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Attention Drivers: Extremely Rough Road Ahead

Below find the sixth in a series of guest posts offered in celebration on the occasion of our colleague and friend Daniel C. Swan’s retirement from the University of Oklahoma, where he has served with distinction as a Professor of Anthropology, Curator of Ethnology, and Interim Director of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Reflecting here on an aspect of Dan’s work and his personal impact is Kimberly J. Marshall, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. This series of guest posts has been organized in partnership with Michael Paul Jordan. –Jason Baird Jackson

Attention Drivers: Extremely Rough Road Ahead

by Kimberly J. Marshall

About the same time I landed a tenure-track job at the University of Oklahoma, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley published an important book called Do Babies Matter: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower (Rutgers University Press, 2013). In this book, the authors draw upon a very large body of data to conclude that, more often than not, women’s academic careers are harmed by family formation.  Although women and men enter PhD programs at relatively equal rates, women are far less likely to achieve tenure in their fields. The researchers found that a critical juncture in determining a female faculty member’s career trajectory happens during the pre-tenure probationary period, a 5-7 year pressure cooker when the expectations for performance at the highest academic levels often collide (for women) with the intense pressures of mothering babies and toddlers.

I never read that book, because I was just starting a tenure-track job with a 2-year old at home (see: pressure cooker, above). But this is the precise juncture in my life when I met Dan Swan, who was assigned as my “tenure mentor.” I don’t know if Dan Swan ever read that book either, but I suspect that he was keenly aware of the kinds of challenges I was likely to face. I do know that without Dan’s mentorship, my road to tenure would have been extremely bumpy. During my first year at OU, Dan simply let me get a feel for the wheel. But at the end of that year, he asked me one of the most important questions I have ever been asked, and one that would prove to have a major influence in determining my tenure trajectory.

Midway through that first summer, after I had a chance to catch my breath, I started to think about the upper-division class I was finally getting to teach, and emailed Dan to get a sense of departmental reading expectations for such a class.  He wrote back to me with some general guidance (the specifics of which I can’t recall), but he ended the email with explicit instructions to stop focusing on my teaching. Instead, he challenged me with this question: “What have you been writing lately?”

Honestly, I was irritated. He was implying I didn’t know that publications (not good teaching) are required for tenure. He was suggesting that I didn’t know how to prioritize my time. I was so irritated, in fact, that I sat down right then and there and banged out my first article in three days. After that, writing became less hard. In 2016, my book was published. And in 2018, I earned tenure and was promoted to Associate Professor.

Being a mentor isn’t always about dispensing pearls of wisdom (although faced with persistent university politicking I have repeated Dan’s prescient motto for me “keep your head down, and do your work” more times than I care to repeat). Sometimes being a good mentor is knowing the potholes in the road ahead and helping people be prepared to steer around them. Dan is well aware of the statistics about female junior faculty and was the kind of mentor who cared enough to see that I was going to have a hard time navigating the road. He knew that as a mother of a young child, as someone who cared deeply about student learning and service to the department that I was at high risk for falling into one of those potholes and subsequently falling short of tenure. And with some good-humored prodding, he persisted in helping me keep my nose pointed in the right direction.

I will always be thankful that he remembered to ask me that question. And now it is my turn. Hey Dan, what have you been writing lately?

I can’t wait to see what he will.

Signs and wildflowers

“Signs and wildflowers” by The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company via Flickr under the terms of a CC BY 2.0 license.

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