hen i was pregnant with my first
child, I experienced the usual mix of
delight and trepidation that comes
with impending parenthood. However,
My pre-pregnancy approach was to focus
exclusively on the epistemological realm and
conduct my professional interactions exclusively
around processes of disciplinary knowledge (its
production, acquisition and dissemination). I felt
that this approach insulated me against a variety
of awkward social interactions, ranging from students sending me friend requests on Facebook to
comments like “great shoes!” in my teaching evaluations. If I set the rules of engagement in the
realm of the purely cognitive – or so my reasoning
went – then I would enjoy the same respect and
authority my male colleagues were afforded.
Despite my best intentions, pregnancy compelled me to deconstruct the paradigm I had
established to shape my professional identity.
My pregnancy unfolded over the course of a
full academic year, from conception in August
to delivery in early May. For several months of
my pregnancy I clung to the knowledge-centric
model of academic selfhood: intent on policing
the boundaries between the public and the private spheres of my life, I made no announcement
to my students and ignored any overtures they
made to discuss my impending motherhood.
Second semester coincided with my third trimester and I became, to borrow Shakespeare’s
phrase, “great with child.” As my Jacobean Shakespeare course began, I refused to acknowledge
the elephant in the room (which I increasingly
resembled). Shakespeare, my unlikely midwife,
had other plans.
Because I had set the syllabus and ordered
the plays before I was pregnant, you can imagine
my consternation when I realized that many of
the plays I assigned were focused on maternal and
pregnant bodies. Unwittingly, I chose two plays
in his canon where pregnant women appear
onstage – Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale.
In both of these plays, pregnancy cannot be
denied, hidden or erased. In Juliet’s case, her
pregnant body belies the fact that she and her
fiancée had premarital sex, while Hermione’s
heavily pregnant body prompts her husband to
suspect her of having an extramarital affair.
Pregnancy makes public what would otherwise be private acts; the men in these plays read
(or misread) female bodies as uncontrollable,
uncontainable and beyond their authority.
Although both women are exonerated in the end,
Shakespeare uses pregnancy to explore how
bodies (female bodies in particular) are open to
multiple interpretations (and that the true desta-bilizing forces are not female inconstancy but
male anxiety – but that’s a different essay).
As my students and I examined Juliet and
Hermione’s loss of control over how their bodies
were interpreted, the disavowal of my pregnancy
became increasingly untenable in the performa-
tive space of the classroom. During the course
of the semester, I realized that by compartmen-
talizing my personal experience, I was doing my
students and myself a disservice. By restricting
our discussions to the epistemological level, I
missed opportunities to explore not only the
emotional responses, physical experiences and
identity shifts of Shakespeare’s characters but
also our own.
I had hitherto treated the classroom as a
space for sharing knowledge; I hoped that by
acquiring new knowledge, students would be
inspired to undertake their own transformative
learning journeys. However, I couldn’t model my
own transformative experiences until I shifted
to a much more integrative approach whereby
the classroom becomes a fertile site for producing new forms of knowledge.
In a widely shared article in the New York
Times, “Girlfriend, Mother, Professor?” ( January
25, 2016), Carol Hays explores the limited cultural scripts available for female academics and
laments, “male colleagues don’t have these problems.” She makes a compelling case for deconstructing the archetypal male professor and redefining identity categories for women in positions
of social power. While I agree with Ms. Hay
when she declares, “I’m not their mother. And
I’m not their girlfriend either. I’m their university professor,” I am uncomfortable with an outright disavowal. I am now someone’s mother, and
I want to explore how this identity unlocks new
possibilities in my teaching, my research and my
role as a member of the academy.
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Jessica Riddell is an associate
professor in the English department
at Bishop’s University, as well as
chair of the Teaching and Learning
Centre and a 3M National Teaching
Fellow (2015). Her column appears
in every second issue.
Pregnancy and professional
identity in the academy
by Jessica Riddell