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Pedagogy 3.3 (2003) 479-482
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What Enrages Us, What Sustains Us:
Reflective Narratives by Women Teachers at Midlife
Wise Women: Reflections of Teachers at Midlife. Edited by Phyllis R. Freeman and Jan Zlotnik Schmidt. New York: Routledge, 2000.
When they turned fifty, Phyllis R. Freeman and Jan Zlotnik Schmidt found themselves confronted by characterizations and stereotypes of the menopausal woman as "virago, elder, witch, healer, crone, hag, older woman, la loca, the crazy woman, tribal storyteller, teacher" (ix). Asking themselves if these words in any way named them, they set out to explore the question of how a changing sense of identity in middle age had affected their personal and professional stances as teachers in the academy. Their review of scholarly work on the topic indicated a gap in the literature: "We noticed . . . that despite an array of volumes focusing on either menopause or on midlife for women, no single work anthologized autobiographical, reflective narratives of midlife teachers. We wondered if we were vastly different teachers at fifty than we were at thirty. We wondered what distinguished our teaching practice—how had we changed?" (ix). Thus the idea of Wise Women took shape. Gathering women teachers in midlife from different disciplines, institutions, regions of the country, and stages of their careers to assist in this effort, they asked each participant to create a self-reflective, autobiographical essay prompted by the following questions: [End Page 479]
As women professionals we are unlikely to be immune to the assumptions, debates, and competing discourses on midlife that swirl around us in our culture. What images represent our menopausal experiences?
How do the controversies about midlife manifest themselves in our personal and public lives? In the views of our aging bod(ies)? In our work in the academy?
Who are we in the classroom at midlife and what metaphors now shape our teaching experiences?
What is life like for a woman faculty member at midlife? Is there a local culture of the professional office/academy comparable to what cross-cultural investigators uncover? Are our work worlds separate territories with rules, conventions, language, and social norms that shape not only conceptions of teaching but of midlife as well?
Are the midlife experiences of historically underrepresented women teachers different from those of other teachers?
What special challenges face women entering the profession at midlife?
Have women claimed a territory, a place of centeredness, an outlook that sustains them in the face of change, loss, opportunity, and finitude? (4)
The resulting book is useful, timely, and thought-provoking not only for teachers and scholars in the midlife chapters of their working lives but for anyone working in higher education or contemplating a future career in a college or university setting. Writers included here are a diverse lot in terms of personal characteristics (race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status, geography, class, lifestyle) and professional features (academic background, discipline, contexts in which they have taught). The collection includes work by Mary Gordon, bell hooks, Esther Ngan-ling Chow, Mimi Schwartz, Jane Tompkins, Julia Alvarez, Patricia Hampl, Paula Gunn Allen, Freeman, Jean O'Barr, and others. These women share their stories candidly and without pretension. Some of the essays are critical, some narrative, some almost meditative. Reading this book makes you feel as if you are engaged in conversation with some of the most interesting women teaching in higher education today.
Describing what life is really like for aging women in the ivory tower, the contributors reflect on what inspires, directs, sustains, and enrages them. Some express ambivalence, dissatisfaction, or open anger with aspects of the business of teaching in the academy. In "Rant for Old Teachers," Allen, in her thirty-first year as "a university instructor, a battle-scarred veteran of more [End Page 480] internal wars than [she] can count," explains why she finds herself discouraged, disengaged, and disenchanted at the end of her college career:
Where's my head? How could I have so long supported and been supported by, at least financially, more or less, such a vicious institution? Is...