“A Room of One’s Own” At Home and At Work

How Virginia Woolf Inspired a Generation of "Scholar Moms".
Reflections from Academia

When examining the status of women in academia the numbers speak for themselves. While progress has been made in increasing the female presence on campus and across faculty, women are still less likely than men to achieve tenure, and are more likely to be found in lower ranking academic positions. According to the American Association of University Women, among tenured faculty at four-year institutions, only 27 percent were women. 

Dr. Sara Hanaburgh, Assistant Professor of French at St. John’s University shares her insights into life as a woman and mother inside the halls of academia and her journey to the top of her field.



In 1929, Virginia Woolf penned her powerful essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” which to this day inspires me as an academic, as a partner and as a mom in more ways than one. Many of us can relate to Woolf’s words; particularly, for me, it has to do with finding space for my work and home life, both literally and metaphorically. Navigating a career as an academic and maintaining an active parental role can seem insurmountable. At home we are trying to raise a family and run our households. In our Ph. D studies, we are told time and time again that we must ‘Publish or perish’—and it’s true. We hear: Finish the dissertation. Defend it! Go to conferences to present research, network. Land the job. Apply for a grant. Teach. Write that article. Publish your book. In addition to those typical aspects of academic life, young professors are asked if they can literally do it all: teach across departments, serve on committees, promote our programs at majors fairs, head up a strategic initiative and, again, give papers at conferences, publish that article, get that book to press. We all learn quickly that we have to figure out how to create a room of one’s own, and that room needs specialized curating by us, moms.

Many of us experience pregnancies and are growing our families as we launch and advance in our professional endeavors; and often, we have a host of other personal circumstances to mitigate. In my experience, the better part of my graduate studies and early career has been between continents. As a freshly minted Ph. D, I had chosen a somewhat less traditional career path, to support my partner’s diplomatic career as I built my own. So, after a teaching fellowship at Brooklyn College, I took the opportunity to teach French to undergraduate as well as graduate students as an expat in Brazil. I also got a real sense of the state of the field of African literary studies in Brazil and, frankly, began missing the dynamism of a more robust and active field in the United States. With this perspective, I began cultivating my work and research to give me footing in both countries in parallel to the goals I had originally set: to maintain French teaching activities, translation, then get a good job back at home in the U.S. or in Brazil. I taught in a department at the Universidade de Brasília that housed language and translation—so I attended conferences and built my network, which ultimately became part of my larger community and led to additional fruitful translation and teaching experiences over the years.

As I moved forward in my career, I chose to take some risks—publishing translations when they were only beginning to be valued as academic contributions and count toward tenure publications. I published my first translation of a novel, then later a second co-translation with a colleague, a chapter of another, met and consulted with writers and met new colleagues working on the same writers as I was. That experience led to a conference with more colleagues, a collective volume of essays, and expanded my connections to academics and writers in the U.S., France, Senegal, Cameroon and Gabon. I added individual projects to my repertoire as well as collaborative work, the latter a key aspect for success in academia.

Landing a full-time position is intense and highly competitive, no matter if you choose a teaching or research institution. Remember, you always have options. You can apply for a postdoc which you can use to get your face and name known, cultivate teaching and or research and, perhaps most importantly, publish a couple of excellent articles that move you toward your monograph. Alternatively, you can leap right into a tenure-track position or take a non-tenure track full-time position with a term limit (typically six consecutive years). For me, the latter was an ideal option, as I was living between Brazil and New York for the first seven or so years of my career, and I had two children to care for. Importantly, the choice gave me flexibility to carry out my teaching obligations on campus two days a week, translate and research the other three, while being present and active in my kids’ school and social life when they were young.

There are several lessons I have learned from my experiences over the years, which I find will be useful to academic moms working in the humanities.

First, make conscious choices with your career in the foreground. Set realistic goals, and don’t be afraid to re-calibrate if needed.

Understand the breadth of opportunity in your area and seek opportunities for professional development from the start.

Collaborate. It’s not only helpful for motivating our work, breaking down projects into manageable chunks, and learning something new. Additionally, collaborations strengthen our community; they also allow us academics to come out of the depths of isolated research and writing and share with colleagues who are just as enthusiastic about our topics as we are.

Take risks. We’re scholars and teachers—it is essential that we be innovative! We need to bring to our students the blended knowledge of our fields along with the cutting edge research we are carrying out.

Know your value. You don’t have to take on more than you can handle. Decide what really matters and whether it’s worth your time.

Build your professional community and keep in touch—not just on LinkedIn; send personal emails. Get a coffee or out to lunch, invite colleagues home or to a more relaxed yet still professional space, like a book launch, a film festival or a book club. Check in on your colleagues. Usually, their successes are informative, their struggles relevant and instructive.

Within that framework, you have an edge in shaping and curating your trajectory. These approaches certainly allowed me to contribute to my areas of study.

My own trajectory was initially to manage my career privileging my partner’s career aspirations—with the idea that I would continue my career and raise a family. Ultimately, my partner and I decided to alter our work aspirations and settle in the U.S. I did have a setback, though. Just as I was really gaining ground, I lost my father and my partner suffered a major life-threatening illness, which added a whole set of other responsibilities and potentially jeopardized my professional momentum in more ways than one. Yet, I had made choices, and I was prepared. I slowed down and put a few book projects on hold, which I have since picked back up. The previous choices I’d made were manageable, maintained my network, my competitivity, and developed my experience across the sectors of education, translation and publishing—which makes me an attractive colleague and collaborator and keeps my options for professional advancement open.

As the children get older, we moms have more time to dedicate to our professional goals; however, when the kids are little, we don’t have to fall behind. We just need to make a “room of one’s own” and to curate it to match our aspirations and realities.

Sara Hanaburgh co-translator of Boubacar Boris Diop’s Kaveena (Indiana UP, 2016) and translator of Angèle Rawiri’s Fureurs et cris de femmes / The Fury and Cries of Women (U of Virginia P, 2014). Her articles and translations have appeared in africaisacountry.com, The Savannah Review, Warscapes, The Dictionary of African Biography, Imagine Africa, v. 3 and C& América Latina. She teaches African literatures and cinemas and French language and literature at St. John's University. Her edited volume, The History of Sub-Saharan African Literatures on Film is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2021.

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