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Hunger, home and history: Our legacies as academics

My Irish ancestors who came to America in the late 19th century called July “the hungry month” because the stored food from the year before was used up and the new crops were not yet in. I remember during summers as a child how my mother, a philosophy professor, would eat chips by the pool and say, “I don’t know why I’m always so hungry in the summer.”

I grew up to become an academic and writer and when I researched this history, I was able to make connections between my family history and our globe’s larger, collective histories.

I coach women academics from around the world, and this connection between hunger and history is something very important to them. As women, they carry the legacies of mothering in their female bodies – as the choices they make daily – to be like their mothers or different from them, to have children or not, to skip making dinner so they can write a little longer or to respond to the question of  “balance” with anger or resignation or determination.

When I became a mother, I started to ask my mother for specifics about her memories of early mothering.

“What do you remember?” I asked, eager to hear her stories.

“Oh,” she said vaguely, “I just remember working so hard to keep you girls clean.”

The desire for cleanliness—in the home, particularly—has been gendered as a particularly female occupation in our culture. My mother was in college when I was born, then started graduate school and completed a Ph.D. before I entered kindergarten. She worked full-time throughout my entire life, and yet never—not once—do I remember our house being a mess. She didn’t have a maid, either. Of course, my sister and I helped. We cleaned the house every Saturday morning. We each had chores that had to be completed before we could go out and play.

But it was more than this, more than the outward manifestation of order and cleanliness that was being installed. It was a kind of mental conditioning—a deep shame about things being out of place, an anxiety about disorder, and the illusion that if things are in order, then all will be well.

I have found that writing in the space between the personal and the collective can be very helpful for academics. When we take time to journal, not for publication or sharing, but just for our deepest selves, we bring things to light. In clarity, we make better decisions. With focus, we can get our important work done.

Write about this …

What was your mother’s relationship to cleanliness and order in your home while you were growing up? What is your attitude toward “housework” right now? What fears, frustrations, angers, and desires – hungers—do you have about your home?

Later, when I was grown, I became interested in our family’s Irish roots. I remember coming upon a book with photographs of Irish peasants’ homes from the nineteenth century. These were my people, my great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers who left Ireland—each separately and alone—in the years after the famine to come to America and meet and marry and make my family. Back in Ireland, I learned, they had had dirt floors. They had owned no shoes. The barefoot, dirty feet of my ancestors looked out at me from the sepia-toned photographs.

Perhaps deep within the immigrants’ memory is the association between dirt and hunger. Perhaps, we think, if we keep everything clean and organized, we will never have to go back, and there will always be enough.

This can be particularly true for academics who move a lot – from graduate school to post docs, from one university to the next, movements constantly punctuated by conferences and research trips.

Write about this …

What is your family history of moving? As a child, did you stay in one place? And what were the conditions under which your grandparents and great-grandparents lived? How did movement and a hunger for home play a role in their lives? How might this be affecting you still?

Recently, my mother and I attended a family funeral in Michigan. We were surrounded by cousins, nieces, nephews, uncles and aunts who had never left. My mother was the first one in her family to attend college, and when she goes back, she is seen as the smart one, the one who left.

But sitting in the garage on lawn chairs after the funeral while kids played basketball in the driveway and ran in and out for pieces of pizza, my mom said to me, “You know, as academics, we don’t get to have this. We keep moving. But there’s something so wise about staying in one place.”

I smiled. All the years of moving, of not knowing what to say when someone asked, “Where are you from?” vanished in that moment. I’m from my mother, I thought. I carry her legacy and she continues to be the teacher she taught me to be.

Write about this …

What kind of person would you like to be after retirement? What would you be honored to have as your legacy? What are the lessons you are here to learn and to teach? How can your academic work, right now, begin to sow the seeds for that blossoming?

Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D. is the author of 13 books, including most recently, Earth Joy Writing. She coaches academic women from around the world through her innovative online course called The Feminar. TAA members are eligible for a $300 tuition reduction when you mention this blog.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Text & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.