.
Feats of superhuman multitasking:
  • I can carry my toddler son in the shower with one hand, as he nurses, while rinsing my hair... without getting him wet.  Also, chew gum.
Normal, everyday stuff that makes me smile:
  • I talk with my grandmother daily.
  • I nurse my son to sleep.
And even with this list to remind me that I take on more than I can chew, and certainly more than many people do, I frequently feel awkward and unsure of myself.  Sometimes I just need to take a break, breathe, and let out a ferocious roar: to myself, and to my family, I am Superwoman!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

MWF seeks ACC

Advancement to candidacy: this is the next major milestone on my academic path.  Once a Ph. D. student has advanced to candidacy, he or she is called a Ph. D. Candidate.  The small change in title comes with an appropriately-small increase in salary.  But the real benefit is knowing you are one step closer to finishing.

To advance to candidacy, a student must prove to a committee of professors that she is ready.  She needs three things: a thorough understanding of the relevant work, a clear idea of what her work will entail and how it will contribute to and further the field, and a step-by-step plan, complete with a calendar, of everything that needs to be done to achieve the goal.

The advancement to candidacy is like a contract between the student and her advisor.  They agree on the amount of work that needs to be done, its scope, and the deadlines of its components.  Once all the work proposed by the advancement process is done, the student writes the dissertation, and obtains the Ph. D.

Here in my department, the advancement to candidacy is coupled with the qualifying exam.  That is, the committee members and anyone else that wants to can come and grill the advancement student asking sometimes relevant, sometimes off-the-wall questions about all aspects of science and engineering.  (I can see it now.  "How many cross-chip pins will your design have?"  But my design is a baby.  "So, how many pins?")  Once advancement is over, the student (rather, the candidate) is deemed qualified to proceed with her research.

I am at the stage of putting together an advancement committee.  The chair of the committee needs to be a tenured faculty member from my department.  I did the rounds, and was met with some resistance.  Like The Little Prince, I traveled between planets and encountered different folk.

Professor A, the first professor I visited on my journey, was standing in the middle of his office, playing with a red laser.

"Professor A," I greeted as I approached him, "would you be my advancement chair?"
"What is your research in?" he replied.
"Well, it's hard to say... it's got to do with serious games, babies, and human-computer interaction."
"I do research with blind people and technology."  He paused.  "Will your babies be blind?"
"No, sir," I said.

Next, I traveled downstairs to Professor B.

"Dear Professor B!" I exclaimed.  "How nice you look today."
"Hello," he said, not turning from his computer, his back to me.
"I was wondering if you would chair my advancement committee."
"What is your research in?" he asked, turning towards me and folding his hands in his lap.
"Babies... serious games... some HCI.  Pregnant ladies," I replied, leaning on the door post.
"I don't have any kind of experience in any of that stuff.  Can't you ask someone else?"
"But I want you!"
"How about Professor A? That is so much more his area."
"I asked Professor A.  He says he only works with blind people."
"Pregnant ladies?  So poke their eyes out," he said, turned back to his computer, and resumed typing.

Finally, I traveled virtually, via e-mail, to my advisor, and reported my findings.

"Perhaps," she said sweetly, "it's time to switch departments."

In the other department, there are other people that do, sort of, what I'm working on.  This is an option.  But it's a sad option, because it compounds my long-standing identity crisis.  Am I turning my back on my beloved department?

Deep inside, I know that what I am feeling is just psychological reactance.  People have a hard time letting go of options --- even if they never intend to exercise them.  I do not feel ready to let go, to switch to an alien department, to have a different title attached to my name, to redefine myself as a student.

And so, here I am: married white female seeks advancement committee chair.
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