Philobiblon: True university life

Sunday, March 20, 2005

True university life

I've already posted on how much I identified with the first volume of the memoirs of Jill Ker Conway, a historian probably best known as the first female president of Smith College here and here.

After taking the slow boat from America, the second volume, True North, has just arrived, and while I directly identify with it less - since she gets married and to some degree "settles down" in this one - I still found it a riveting read.

She starts off being perhaps unsurprisingly gushy about Harvard when she first arrives: "Within weeks I began to see myself as perfectly normal, like all the other lively people around me. These people weren't the alienated left intellectuals of Australia, or the wistful exiles from Oxbridge I knew in Sydney. They were young, lively and ambitious, and I was like them. (p. 23)

But she does eventually arrive at a more balanced view, especially when one of her housemates is denied the cherished lectureship at Harvard because she is female, despite winning the prize for the best English thesis in her year.

And she has a further rebuff for Harvard's current, clinging-on-by-his-fingernails, boss, about the perils of being a female grad student, which I know haven't changed at all:

"Women negotiating this Herculean set of tests encountered another hazard by the mere fact of being female. There was no way to expiate the invitation refused, however gracefully, or the sexual innuendo deliberately misunderstood. A woman's work had to be just that much better, more theoretically daring, more brilliantly researched to shame naysayers with ulterior motives. As I watched my friends run the course, it was clear that the tenderest male egos were in the sciences, and that those of us who were humanists lived in a world where chances of giving offence were fewer than for those who worked day in and day out in tight-knit laboratory teams." (p. 31)

Then there's some good advice on research topics from her supervisor: "I told him I had decided to do my research on one of America's great Progressive women reformers, Jane Addams. When I said I wanted to study how she had led her generation of American women to solve the problem of gaining access to higher education ... he was approving. We both knew that experience had been my own personal dilemma in Australia. 'One's research should always involve some element of therapy,' he said smiling. 'It only count if it's really close to the bone.'" (P. 34)

Agreed: although I'd add that it only counts if you also understand that it is close to the bone.

With her new husband -- married perhaps unsurprisingly just before she was about to have to go back to Australia to confront her terrible mother again (Ker Conway seems a bit short of self-awareness here) she then moves to Canada, which she is determined to find much better than Australia.

Although she does admit one similarity:
"We both drank too much. We had come honestly by the excess as part of our British inheritance. England, the font from which both Canada and Australia drew their inspiration, was a culture of drink, rather than food and sex. Transposed to the colonies, this cultural theme conspired with the deprivations of pioneering to produce a world more reliant on booze than music, art or dance to foster the Dionysian side of life." (p. 78)

To be continued ...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't cope with The Road from Corain at all - it seemed to unempathetic, too detached, too sneery.

I think you put your finger on it when you talk about a lack of self knowledge.

- barista

3/21/2005 04:53:00 pm  

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