- The Madwoman in the Academy: Forty-three Women Boldly Take on the Ivory Tower
Madness is very much in the eye of the beholder, and, as many of the contributors to this collection of life-writing by women in academia demonstrate, it is certainly not just female academics who are crazed. Jane Cahill, for example, writes a retrospective of her career as a classics instructor and takes the opportunity to call for an end to the 'totally ridiculous request' epidemic that afflicts her students: one such student [End Page 170] 'needed some material from a reference book that was in the branch of the public library nearest to my home. Would I, she asked, stop in on my way to work and photocopy the relevant pages for her?' Her ('regrettably unspoken') response: 'are you completely out of your tiny mind?' In 'Mad Dogs' Nathalie Cooke tells the tale of her academic career and growing family through the eyes of her dogs. Trevor, the most recent of these, was a frequent runaway, especially when a new child was born: 'my husband was working in Pittsburgh when our first son was born, in Mexico when the second son was born; and I was based in Toronto. When our third son was born, the family was living in Montreal [but my husband] ... signed the contract for a new job in Toronto on the day [he] was born. The family moved from Montreal to Toronto the following year, so when our fourth son was born, I had already begun the commute to work in Montreal. So, you see, Trevor may have had a point.' I would like to have read more about the nuts and bolts of how such an arrangement ever worked, but if insanity is in the eye of the beholder, the description of ways in which to manage insane workloads, too, must be subjective not prescriptive. This is a collection in which to find community, not easy answers to the problems that face women in the ivory tower.
One of the strengths of this collection is that it avoids a shortcoming of many studies of women in the workforce: the tendency to be long on problem-description and disappointingly short on problem-solving. Because this is a collection of autobiographical pieces, there is no anticipation of a magic pill conclusion, no teleological drive to a pat solution. Instead, the variety of perspectives from women in all stages of careers in academia adds up to a rich mix of experiences. As Keith Louise Fulton notes, 'Women's Studies has been constructed on methodologies for retrieving experience as knowledge.' Experience as knowledge is precisely what this collection offers, and each reader will find resonance in a different contributor's piece. Advice can be found, but it is deftly offered. Aretha van Herk, for example, writes this wry definition for 'Responsibility': 'Always waiting, always there, always yours. ... Be responsible but avoid responsibility. Do not feel guilty about this. How much responsibility are you being paid for?'
Guilt, like madness, is a prominent theme, especially in selections written by mothers. Mother work and academic work share an important, and often debilitating, characteristic: the guilt-inducing fact that the work is never done. Biological and tenure clocks tick loudly in this collection. In her description of her choice to delay tenure-track work while her children are young, Monika Lee writes, 'I have no regrets but many worries. ... The care and nurture of small children is a contractually limited appointment too.'
Deborah Keahey and Deborah Schnitzer have compiled a valuable collection of writings here. Sometimes humorous, sometimes enraging, [End Page 171] always enlightening, the pieces (including poems, essays, and dialogues) illustrate the contradictory quality of a woman's life in academe that the editors hoped to capture with the word 'Madwoman': 'the indignation and the acquiescence, resistance and internalization.' Not all of the entries are as antagonistic as the collection's subtitle would suggest. Many of the writers do challenge the ivory tower, but many...