Women Can’t Have it All, and It’s Better That Way

Part 2 in a series on Women at Work, in response to Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic about careers and family.


When I was in graduate school, I played in Princeton University’s summer softball league for a team named “Leviathan.” I was one of very few women regulars on any team in the league, a league of not necessarily highly athletic but nonetheless ferociously competitive graduate students. At one game, hot tempers started flaring over someone heckling my team’s pitcher, and a fight was about to break out. I ran over to the two guys about to come to blows and jumped in the middle. I figured if they had to punch each other around me—a woman—they might walk away from the fight. I grabbed my teammate by the shirt and yelled, “Don’t do it! It’s not worth it!” The gamble worked: the fight never happened, and we returned to the sidelines.

When I went up to bat a few innings later, suddenly the same teammate had I pulled out of the fight yelled, “Go Mighty M!” Energized, I smashed a line drive right over the head of the left fielder who, seeing a woman at the plate, had mistakenly come in too close. My teammates cheered loudly and the nickname stuck. On the field, I often did seem mighty. I wasn’t afraid of breaking up a fight, colliding while trying to catch a fly ball, tagging someone out who is sliding, or barking at any guy who said anything improper to me. Having played high school softball, I also hit the ball harder and threw the ball harder than almost any woman in the league, earning me the respect of all the men. I proudly wore my league shirt with “Leviathan” on front and “Mighty M” on the back for many years, and enjoyed many glorious wins with my teammates followed by pizza and beer at Conti’s.

In my academic work, I often act like “Mighty M.” I’m not afraid of jumping into the middle of a passionate argument, calling someone out when they can’t support their argument, or defending myself against unfair questions or critiques. In academic sports leagues and academic conference rooms, “Mighty M” has succeeded because of her self-confidence, backed up by not so shabby amounts of knowledge and athleticism.

The hard part for me was learning that “Mighty M” is not “Almighty M.” Despite the fact that in the creed I pronounce every Sunday at Mass, I state, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty,” I mistakenly thought I was almighty for quite some time. I got degrees from two Ivy League schools, my early publications landed in good journals, I got an advance contract on my first book from the University of California Press, I got a great post-doc right out of grad school, and then landed a job in a top sociology department in the country.

But my academic life, my personal life, and even my physical health, have had many ups and downs. My outlook on life—my self-conception and reputation as “Mighty M”—was much more comfortable in the ups than in the downs. If we’ve been taught to think we can have it all (or we can have it all, but not at the same time) then those times when we patently don’t have it all (i.e., a publication we worked on for a year gets rejected by 2 journals, we suffer a major disappointment in our families, or we have a health problem that forces us to lie in bed for days or weeks), we will be quite miserable. Occupational success, personal happiness, and good health are wonderful. Don’t get me wrong.

But not having some of those things some of the times undoubtedly makes me a better person. Why? Acknowledging I don’t have it all makes me humble. By worldly standards, I do have more of “it all” than many people. Clearly, so does Slaughter (and I admit she has more of “it all” than I do or probably ever will). I admire Slaughter for acknowledging that when she realized she can’t have it all she also realized that for many years she felt a sense of superiority over other women who complained they can’t have it all.

Similarly, for me, thinking I had “it all” made me feel like I deserved to have it all, like I earned it all. Therefore, if someone didn’t have it all (or didn’t have what I have), they didn’t deserve it or work hard enough for it. Your article didn’t get accepted? You probably didn’t write clearly. Your relationship ended? You probably didn’t try hard enough to be understanding. You got sick? You probably didn’t eat healthy and exercise. This is precisely the mentality Slaughter criticizes, a mentality she laments in herself and many other successful women (like yours truly).

Not only is it easy for Might M to look down on others, what happens when Mighty M has downs? I take it very personally and find it hard to be happy.

It is only more recently that I’ve come to see my losses as equally important as my successes. My losses have taught me that I may indeed be Mighty M but I most definitely am not Almighty M. No matter how might we are, no mortal is almighty—maybe the reason we say God is Almighty in the Apostle’s Creed is that we need to remind ourselves constantly of it.

At the end, I’ve learned that it’s just as much a part of the human condition to want it all as it is not to get it all. The highest human virtue, the true human happiness, comes in finding happiness by striving for it all while being grateful for whatever comes and does not come. It’s often in not having it all that we come to see the value of what we do have.

Looking back on my life, there were things I wanted that I didn’t get and was terribly disappointed but later on realized that what I wanted at that moment would not have been best for me. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want things, or want them ardently, but the trick is knowing how to want things ardently yet be happy either if we get them or we don’t get them. This is what Saint Ignatius of Loyola called holy indifference. It’s not complete indifference, because we must cultivate our desires, do our best to achieve them, and then let things evolve. We are not Almighty, and our vision of what is good for us at any point in time is limited. Not getting things is often part of a much bigger and a much better plan.

That’s why even if I don’t have it all, it’s better that way. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Women Can’t Have it All, but We Could Have it Better

I congratulate Princeton Professor and former Dean Anne Marie Slaughter for her frank piece published in the Atlantic entitled “Why Women Can’t Have it All.” Talking about what keeps people from realizing their dreams of successful careers and joyful families is often taboo (see my previous post on women’s vocation in the world), but Slaughter provides an important personal and sociological reflection on what influenced her to want to spend more time with her family. She also provides useful advice for the generation of women behind her facing similar challenges.Though I don’t have time here to review everything she wrote, as I pondered her piece, I sketched this chart showing things we should not do if we want to have a good work family balance and this we should do.

Of course, Slaughter’s article is much more complex than this chart shows, and I recommend you read it in full. But I have found that making charts like this help me organize ideas, and can serve as handy reminders for my resolutions. So here you go.

In the near future, I hope to post my own reflections on Slaughter’s piece. Those responses would tentatively be entitled “Women Still Can’t Have it All, And It’s Better that Way”. I don’t have it all in my life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As I complete yet another marathon of weekend and weeknight hours working on top of my regular schedule (this time preparing my tenure file), I’ll just end this by saying, “Women Still Can’t Have it All, But this Life Probably Isn’t so Bad.”  When I hand in my tenure file later this week, I leave for a two-week research trip to Quito, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Giving up a weekend and a couple of weeknights to be able to go to beautiful places and do fascinating research on migration, tourism and the environment probably isn’t such a bad tradeoff.

Here’s to My Students: You Make Teaching a Joy

Part 5 in a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online

Yesterday I finished teaching a 5-week online course in sociology of religion. As I remarked in earlier posts in this series, there were many ups and downs. A few things yesterday reminded me that whether I’m teaching online, in the classroom, or a hybrid, my focus needs to be the students. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I’ve taught some amazing students who make everything worth it–all the effort, all the struggles, and even the victories–they are meaningful because of the people I’m serving.

One of the best undergraduate students I have ever taught, Samantha, has been my research assistant for the last 12 months. In the past 2 months, I asked her to meet with me regularly to help me think about how to deliver my material online. As a former student in the classroom version of this class, and a current undergraduate at UNC, I thought she could help me with the course design. She had such amazing ideas that I must say I could not have done it without her help.

Yesterday, when I found out that the water was being repaired in my office building, I thought “Great excuse to meet Samantha at Starbucks.” We exchanged texts, and I told her the coffee would be on me. But she beat me to it. She sat in the window at Starbucks on Franklin Street, and when she saw me waiting to cross the street, ran up to the counter and ordered men a double espresso (which she knows is my favorite drink at Starbucks and that I drink it only if it is very hot). When I walked it, she was sitting at a table with my hot espresso and splenda. I was speechless. What a beautiful person and a kind act.

After Samantha and I met, I wrote a personal note to each student in my summer class with their final paper grades and final course grades. The two heartfelt replies I got were both rom non-traditional/transfer students, who had really done the most work out of anyone in the class. One of them, Angelique, sent me this video interview with her about her experiences being a single mom and going back to college:

Listening to her story made me cry. Despite all the difficulties she encounters being a mom and a student, she keeps going because she wants to give her daughter a better life. She admits she wasn’t ready for college when she was 18. The difficulties she has had in life have made her more focused and more motivated now that she is in college.

I can attest to her motivation, as Angelique completed every single assignment thoroughly, and with gusto and creativity. She was a big fan of the hybrid online/in-person teaching format since day one, likely because she has to balance so many responsibilities. The day of our final online test, for example, she and her daughter had the flu. Not having to trek to campus to take the test, and find a babysitter for her daughter who can’t go to the daycare center with the flu, certainly was an advantage for Angelique.

In her email to me today, Angelique wrote, “I really enjoyed your class, it was not at all what I expected when I enrolled for this summer course.  I learned so much in such a short time.” Indeed, she did. In her final paper, an observation of Faith Harbor Methodist church, she made the funniest and most insightful comment about Emile Durkehim’s theories about ritual and collective effervescence I have ever read:

“What Durkheim is saying is that to everything in the social world there is an order. When we use symbols (totems) to remind us of this order something simple and mundane can be a sacred reminder and in turn become a real sacred thing. Perhaps at home when making a sandwich for lunch a member of the Faith Harbor church would be reminded of the collective effervescence felt during the communion ritual and would be automatically reabsorbed into that religious moment reaffirming her faith.”

Reading this comment, I felt like such  proud professor. Having grown up receiving communion weekly, and being taught about how sacred the ritual is, I would never have likened taking communion to eating a sandwich. But, in thinking about the history of the communion ritual, Angelique is probably right: using a profane element–the bread–in a sacred ritual is intended precisely as a way to break the boundaries between the sacred and the profane. As one friend commented about this statement on Facebook, “that is a liturgist’s dream!”

Angelique’s email reminded that no matter what format I teach in, motivated students can run with it. She wrote:

“I was amazed by your research, your book, and your overall knowledge of religion and society.  Your passion for the topic is contagious. I listened to your whole podcast interview too, and I was amazed at how you never missed a beat and just answered every question so eloquently.  It was amazing!  You are really an inspirational woman (and I already saw my grade so I’m saying this out of honesty, I’m not really one to fluff egos anyway ;) )  I was so glad that you took the time to let us rewrite our papers too, and I had never used the writing center until I took this class and I have found it to be such a valuable resource that I’m going to use it for all of my papers in the future.”

I admit that such kind words touch my heart. How could they not? But I’m not posting this for you to think my students adore me. I’m posting this because it answers the question I asked myself when I started this experiment teaching online:  Will students be as motivated as in the traditional format? Will students be able to draw connections between theory and rituals they observe? Will they become better writers? To the extent that my personality and teaching style is engaging, will students get a sense of who I am?

Angelique’s email is a resounding “yes” to all those questions. Thanks to Angelique, to Samantha, and to all my students who make me happy every morning to get up and go to work.

How Effective is Online Learning? Insights from Sociology of Religion Online

Part 4 of a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online.

Earlier in this series of posts about my experience teaching sociology of religion, I wrote about the promise of delivering lectures online and the challenges I faced in actually doing it. Today I’ll explain how I finally created my first narrated presentation on YouTube, how I got small group discussions going on Elluminate, and how my 8-year old nephew taught me about online teaching all the while teaching me about the correct usage of metaphors and similies.

Once I finally sank my money into a MacBook Pro, I quickly mastered Keynote, with its built-in features to save recorded presentations as movie files and upload them to YouTube (thanks to an encouraging comment I got on a previous blog, I’m definitely a Keynote user now). With permission from my University of North Carolina colleague Lisa Pearce, I narrated over a presentation she had previously given to my class on her book A Faith of Their Own: Stability and Change in the Religiosity of America’s Adolescents. For years, I’ve been telling my students “I want to be on YouTube!” and now I finally did it! (If you click on the image below, my YouTube lecture will start.)

What amazed me was that making the narrated presentation was the easy part. It took longer to save it in the right format and upload to YouTube than to record my explanation of the slides. But thanks to Keynote and YouTube, the file is now compressed so students (or any viewers, including you) can see it without any problems. My previous problem was not in making the recording presentations, but sharing them.  Thanks to my Mac, and lots of encouragement and tech support, I found success at last!

I was so excited by my YouTube debut that I took my Macbook with me to visit my mom and brothers (and I used my super-powerful MacBook battery to recharge my Iphone during the 5-hour drive–I lost the car charger but the MacBook does the trick). As soon as I arrived to visit my relatives, I whipped out my MacBook to show them the presentation on YouTube. My crowing moment of glory was when my 6-year old niece sat down in front of my YouTube presentation and scrolled through it. I don’t know what she learned, but just the fact that I could present something in a format that is so portable and flexible is thrilling.

Later I peered over the shoulder of my 8-year old nephew who is taking an advanced online English class through the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. His instructor is an avatar named Pilar. He was following Pilar’s lesson on metaphors, similes and idioms. I learned a bit from Pilar and her advanced 8-year old online pupils: perhaps when doing online teaching, it’s better to break content delivery (like recorded lectures) into shorter segments of 15 minutes broken up by an exercise, like applying a concept.

My nephew certainly engages with his online class and learns, as evidenced by how he spent the whole weekend asking me and his mom  to apply what he learned about definitions and usages of metaphors, similes and idioms. His mom and I, ummm…. had to look up things online to remember the difference between those three parts of speech and when I tried to give him examples of metaphors, he would correct me saying, “That’s not a metaphor, that’s a simile because it has ‘like’ or ‘such as’ in it.” To which I replied,  “I’m a college professor, and you are correcting me!”, but he seemed non-plussed and frankly he was right. So I stopped, put aside my hurt pride, and thought, “Well, these are my future students–learning online from the start. I had better catch up!”

Later during the visit, I delivered an online lecture on race and religion from my mother’s living room using Elluminate. As I animatedly lectured to my 15 online students, my mother sat in the background taking notes and, yes, bursting with pride. Mid-way through the lecture, I tried a new trick: with the click of just one button, Elluminate split all my students in groups of 3. I typed 2 questions in the chat box (what explains the racial segregation of American churches and what would you do to reduce racial segregation of your church if you were a pastor) and asked them to discuss them with each other.

We had never practiced this tool, and I didn’t warn them it was coming, so I wondered if it would work. It worked wonderfully! As the moderator, I could see all their mics turned on, and even read some chat messages. I popped into each of the 5 online discussion rooms, heard some of the main points, and learned a whole lot from my students. I then called them all back to the main room, had someone from each group summarize the main points of the discussion while I wrote it on the whiteboard. Amazing. One of my students later commented that online group discussions work better than live ones, because in a large class with 10 groups of three people, it’s often hard to hear what your own group members are saying.

The experience was all the more amazing that I did all that with my mom in her comfortable Lazy Boy chair looking on with delight. To wrap up that excellent session, I took the computer over to my mom and introduced her online, which provoked all kinds of applause and cheery chat messages from my students. How fun! When I held online office hours using Eluminate a few days later, one of my students even asked, “Is your mom there so I can say hi?” I had to disappoint her, unfortunately, but online office hours were great! No need to exchange Skype ids or phone numbers, I just created a special Elluminate session and used the new “meeting” tool in Sakai to set up office hours, which filled immediately.

I have 2 more weeks to go of this online summer course, so stayed tuned for updates on my next set of adventures in teaching sociology of religion online. I plan to reflect on online grading of papers and tests, among other things.