Note from Meghan: this is a guest post by Gina Baucom, following up on one she wrote earlier this year.
Most people have a person in life that was highly influential or made them feel understood, and that they in turn loved or deeply appreciated. For me, this was my aunt.
Janie Raye McWhirter*, my mother’s sister, was a painter — she focused on abstract impressionism, and was somehow associated with the Black Mountain Collective. She lived in Swannanoa, North Carolina, in a cabin on some land that she bought straight up with cash even though she was the daughter of a plumber, whom so far as I can determine put the ‘t’ in practicality and, as she told me, sometimes cruelty. Janie had a woodshop for building the frames for her canvases — which enabled her to generate paintings as large as 3 by 2 m (SUPER fun to move btw) — and bookshelves for her gazillions of books. Beyond reading and woodturning, her other hobby was hiking. We are not sure how many times she hiked the Appalachian Trail, but we know it was at least a few. She was incredibly independent and capable, not really interested in men, and never married or had kids. She lived by herself for the majority of her life and taught others how to paint, which in her words, meant she taught people how to think. In my opinion, she was a major badass.
Janie was hired in the 70’s to build the art department at a small liberal arts college near Asheville, NC. She built this department, developed the curriculum, and hired a faculty member with whom she later had some sort of major disagreement; this disagreement led to political issues within the department and her eventual dismissal by denial of tenure. As the family, we did not have much information about what happened, other than we knew a lawyer told her she had a case for gender discrimination. She did not follow through with it then or later.
I have only two memories of my aunt painting, and they both came from rare trips to her house when I was a kid. I remember waking up to her standing at her easel, situated by an open door to let in the morning light — my aunt, lit cigarette in hand, mulled over the beginning of a painting that was sketched out in pastel pencil and not yet committed to oil. I’m not sure I remember this correctly, but I think it was her last painting, which she never finished and which still has a section left in pastels**. The timing is about right, anyway.
Most of the time I spent with my aunt was during my twenties, well after she had stopped painting. For a time after her tenure denial she taught art classes out of a studio and her house — she focused on helping recently divorced women return to education in some form — and from these sessions with local women and students from her classes at the college she had built quite a following. Previous students would drop in and visit at her house while I was there, and from this I heard how deeply respected and loved she was — her students said things like she was genuine, transparent, honest, a brilliant painter and educator. Although we don’t understand exactly why she lost her position at the liberal arts college, it was never in doubt to her family that students viewed her as one of those life-changing people.
By the time I was visiting her consistently — when I was an undergraduate and able to drive on weekends to her house — she was deeply alcoholic. Her depression, which she had dealt with her entire life, gave way to manic episodes which would leave her awake for multiple nights on end. She would call me sometimes at 2 and 4 in the morning, waking up my roommates and insisting that I get on the phone. She had no medical care, and given that she was effectively drunk all the time, had given up driving. I and others would bring her food and take her out of the house for a bit, but effectively she was a shut in. The alcoholism and her decline in mental health were triggered by her tenure denial — before then, she had been healthy and productive.
Academics, especially those of us in STEM fields, rarely write or talk about our personal experiences, and rarely admit to anything but the most positive of things — grants funded, papers accepted, awards won. I am not sure exactly why it is this way, but I figure it has something to do with existing in a hyper-competitive environment, and the insecurities associated with being honest — or just open — about our stories*** and the things that make us vulnerable. It makes sense — we work in a highly critical landscape. How many of us feel comfortable being open to colleagues who are trained to be critical of our work, and who are sometimes personally hostile? However, I think the absence of our stories can be problematic. It means that we are viewed, and we may view ourselves, as less dimensional than we really are, which in turn makes us seem less personable, and less safe for others.
I previously wrote about how my tenure case was delayed due to a procedural error. When I first heard about the problems, I kind of immediately mentally flipped. Not in a ‘I’m going to act out and make a fool of myself’ kind of way (which honestly should be fine, right?!? That’s some pretty serious shit to have happen to one’s career), but in a ‘I need drugs for sleeping now’ kind of way. I was always worried about tenure — even before the delay. I knew my case was strong enough, but I still worried. The only academic in my family, literally ever, was my aunt, whose hand I held while she died from dual liver/kidney failure in the hospital after a long decline set in motion years before by her tenure denial. So, it makes sense that I would be stressed about tenure, even when all signs for me pointed positive.
My case, however, went through, and I am now tenured. The final positive vote happened in May, right after my aunt’s birthday, so at a time when I often reflect about her. I couldn’t help but look at the parallels, and their absence. Is it weird to be deeply relieved that your life is taking a different trajectory, at least so far, from someone that you always wanted to emulate — someone that you looked up to, and someone you felt deeply changed by?
I haven’t yet figured out what sort of things — both personal and professional — I will tackle next, although creating a strong and positive environment to support white women, people of color, and other minorities is going to be high on that list. I want to see science change to the point where women and others can thrive, and feel respected, and be sought after for their intellectual contributions. I am not afraid about being a Pollyanna about this. Fuck everyone who scoffs at the idea of improving the environment. We can totally do this. I hope you will help me.
*This is my aunt. If you were moved by her story, and are interested in supporting the arts, we set up the Janie McWhirter Fine Arts Scholarship, which funds undergraduate artists at Western North Carolina. This particular scholarship can be found under the tab ‘Your gift, your choice’ and searching her name.
**I am pretty sure this was her last painting, Untitled Floral, c. 1985
***One of my close friends here at UMich encouraged me to think about my aunt’s story in terms of the stories that underscore who we are, and what we bring to the tenure track
Amazing post Gina, thanks so much for sharing this story. It’s clearly resonating with many people. A sample (and it is just a sample, there are already a *lot* of tweets about this):
I couldn’t agree more about telling the difficult, often painful, stories of academia. My heart breaks for your aunt and for you, who watched her demise and held her hand as she died. I was denied tenure many years ago and have written about it on my blog. It was devastating on a number of ways. I’ve tried to stimulate discussion and create a space for more openness about this kind of catastrophic failure in academe with some limited success. Thank you for your efforts.
So sorry to hear and thank you for speaking up about it. ❤
Many readers have probably seen this already, but in case not, here is Terry McGlynn’s story of being denied tenure: https://smallpondscience.com/2013/12/16/coming-out-of-the-closet-tenure-denial-edition/
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Hi, my name is Robin Benton Crutcher. I was a student and friend of your aunt’s back in the early 70s. She was my mentor throughout my college years and later we developed a friendship that lasted several years. I am so glad to read your posting. I visited Janie a few times in Swannanoa, staying with her some of those times. When I last spoke with her on the phone from my home in New Orleans, she was in that manic, alcoholic state you describe. I think I found out some way that she died a couple of years later. She was a wonderfully sensitive individual, a brilliant painter and outstanding teacher. I would love to know if any of her paintings are left that you all might want to sell by chance. I own one large one that she gave to me and 4 smaller ones on paper,?which I had framed. Anyway, I would be delighted to speak with you about your aunt if you give me a call. Thanks, Robin 504-905-6576