Thanks, stranger, and welcome little stranger

I can’t tell if I admire Alex Kuczynski’s honesty in “Her Body, My Baby,” about her experience with a woman who bore her genetic child through surrogacy, or if I am disturbed by it.  (It’s probably both–via Corrente.)  Her story is familiar–elite thirtysomething career woman and older husband (who is himself on marriage #3 and trying for baby #7) can’t make a baby, so after years of struggling with infertility, they investigated hiring a surrogate to carry their genetic child.  I know that surrogacy is an option available only to the wealthy, with uterus rental rates and associated expenses going for $40,000 to $70,000.  But did she really have to work in all of the allusions to the vacation homes in Idaho and Southampton, N.Y., in addition to the Manhattan apartment?  This splendid isolation seems to have contributed to being surprised and impressed that her surrogate had a computer and knew how to use it:

WHEN WE CAME ACROSS Cathy’s application, we saw that she was by far the most coherent and intelligent of the group. She wrote that she was happily married with three children. Her answers were not handwritten in the tiny allotted spaces; she had downloaded the original questionnaire and typed her responses at thoughtful length. Her attention to detail was heartening. And her computer-generated essay indicated, among other things, a certain level of competence. This gleaned morsel of information made me glad: she must live in a house with a computer and know how to use it. 

It’s as though the world that 85% of us inhabit was a foreign place to Kuczynski.  Patronizing, much?  She seems overjoyed that her surrogate has a college degree, and that two of Cathy’s three children are in college (the other is 11, so there’s hope yet.)  Other parts of the essay are less cringe-worthy and are very insightful, such as her description of the polite fiction maintained by the bio parents and the surrogate and her family that no money is changing hands: 

The fees to the surrogate would be paid out in monthly installments, not in one lump sum at the end. In this way the surrogate would be reimbursed for her monthly gestational responsibilities even if the pregnancy ended in miscarriage. No money ever changes hands directly between the intended parents (I.P.’s in surrogacy speak) and the surrogate. All the money goes into an escrow account set up by Brisman’s office, and a third party pays out the monthly fees. I.P.’s and surrogates are discouraged from discussing money. This is partly to remove the air of commercialism from the proceedings.

.          .           .           .          .          .           .           .          .          .   

While no one volunteering to have our baby was poor, neither were they rich. The $25,000 we would pay would make a significant difference in their lives. Still, in our experience with the surrogacy industry, no one lingered on the topic of money. We encountered the wink-nod rule: Surrogates would never say they were motivated to carry a child for another couple just for money; they were all motivated by altruism. This gentle hypocrisy allows surrogacy to take place. Without it, both sides would have to acknowledge the deep cultural revulsion against attaching a dollar figure to the creation of a human life.

But, of course, surrogacy is work, and work deserves to be compensated.  I’m suspicious of some arguments against surrogacy that hide behind the “sanctity of life” and deny that we can put a price on it, because they end up being arguments that women should volunteer their uteri instead of being compensated for their time, trouble, and discomfort.  Speaking of which, I also liked the fact that Kuczynski admitted enjoying the fact that she avoided the advanced stages of pregnancy:

AS THE MONTHS PASSED, something curious happened: The bigger Cathy was, the more I realized that I was glad — practically euphoric — I was not pregnant. I was in a daze of anticipation, but I was also secretly, curiously, perpetually relieved, unburdened from the sheer physicality of pregnancy. If I could have carried a child to term, I would have. But I carried my 10-pound dog in a BabyBjörn-like harness on hikes, and after an hour my back ached.

Cathy was getting bigger, and the constraints on her grew. I, on the other hand, was happy to exploit my last few months of nonmotherhood by white-water rafting down Level 10 rapids on the Colorado River, racing down a mountain at 60 miles per hour at ski-racing camp, drinking bourbon and going to the Super Bowl.

Still, Kuczynski can’t get past the feeling that her obviously athletic and toned body has failed her, and the feeling that she is marked by it:

AS MUCH AS I TRIED TO FIGHT off the feeling, when I told others that I was expecting a baby — and this child was clearly not coming out of my womb — I would sometimes feel barren, decrepit, desexualized, as if I were branded with a scarlet “I” for “Infertile.” At the height of her pregnancy, Cathy and I embodied several facets of femininity. She could be seen as the fertile, glowing mother-to-be as well as the hemorrhoidal, flatulent, lumpen pregnant woman. I could be the erotic, perennially sensual nullipara, the childbirth virgin, and yet I was also the dried-up crone with a uterus full of twigs. She got rosy cheeks and huge, shiny stretch marks. I went to Bikram yogaand was embarrassed to tell the receptionist — in front of the pregnant 20-something yogini in short shorts — to pull me out of class in case my baby was about to be born out of another woman’s body.

Women are each other’s harshest judges when it comes to decisions about our lives.  To have a child or children, or not?  To create an adulthood around motherhood and mothering one’s children, or an adulthood that embraces other kinds of work beyond parenting (or indeed, avoids parenting without regrets)?  I’m not posting this so that we–you and I, my dear readers–can pounce on Kuczynski and feel for a few satisfying moments as though we are morally superior to her.  I’m posting this because I think it raises interesting questions about class, bodies, and commerce.  (Let’s remember that the New York Times is always publishing stories about white, upper-middle class women’s supposed selfishness and how it’s the ruination of the world, so we should be careful about not taking the bait.)

Honestly, the most disturbing part of the article was when Kuczynski, in an aside, notes that Cathy’s 20 year-old daughter, a college student, “had been an egg donor to help pay her college tuition.”  Also, “Cathy told me that her motivations were not purely financial, although she was frank about the fact that the money would help with her two children in college.”  This family may be an isolated example, but, I wonder:  are working-class and middle-class women and girls being driven to sell reproductive services in order to get themselves and their children through college?  If so, what does it say about what we value in women–their brains or their bodies?  Are women who use the latter to improve the former with the goal of finding work that doesn’t involve their reproductive organs being canny, or are they being used?

I don’t have any answers to these questions.  I didn’t consider selling eggs to get through college, but then, I didn’t have to.  Having and enforcing boundaries around one’s body is a privilege.

Of corpse-kicking and His Irrelevancy

Via Corrente, Harold Meyerson wonders in The Washington Post why the peasants havent’t picked up their pitchforks and lighted their torches to storm the Bastille:

So where’s the outrage? Why aren’t demonstrators besieging the White House? Where are the “Welcome to Bushville” signs in those neighborhoods where abandoned homes outnumber the occupied ones?

The answer, I suspect, is that you can only irreversibly give up on a president once. Further catastrophic failures on the president’s part elicit only diminishing returns. Buchanan did nothing while the South seceded: That was it for him. Hoover did nothing as farmers, workers and middle-class America got wiped out: With that, he was beyond rehabilitation. Nixon had Watergate: Enough said. One mega-strike and you’re out.

Bush, however, has had three. He misled us into a nearly endless war of choice to disarm a threat that never really existed. He let a great American city drown. And now he stands by while the economic security of tens of millions of Americans is vanishing.

Yet in the hearts of his countrymen, Bush’s place is already fixed. Even before the financial collapse, he was in the ninth circle of presidential hell, with Buchanan and Hoover. At his own party’s national convention this summer, his was the name that no one dared speak. And so, though his mishandling of the economy is criminally inept, he is being spared one more outbreak of public rage by two countervailing public sentiments: Americans’ relief that he soon will be gone and their kind reluctance to kick a corpse.

Your political grave? I'm dancing on it!

I think Meyerson is right that “you can only irreversibly give up on a president once.”  I think for most Americans, who (unaccountably, in my opinion) seem to have supported Bush’s drive for war in Iraq in 2002-03, Hurricane Katrina was the decisive moment when they saw that Emperor C+ Augustus had no clothes.  And if you’ll recall, this impression was only magnified when the devastation of New Orleans was immediately followed by the laughably disastrous nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court.  This recession/depression is just the latest turd in the punchbowl of the Bush presidency.  Since most of us stopped drinking it years ago–if indeed we ever bothered to taste a draught–it’s beside the point.

What do you think?  Do Presidents have only one opportunity to blow it, or can you think of instances when the American people granted a mulligan to U.S. Presidents to blow it again?  Are Americans in fact too kind to kick a corpse?  I’m not sure I am too kind, but I’m only too happy to see this judgment of the Bush presidency rendered even before his presidency is officially over.  Welcome to the Pantheon of failed presidencies, Your Irrelevancy!  John Adams and James Buchanan sure are happy to see you.

How (not) to apply to graduate school


I realize this post is a little late to help anyone who wants to start graduate school in the fall of 2009.  But then, I also realize that most of my readers have either already been admitted to graduate school, or they have no intention ever of going (back) to graduate school.  Nevertheless, Tenured Radical’s post yesterday about how she spent a full hour writing dozens of letters of recommendation for her students (and then some, since it sounds like she tailors each individual letter before she sends it to multiple institutions), and then was rewarded for her industry with grave bodily injuries as she chucked the last of them into a U.S.P.S. mailbox, brought on flashbacks from my experience three years ago as the Graduate Studies chair of my department.

Undergraduate students don’t know how much work most of us poor faculty members put into their educations and advancement through instruments like letters of recommendation.  This post is designed to help prospective graduate students in the humanities avoid the common mistakes I’ve seen in applications, and perhaps to guide advisers of undergraduate students who are applying to graduate school.  Please, students:  put at least as much thought into your graduate application as your poor professors are putting into their letters of recommendation!

  1. Know what you want to accomplish in graduate school and with the degree you will eventually earn.  Students, don’t let your mother call the Grad Studies chair to inquire on your behalf, and mothers, don’t bother calling.  (Seriously!  I speak from unpleasant experience.)  Don’t write in your essay that you’re applying to grad school because as a child you enjoyed watching World War II movies with your grandfather.  (I’ve seen it more than once in our applications.)  Graduate school is not just more college–it’s professional training, and you need to have an end in mind as to what you want to do as a professional historian.
  2. State those goals clearly in your application essay.  See #3 for more details.
  3. And most importantly of all, make sure that the program/s you are applying to are suitable for helping you achieve your goals, and take the time to connect those dots in your application essay.  You will want to connect your interests to individual faculty members, and explain how the only logical next step in your educational career is to come to (for example) Baa Ram U. to work with specific faculty members here.  The graduate program in my department at Baa Ram U. is an M.A. program with historic strengths in public history, U.S. Western history, and an emerging strength in environmental history.  Our website thoughtfully describes all of the faculty and their research and teaching specialties, and clearly states the emphases of our M.A. program, offers checksheets that show the entire curriculum you’ll be expected to complete, and they also indicate the kinds of graduate courses we offer on a regular basis.  Don’t apply to our graduate program if you want to do Classics (Baa Ram U. is the Aggie school, and doesn’t offer Latin, let alone Greek!), medieval European history (again–no Latin or Greek here), or anything that’s not modern U.S. or European history.  There is a comprehensive Ph.D. program up the road–please send your applications there, since it has the language classes, the coursework, and the library you will need to achieve your goals.  We don’t.  (Although the other department has its particular strengths and weaknesses, so take care to tailor your application there too.)

I can say unequivocally that in my year as GSC, we admitted every single student who managed to accomplish steps 1, 2, and 3.

I don’t mean to sound like an old crank (much!) complaining about “kids these days…”  I think in most cases they don’t understand the difference between choosing a graduate program versus college applications, and they have either been poorly advised, or they haven’t bothered to get any advice before sending out applications.  But, I must say that I’m amazed that a generation that’s supposedly so tech savvy doesn’t take advantage of the wealth of information most graduate programs have on the web.  Back in the old days, when I applied to graduate school, we had only the American Historical Association’s Directory of History Departments, which was published annually, and the card catalog in our college libraries to help us find the books published by the faculty we wanted to study with.  (And don’t even get me started about how we used to have to find articles and book reviews, kids!  Don’t wait until next Thanksgiving to thank the god of your choice for JSTOR, Academic Search Premier, American History and Life, Historical Abstracts, Project Muse, History Cooperative, and all of the other on-line services and the databases that connect us to them.)

Here endth the lesson.  Does the spirit move anyone else in the congregation to testify?  What other advice would you faculty offer to students applying to graduate school?  What do you students think would make graduate applications easier and more transparent?  (Tenured Radical’s call for a common grad school applicationand other common-sense reforms looks good to me.)  TR, this Pisco Sour is for you to speed your healing.  Dog bless.

UPDATE, later this morning:  Wow–that was fast!  A reader, “A,” has written in asking for yet more advice.  To wit:  “I read your article today at the perfect time! I am applying to graduate school and law school and wanted to get thank-you presents for the people writing my letters of recommendation (there are a lot of letters). I was considering Starbucks gift cards and baking cookies, but I am not super well-versed in this area of etiquette. Also, since some of the letters are not due until Feb. 15, is it better to gift now (some letters have gone out) or when everything is done? Any advice is much appreciated!”

Are you like me, dear readers, in being impressed by this student’s thoughtfulness?  As to the question–to gift now, or to gift later?–I’d say that it doesn’t matter much.  Coffee and cookies is an embarrassment of riches that would be welcome any time at Historiann HQ, so I’d say don’t worry about the timing.  Just be sure to let everyone know where you got in with their generous assistance, and what your plans are for next year after you’ve considered all of your options.  Good luck to you, A.!  And readers, let us know if you’ve got other ideas.

UPDATE II, March 18, 2009:  Notorious, Ph.D., Girl Scholar has added more don’ts to remember based on her review of the applications she has seen recently.  Check out the comments, too, for more good advice!

Chutes and ladders: Historiann graduates! edition

As many of you may know, New Kid on the Hallway has left academia to start law school.  She’s had several interesting posts this fall on the transition from being the professor to being a student again, but this one sums up what I’ve always thought must be the most difficult aspect of becoming a student again:  accepting the role of being a follower in the class rather than the leader.  (Interestingly, New Kid is not the only Ph.D. in her 1L class, and I can report that that was also the case with another friend of mine, a microbiology Ph.D. who recently went to law school to make another career for herself.)

I have a recurring nightmare–perhaps many of you have a version of it, too–which is that I’m back in my hometown for some reason (something that rarely happens, since my parents haven’t lived there for fifteen years) and–even stranger–visiting my old high school.  I’m informed there that I didn’t take all of the required classes, so I didn’t actually graduate from high school.  For some reason comprehensible only in dream-world logic, this imperils the legitimacy of my undergraduate and graduate degrees as well, so I have to go back to this high school and complete the missing credits.  I try to explain that I’m far too busy with my job and where life has taken me in the subsequent 22 years since my apparently fake high school graduation, but the authorities at S.S.H.S. still have the bureaucratic muscle to force me back to class.  (I have another version of this dream when I’m informed I have to return to college for another semester, but it’s a fun and happy dream because I loved college, and would kill to live in a dorm and have someone else cook and clean for me again.  On the contrary, I have no affection whatsoever for my high school days.)

Has this ever happened to you, either in a nightmare or in reality, when you went back to re-train in another field?  (Maybe I should just go get a DVD  of Old School, or the “Donna Martin graduates!” episode of Beverly Hills 90210 have a few laughs, and get over it.)