The Grind: Mama PhD? Yes, I can!

This is a long overdue follow-up to a previous commentary on “Going To Ethiopia (Or Can Parents Really Have It All?).” I managed to spend three weeks in Ethiopia in January teaching African Art and taking in the sights, sounds, and smiles of Addis Ababa. Some of my readers followed my journey via this website and Facebook on my experiences I titled “Notes from Addis.” It was a successful trip, and I am sure that I will return. Being a Mama PhD abroad is only possible through the immeasurable support of my husband who holds down the fort for me during my absences.

My family at the Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College. Fall 2012.
My family at the Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College. Fall 2012. Photo by Judith Black.

What many of my readers did not know was that I was also on the job market. The academic job market is no joke. For those outside of higher education, the fact that the entire process from initial application to phone interview to campus interview to rejection/offer can take up to six months. So, in the midst of my world travel, I had the added pleasure/stress of pursuing tenure-track positions across the country. This process required even more days away from home almost as soon as I returned from Africa. In the midst of it all–teaching, parenting, interviewing–I did land a job. If you’ve already taken a look at my title, you know that I managed to land a place on the impressive (and therefore humbling) faculty in the Department of Art at Wellesley College as an Assistant Professor of Art, the Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora, specifically. Phew!

What I think many find particularly significant is that I did this with two small children. Due to my previous posts on this website, my little ones were no secret to my potential employers, including Wellesley College. One of my friends commented on how surprised she was that I didn’t just talk about my kids, but that I joyfully marched them around campus in full view of my colleagues (my kids kind of think the campus is an extended playground)! Actually, what she said was, “If it were me, I would have kicked them in the bushes.” Ok, that sounds cruel, but I understood her concern. Kids take up an immense amount of time, critical time to write, research, attend meetings, teach, write some more, especially when you’re trying to land tenure. What can I say? I’m a proud Mama PhD! I learned a long time ago when I decided to have my first child while I was writing my dissertation that academia was going to have to accept me with all of my grown-up responsibilities of raising a family during my childbearing years. On the flip side, I have had to rise to the challenge of accepting the demands of academia with my family in tow.

While many men do take on a lot of the responsibility for child-rearing, women tend to take on the bulk of the work of raising children, especially in academia due to our flexible schedules. Even when it comes to parental leave for the birth of a child, men tend to use the time to advance their research while most women use that time to, you know, take care of her newborn (See “On Parental Leave, Men Have It Easier,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 7, 2005). For any woman struggling to advance a career in academia with a family, it is no secret that the balancing act takes the support of one’s immediate family, extended family, neighbors, friends, near and far to manage. As I juggle the summer schedule, self-imposed deadlines for articles and fall class prep are my motivation in the midst of camp and daycare drop-offs and pickups. Early mornings, late nights, and weekend work-days are the only way to accomplish my goals. Again, the supportive husband pictured above has made this compromise feasible.

My daughter spent a week taking classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I dropped her off and picked her up most days. An exhausting and fulfilling opportunity.
My daughter spent a week taking classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I dropped her off and picked her up most days. An exhausting and fulfilling opportunity.

I lean on my local “village” of neighbors (’cause it takes one to raise a child, right?) who are willing to take care of my kids in a pinch. Other times, I may just whine to my mom on the phone 200 miles away. The knowledge that I have peers and mentors who are also enduring (or who have already survived) similar situations comforts me in the midst of the struggle.

Two recent events this spring highlight a network of women who remind me that I am strong enough and human enough to do what I need/want to do as a Mama PhD. First, one my GFF’s (Grad Friend Forever), Tanya Pohrt, the Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow in American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery, defended her dissertation at the University of Delaware. She was the final member of our cohort of five who completed the doctoral program in the Department of Art History. I, along with two other GFF’s, surprised her when she emerged from the room. We each have two kids each. We each have jobs in either academia or museums. We each know the challenges faced to accomplish this tremendous accomplishment. We thought it important to mark the occasion together as fellow Mama PhDs!

The second event was Wellesley College’s 2013 Commencement. My colleagues at Wellesley are extraordinary. Again, I am humbled to join the ranks of the faculty here. I was grateful to take a photo with my fellow female scholars of African descent. Certainly scholars of color face additional stressors due to race and institutional racism in order to not only complete the PhD, but also to thrive in academia. [I’ll save my comments on race perhaps for another post. In the meantime, see the recent publication, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia.]

Drs. Brenna Greer, Layli Maparyan, Filomina Steady, Tracey Cameron, Angela Carpenter and Nikki Greene. May 2013. Copyright Nikki A. Greene.
Drs. Brenna Greer, Layli Maparyan, Filomina Steady, Tracey Cameron, Angela Carpenter and Nikki Greene at Wellesley College. May 2013. Copyright Nikki A. Greene.

This picture will continue to remind me that there are women who struggle and achieve by my side (single, married, with and without children). I thank all of these women–friends, colleagues, neighbors–who make being a Mama PhD not only possible, but a thrill.

Can You Paint FAITH?

Moe Brooker does! I’ve interviewed him, and I believe him. I’ve titled my talk, “To the Glory of God (TTGG): Moe Brooker’s Painted Faith” at the upcoming symposium, Faith, Identity, and History: Representations of Christianity in Modern and Contemporary African American Art,” sponsored by the Association for Scholars of Christianity in Art History (ASCHA). Here’s why…

Throughout his more than four-decade-long career in the arts, Philadelphia native Moe Brooker, has created a distinctive artistic language that calls out to viewers to not only look at his works as arrangements of patterns, colors, and shapes on canvas or paper, but also as investigations into the human spirit. His paintings are as multi-layered and complex as the people who have the opportunity to encounter them. Jazz music and his spiritual grounding, along with his general experiences as an African-American artist have contributed to the energetic, abstract mixed-media paintings. The painting process as a daily devotion for him, he asserts, is “almost like a prayer…and what passes through me is not of my own invention. It comes from the higher Being…It’s not church. This is my private worship.” You’ll have to come to the symposium to hear more (including a recorded duet between him and his wife, Cheryl). The Alumni Sales Gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will also feature Moe’s work. He’s an inspiration for his students at Moore College of Art & Design. See his poignant and engaging 2010 convocation at Moore (click here). Wouldn’t you love to be his student?!

The Symposium: On Friday, March 23 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art & Saturday, March 24, scholars will explain–and challenge–our understanding of how African American artists painted, sculpted, photographed, and plain ‘ol lived their faith through the expression of visual arts from the turn of the 20th century to the present. The symposium will take place in conjunction with the enthralling exhibition, Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spiritcurated by my University of Delaware grad colleague, Anna O. Marley. Early registration for the symposium ends March 14! The exhibition closes April 15. You don’t want to miss this many Tanners in one room! The New York Times agrees. Read the review of the show.

For more on what I’m art historicizing about this spring, see What’s Next…

The Grind: GFF’s (or Grad Friends Forever)

GFF’s help you get through The Grind.

Everyone has colleagues in graduate school, but every graduate student, especially in a doctoral program, needs to seek out a circle of GFF’s–or Grad Friends Forever. Colleagues are willing to pass along good information on the latest grant, fellowship and job posting. A GFF will do that, too. However, a GFF is also there to listen to you when you don’t get that grant, fellowship or job. A GFF will make you feel invincible when you don’t think you can get through the next seminar, dissertation defense or on-campus job interview. Moreover, tears are shared with GFF’s. I called a GFF when I was at a crucial point in finishing my dissertation, and my father unexpectedly landed in the hospital. I wore a brave face with my colleagues. I looked across the table at a GFF during my nerve-wrecking diss defense. My colleagues were no where to be found. I emailed and called GFF’s when I was ready to share about my pregnancies. I hid them for as long as possible with colleagues. Doctoral programs are long and hard. You’re going to need GFF’s to see you through.

In short, I’ve got lots of colleagues. I have a few GFF’s. Frankly, I don’t think I would have become an art historian without them. They live all over the place, from New Mexico to Tennessee to New Jersey to New Hampshire. I know I’ll always need colleagues. They will come and go depending on my job and location. No, you can’t advance in your career without colleagues. It’s impossible to advance in life without your GFF’s.

GFF's Kerry, Dorothy, Ann Gibson (advisor), Sarah, and Tanya ~ Nov. 2004
GFF's Kerry, Dorothy, Ann Gibson (advisor), Sarah, and Tanya ~ Nov. 2004

This photo was taken in 2004 when this set of GFFs — Me, Kerry Roeder, Dorothy Moss, Ann E. Gibson (my advisor), Sarah Powers, and Tanya Pohrt — were studying for our comprehensive exams. We were freaked out and worried. We passed. Seven years, ten kids and many grants, fellowships, and jobs later, we will all have our PhD’s by this summer! I’m planning to publish a more complete article about our friendship this year.

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