Thoughts on Academic Intimacy

laura levitt

On the one hand, my mother adhered to the norms of mothering that de­fined her early 1960s generation. Although she was educated and worked as a teacher before she had children, she left her job when my brother and I were very young, and did not go back to teaching for almost five years.

But on the other hand—this is not exactly where I wanted to begin. I wanted to start by saying that my mother, like me, played with dolls. Her favorites, so she tells me, were paper dolls. She spent long days as a little girl cutting out various outfits, experimenting with how they looked. I think about my mother playing with paper dolls when I think about her accounts of what she did during her long days at home with me as a young child. For my mother, staying at home was not easy. She loved teaching, and regretted giving up her job when I was born.

I have few memories of my mother at home with my brother and me. I have memories of playing with friends and a smattering of memories of other adults, but I do not have any clear memories of my mother. What my mother tells me is that she spent a lot of her time cleaning and ironing my various outfits and dressing me up in them. I cannot help but imagine that, in part, my role was quite similar to that of her paper dolls. She did the labor in order to get my clothes ready for me to wear, and then spent her days putting them on and taking them off me. What I recall are itchy crinolines and a longing to take them off, and short, lacy socks that needed to be pulled up over my heels again and again. I think I sensed, even then, that my mother was not particularly happy staying home.

Not surprisingly, it was when my mother returned to work that my most vivid memories of her begin. My mother’s passion for her work was con­tagious. I imbibed it. I fell in love with her students and her colleagues, their stories, their intrigues, and always my mother at the center of all of this storytelling. Over the years, my specialized knowledge of my mother and her life at school has enabled a kind of intimacy between us. It allows me to share a part of her life, as we communicate through the mediation of other people and their stories. Not unlike a beloved text, these stories have enabled my mother and me to connect in ways that seem to have foreshadowed the kinds of academic intimacy I now share with many of my own students. My mother and I have always communicated most pro­foundly in this way, and this is very much the kind of intimacy I know best in my own life.

When I had the chance, in my small high school, to be a student in my mother’s classroom, I came to see her in her element. I watched her per­form as a teacher, covering the blackboards on three sides of her classroom with her students’ ideas, punning as she answered questions. She loved student renditions of scenes from Shakespeare comedies, and in those in­stances, her laughter was always the loudest. I learned to navigate compli­cated boundaries, to make distinctions between our interactions, deciding when my mother was my mother and when she was my teacher. My mother was a passionate teacher, and she loved blurring the lines between home and school. Her students could turn in assignments until midnight, and they often did, knocking on the door of our home just before twelve o’clock. No other teacher gave students her home address at the beginning of the year or allowed students to hand in their work after school hours.

My mother loved to talk about books and literature, and her students loved being part of these discussions. For almost the entire time that she taught, my mother held a Great Books class in our home once a week. Some of her students held informal reading groups over the summer after they graduated, just to continue the conversation. Others asked for reading lists that they would dutifully pursue on their own, writing or returning to visit to discuss these works with my mother.

I think of my mother and her relationship with her students as I look at my academic relationships. In my engagement with my own students, I have been most fully my mother’s daughter. I have given myself over to them, helping them become scholars and teachers in their own right. With some of my graduate students, the work has been so close that we can finish each others’ sentences. It is difficult to write about this without sounding self-serving or cliche, but with my students and a few of my col­leagues and friends I have a kind of intimacy that I do not share with many other people. What we share is our work, especially our writing. It is at the center of what we do together: we help each other figure out what we want to say and then how to say it. This process creates a unique kind of intimacy, as we are there for each other and for our work. We often meet in my eclec­tic office, a hodgepodge of thrift-store finds and gifts from students. Paper in hand, the conversation starts with me deciphering my handwritten notes on the sides of the page. At various points I swivel around in my chair to take a book off the shelf or to go online for a reference. I’ll meet my graduate students in local coffee shops where we hash out a new chap­ter outline or clarify a reading.

In part, I have been able to work so closely with my students because I was able to first share such an intellectual intimacy with my mother. Since then, I have increasingly shared this intimacy with colleagues, and many of my students. Unlike my mother, I am not a woman with children, so I do not share these connections with children of my own. For me, intellec­tual intimacies, my connections to my students, are where I pass on these lessons, what it means to take texts seriously, to read and write about them, or how to make them part of our everyday lives. At its very best, the back-and-forth, the ideas that we each have, make these engagements thrive. The fact that I have my own projects enables me to engage with others as they work on their own. I know the difference between what is mine and what belongs to someone else, and it is this interplay that I find compelling.

High school teachers like my mother are not often also writers in their own right. They are not required or encouraged to publish in the same way as those of us with PhDs. This is another way my life differs from my mother’s. In order to work with my students, especially my graduate stu­dents, I have needed to model what it means to be a writer, to be a producer of knowledge myself. In order to help my students, I have had to take my own writing seriously. It has taken me a long time to learn how to privilege this aspect of my work. This was not something familiar; it was not the kind of thing my mother had done. And so, I have had to look elsewhere to imagine doing this part of my work. For me, finding friends and col­leagues with whom to share my work has been crucial.

In many ways, writing can be lonely. Much of the time this is a solitary endeavor, and I find I am not sure of this role and my ability to claim it. The prospect that I might be joining a long legacy of writing women, women without children, remains elusive. My own life does not conform to the norms that shaped my mother’s life.

For me to be a writer and a teacher and to see this as a way of being in the world is still new to me. Although there are more and more women who write and teach in colleges and universities, we remain not that far removed from the Virginia Woolf of A Room of One’s Own. Many of us con­tinue to yearn for some way of steadying ourselves. We want role models and reassurance that this life, a life so unlike our own mothers’ lives, is possible. For me the desire is very much about wanting an inherence of writing women, ancestors I can turn to as examples for the life I lead. And even as more of us write and let our own lives be an example for our stu­dents, we feel shaky, uncertain, still unaccustomed to this way of being in the world. We want evidence of intellectual women who were engaged with each other and with other intellectuals in the past to bolster our own work, to remind us that it is possible to make a life on these terms. We want to know that there were women producing knowledges both public and pri­vate, work that was of and about their lives and their passions, and that this work had readers and that for all of these reasons their lives mattered. Such knowledge secures our own endeavors. For me, a woman who has chosen not to have children, again these efforts are critical. They define where I work and what it is that I hope to pass on as both a scholar and a teacher.

In the spring of 2005, I stumbled upon Barbara Hahn’s The Jewess Pal­las Athena and was struck by the vision of intellectual Jewish women that she describes. According to Hahn, these Jewish women who spoke and wrote in German were a critical part of modern German letters. Her book offers glimpses of not only their public writing but also of letters and jour­nals, the intimacies behind their more public works. She shows readers, in other words, the relationships that nurtured and produced these intel­lectual women. As I read this book in a different register, I noticed how many of these women of letters were also women without children, women whose legacy is their writing. For these women the labor of writing and critical engagement defined their lives and, like me, they made choices to value this part of their lives. I imagine that they felt they could not do all of these things at the same time. This, too, is something I have grappled with. Knowing that these women’s legacies live on in their writing is a gift. It makes me feel less anomalous and more a part of something larger than myself. This, too, is a way of being a woman in the world.

In some ways, I come to these Jewish women very much as my mother’s daughter. I am improvising, looking for ways to make my life choices make sense. I now realize that it is inconceivable to me that my mother—who came from a family of pharmacists, a household without books, and who had never had a mentor of her own—would become an English teacher. I suspect that, like me, my mother was able to give to her students part of what she had wanted from her own teachers but never received. In a sense this is another lesson I learned from her. But, in turning to the Jewesses of German letters, I am also engaging in a kind of imaginative enactment; I am laying claim to an inheritance I can only embrace through an act of imagination. In reading Hahn’s work I find I am not alone. I have a history of intellectual Jewish women, modern Jewish women who wrote, and whose writings reveal traces of a different kind of intimacy, a legacy of relationships that are generative, relationships that inspire writing that has both specific and broader audiences. Strangely, I find myself picking up a delicate and broken thread, the legacy of the Jewess Pallas Athena: instead of trying to re-create it, I carry it forward as inspiration in a differ­ent language, a different time, a different place. Hahn shows me that there has already been such a thing, and we can hold on to it as we continue to read and write and teach, and create all kinds of legacies in the present. And she also shows me that these German Jewish women are, like me, women without children.

I imagine my contribution to the future through my writing and teach­ing. More specifically, I think about how my often intimate but also quite public writing can contribute to a different future. While completing this essay, I talked to a good friend and colleague about what I was writing, and how I found myself writing about my mother. In response, she reminded me of a rabbinic dictum, a position I had not fully known before, that addresses the relationship between teacher and parent. As she explained, there is a tradition that says that when asked to choose between saving the life of his parent or his teacher, a man should choose to save his teacher. Of course my use of the masculine here is deliberate. It is clear that this rabbinic dictum was a masculine fantasy, if not an enactment; it was about fathers and male teachers. Nevertheless, I am struck that my friend thought of this dictum in relation to what I had told her about my work.

For me, the challenge is to resist such a stark choice. The contrast just does not ring true. After all, my mother was my teacher. And for me, part of the legacy of Hahn’s German Jewish writers is that they offer a gen­dered alternative to the authority of ancient rabbis. The Jewesses Hahn writes about include women both with and without children who lived rich lives of Jewish letters. For all of these Jewish women, relationships, intimacies, and intellectual labors were intertwined. If asked to choose, they would have had to have chosen both or all of their identities; they could not have separated out the teachers and the parents. The identities of these German Jewish women, like those of contemporary Jewish femi­nists who also refuse to choose or to split off pieces of themselves, are rich and complicated. And I count myself among these women, knowing that this is, in part, what has enabled all of us to write.

Over the past number of years, I have watched my best friend’s daugh­ter as she has played with dolls, jumped on a trampoline, and fallen in love with baseball. And I have often done this from a distance, not always knowing exactly my role. Here again, there are few role models. Even still, I want to imagine that the very different choices my friend and I have made about our lives might someday come to matter to this young girl, and to other generations of women. In the end, I do not want these girls—or any of us—to have to choose among these things. I want there to be room for all kinds of permutations, all kinds of contradictory desires; I don’t want to imagine that the decision to have or not to have children need feel so fraught.

I write in the present not knowing for whom my words will resonate. What I do know is that I have students and friends who get it. Unlike many writers with children, I am not at all sure who will bury me or in what ground I will find my final resting place. These tropes are invoked in many works of intimate public writing and performance where the addressee is the writer’s or the artist’s own child or children. I do not have this conven­tion to rely on. I do not know who will ultimately receive my work, take it in, and make it her or his own. And, to be honest, I do not know who will say Kaddish for me. But this is an unknowing I am willing to live with. What I have learned from many women, and especially my own mother, is that I have some say about these things. However difficult these choices might sometimes feel, I do have some agency in these matters. I need not become the idealized rabbinic teacher to justify my role as a woman writer, a woman without children. To do that would be to refuse to appreciate the labors of all of the women who came before me, those with and those with­out children, as well as my contemporaries. And I refuse to do that. Instead, I want to imagine more possibilities. I want us all to be able to live more fully the lives we choose. In my case, this means being able to read and write and teach and mentor, not always having to justify my choices. In a strange way, I think that this has made me a better teacher and writer. [1]