Thursday, June 26, 2008

Parenting as an Academic

I was just reading this post from Mama PhD, the blog at the Inside Higher Education site (founded by an old college friend of mine, if I may name-drop a moment). The question at hand is whether or not academia can become more family friendly. And of course the answer is "of course."

I feel incredibly fortunate because my university makes it incredibly possible for me to be both an involved parent and a college professor. And most of my colleagues feel the same. We understand our work commitments and don't shirk them, but we also respect each other's roles as members of families, both the women and the men. How is it so easy for us and so difficult for the rest of academia?

I always credit the fact that I have women bosses. My chair is a mother of two, and my dean is a mother. (Let me tell you one story that recently happened. We were dealing with an angry parent, and my dean was on the phone with the parent, and they eventually worked out that the I would e-mail the student with some info and cc- the parent; my dean said, "Well, Professor X is here with me now, but she has to leave in a minute to pick up her children, so she will contact your son tomorrow." How many deans would assert the professor's right to deal with family matters and put off the student until the next day?)

But I've had women bosses who were not so understanding. One that comes to mind was childless. As I was talking with her once about some work I was doing, explaining that it had been difficult to complete recently because my toddler daughter was waking several times a night, she looked at me and said "We all have responsibilities." Uh, yeah. And when you face those responsibilities, I will give you a break. I know for a fact that her biggest problem at that time was finding a coffee shop close to her new apartment.

At my current job, I have a 4-course teaching load (actually, I teach 5 classes now, but 3 are half-classes, so I teach the equivalent of 3.5 classes, 14 hours a week in the classroom total). I serve on many committees, including Writing Across the Curriculum and the Publicity Committee. I run the writing assessment program as well. One of my classes is a service-learning course which requires me to go to the community partner site with my students. I don't shirk my service duties.

This summer I am writing an article on my service learning project, and I am working on a conference proposal on the writing assessment program with my colleagues. I recently submitted a biographical article for a journal issue on American Romance Novelists.

And yet I work most days from 7 am to 2:30 pm. My kids are dropped off by their father, though sometimes I don't teach till 9:20 and can do it myself. I am able to leave most days at 2:30, but sometimes I have meetings or a class scheduled, in which case I take advantage of my children's school's very flexible after-school program. In unusual situations where I have no flexibility, my husband can often take the time to fill in, but that's unusual.

So what are the structural differences?

1. I have flexible before- and after-school care which is provided at the school by an outside contractor.
2. I am allowed "sick/personal" days. The official number is 10, but one year when my son's asthma was just being diagnosed and we were figuring out how to manage it, I might have gone over that amount by one day. My dean chose not to dock my pay.
3. We work a 4-day week. I have 6 child-free hours on Fridays to get grading/prep done. The four-day week is for the benefit of the students, who work in their careers, mostly in the food services/hospitality industry.
4. My chair and colleagues value family and help each other out. I sub whenever I can for others having problems. They subbed for me when my mother-in-law and grandmother died in the same week and I had to miss a week of classes. Also, my chair will try to accommodate our needs whenever possible. We try not to ask unless it's really important. (Examples: my colleague who was still nursing her son and needed a schedule a certain way; another colleague who was taking classes for her PhD and had a last minute schedule change there which required a last minute schedule change at work.)
5. Publication of books and high-level articles is not required for promotion (we have no tenure). We are expected to do professional development, such as attend conferences, and we are rewarded if we publish, but it is not required. Many of us choose not to publish.
6. We all teach a slate of 4 courses that are required of all students. There are additional courses in food writing, travel writing, news writing, developmental writing, technical writing, but mainly we all teach all 4 core courses. That helps when schedules have to change last-minute.
7. I can imagine that some colleges have a student body that prefers classes in late afternoon and evening. Our student body would prefer that if possible, but they also understand that they are preparing for careers. In some cases, they know they need to work on the discipline to get up for 7 am classes, and in other cases, they work in the afternoons and must schedule their classes in the mornings for that reason. It helps that the bulk of classroom hours are before 3:45.
8. Personally, I live only 6 miles from my workplace. But other colleagues live a 45-minute drive away, and they have no major problems balancing.

If I think of other structural issues that help make my family-friendly job possible, I will post them, but basically, IT'S NOT THAT HARD IF YOU WANT TO DO IT. I think academia just has to want to do it.


Libby said...

I think your point about teaching the same courses as your colleagues is key. No one can sub for me when I need to be away--I'm the only person who offers the courses I do, with occasional exceptions.

I'm really glad this conversation is continuing in so many venues!


Wendy said...

Libby, that's true, and the more Research I-y the institution, the more likely that the course can be taught only by one person. However, for seminar type situations, can't the responsibility for learning be transferred to the students for a day in an emergency? And maybe faculty can come up with ways for course content to be delivered in a flexible manner so that the course can withstand an absence or two?

In the situation with my MIL/grandmother's deaths, I knew that both were imminent, and to prepare for my inevitable absence, I put together detailed explanations of the way I was delivering the course content and how I would run things if I were there.

Did everything go perfectly? Absolutely not. However, the key is that everyone was willing to be flexible, including me.

Sometimes I wish I could offer myself up as Dr. Smack Sense Into People. Any time an academic parent had a problem, I'd be happy to go to the offending people and Smack Sense Into Them. :) Nominate an academic department. I'll go there, observe, then smack sense into people. It could be a whole new type of educational consulting! ;)

Libby said...

I think R1s might actually make it easier--their faculty teach less, for one thing, and at least at the intro & intermediate levels they tend to duplicate specialties. I'm the only Victorianist in my department and the only person teaching children's lit, though. Often no one else in my dept. has even read the material I'm teaching. So, sure, for a day or even longer we can make arrangements for students to "teach themselves" or for colleagues to help fill in. But in order for that to work we'd have to stop thinking of ourselves as indispensable (something both academics and, I fear, parents--especially mothers--are wont to do) and have cooperative workplaces. I like your idea of smacking sense into people, but I think you'd be busy!