Friday, December 05, 2008

I just posted a reply over at 11D that gave me pause. I wrote about how I finished my diss at age 30, and I was lucky that my workplace was flexible.

Now, at 11D and GeekyMom and other places, there's been discussion recently about women in academia and what needs to be done to make academia more family friendly. And I am at heart a liberal and a historicist and someone who understands the problems of social inequities, but I keep finding myself turning to the issue of *personal responsibility*. And I hate that I'm doing this, but I am.

Over and over again in my life, I have had stressful work and life situations, but I never felt trapped by my workplace. I've always felt my workplace was flexible and accommodated my juggle of work and family. Part of that may be my attitude. Part of that may be luck. But I've had two jobs including the one I have now that have been super workplaces.

When I needed to finish my diss 12 years ago, I took 2 months off from my job (I ran an academic support department at a university). One month was paid (I hoarded comp time and vacation time) and one month was unpaid. I scraped my pennies together and sublet an apartment in Durham and finished the diss through sheer force of will.

What kind of workplace lets you do that? Well, it was a workplace that valued me. They might not have done it for anyone else, but they did it for me because 1. I asked, 2. I adapted (I took these months in the summer, during our least busy times) and 3. I was damned good at what I did and they didn't want to lose me. They wanted to help me. I always went above and beyond and had loyalty, and they knew that.

Two years after I finished the diss, I got pregnant. Totally planned. My daughter was due in July (again, I adapted to the schedule--July is a fine time to take time off). And then my workplace did have a 60% plan where I could work for 60% of my salary for 60% of the time for 6 months. Sure, other workplaces don't have this. I guess I lucked into finding one that did. Then I took vacation time judiciously for a few more months, working 4 day weeks. Again, I got away with it because my workplace valued me.

(What were the limits of the job's flexibility? Well, I couldn't maintain my job title/responsibilities at fewer hours. The funny thing is that they *would* have given me a job with fewer hours, but I couldn't face working there without having the same level of power/responsibility. Plus I was a bit bored, so when the one-year teaching job in Maine came up, I took it.)

I spent 3 years of hell in Maine. I did a one year job. The workplace wasn't really adaptive to me, but my husband's job was more so (at the same college, but in a staff position). Then I worked part-time in a staff job and adjuncted. The money wasn't great but hey, it was Maine. The big problem with Maine was that there were few full-time jobs within a driving radius of my husband's job. As it was, my part-time job was a 45-minute drive away (I was on that very drive the morning of 9/11; will never forget switching the tape in the car and having the radio come on and hearing the seriousness of the voices and pausing to listen).

And now here I am at this job. When I took the job, I interviewed twice, once with the committee, and once with the chair and dean. I remember thinking that I liked these people a lot. I took the job. First, I do like teaching gen ed courses. Second, it was closer to my family (though still 3 hours away). And third, it was not in Maine. :) This job has been terrific. And it has been flexible.

Why? Well, the first thing to understand is that I didn't take the job because it was flexible. I didn't know. Second, the people I work for/with are mostly women, and most of the people (men and women) have families. I have to live with some inflexibility. The courses are standardized; I can't pick my own textbook. I teach the same 4 courses in variations every term, though I can adapt those courses somewhat. I have to uphold the attendance policy, which I loathe. I have to wear business casual, no jeans! But in exchange? When my kid has an emergency, I tell my chair and she tells me to go home and deal with it. When Eric was first diagnosed with asthma and we struggled with managing it and I had to take several sick days, the dean came to me and told me I shouldn't worry about having my pay docked (we get 10 days of personal leave a year--I'd exceeded it by a day or so).

This is my favorite story. We had a problem with a student, and the parent called, and I sat with the dean while she took the call. The parent was angry, the dean was firm, and eventually they worked out a plan. The dean finished the call with "Now, Prof. Wendy will contact your son with the information, but she has to leave right now to pick up her children, so she can't do it today. You will have to wait till tomorrow." How many deans do you know who would assert a faculty member's right to put her family responsibilities over dealing with an irate parent?

So hey, I have it good, don't I? I have the flexible workplace so many people dream of. But I've had the same kind of workplace before, as well. Is it luck? Or is it something I'm doing? Well, here are a few thoughts on my good fortune.

1. I work for women. I know there is a perception that women bosses can be harder than men in some ways, but my experience has been the opposite. When I've worked for mothers as chairs/bosses/deans (and right now my chair, dean and provost are all women, though only the chair and dean are mothers), I've had a lot of sympathy for my juggle. I don't know if I unconsciously avoid working for men, or what. I'm just saying that when my bosses have been mothers, it has worked out for me.

(In Maine, which has been my most negative experience, my chair was a childless woman, and she was unsympathetic. I never asked for anything, but one day I was expressing some of my struggle with managing time and mentioned that my daughter had been sick and I'd been up all night, and I got the "we all have responsibilities" speech. I honestly think that was the moment I started to hate Maine.)

2. I am a valuable and valued employee. I never say no, except I do not often do evening activities. But I will do anything asked of me between 7 am and 5 pm. Someone needs a sub? Sure. Someone wants me to help with a computer problem? Sure. Part of this is my personality. I do love to help. But it also makes people want to help me. I'm also smart and offer thoughtful feedback when asked. Again, this is me. But it's probably you, too. Do more of it. I'm also a really likable person in person. I'm one of those always-happy-looking, roundish women. I sing or hum a lot. I express enthusiasm when I feel it. People like to be around me.

3. I ask, but I don't expect. And I work to understand the conditions my superiors are dealing with. I have a schedule where I'm done by 2:30 most days, except for when I have meetings. If my chair gives me a schedule that gives me a class till 4 pm, I tell her I'm not crazy about that time, but I know she needed someone to cover that class and I'll deal with it this term. When my schedule is being made, and if I know I have Thursdays where I take my daughter to dance, I will say "I can handle anything except I do need to be free Thursdays after 2:30 to pick up the kids and chauffeur them." I am clear about my wishes but not unreasonable.

4. I find joy/happiness in whatever I do. I realized I might not be able to get a tenure-track job in African American lit, which was my diss topic. I found joy in teaching composition and intro to lit. I am doing a section on the Harlem Renaissance right now, in fact. Did I want to be a writing tutor when I was first offered the job in 1994? No! I needed money. But I figured out a way to love what I did, and that has led to a fascination with pedagogy that has animated my work in so many ways.

5. I choose day care centers instead of family day cares or in-home nannies. Day care centers by their nature have to be open certain hours, which provides great flexibility. They have multiple staff members, so if someone gets sick, you don't have to worry. I also have kids that don't get sick. I don't know if it's genetics (I have a good immune system) or the fact that I raise them in squalor at home (see #6), so they've built up immune systems before they even got to day care, but my kids are rarely absent. We struggled the first year with Eric's asthma, but that was a management issue. Sophie has been absent maybe a handful of times (for illness reasons) in her 3 years of elementary school.

6. I don't give a fuck what my house looks like most of the time. This helps when sharing housework with my husband. I can let it go a good long time in order to push him to clean if he is at all slacking his responsibilities. After 18 years together (2 living together, 16 married, 7 of those pre-kids) though, we do a pretty good job of negotiating the household responsibilities.

So, to sum up:

1. I work for women.
2. I never say no at work and am valued.
3. I ask for flexibility, but I don't expect it.
4. I find joy/satisfaction in whatever job I am doing.
5. I choose day care centers as my preferred child care option.
6. I don't care about housework.


Libby said...

I think you are lucky, Wendy, and you're smart. You've worked out flexibility by being flexible yourself, and that's great. (You're also really lucky in your kids' immune systems, let me tell you! My kids have never ever had perfect attendance at school--they're not sickly by any means, but they have both had strep, pneumonia, ear infections, the whole gamut.)

I think you hit the nail on the head over at 11D when you talked about rethinking higher ed, though. That R1 model is not serving the vast majority of either students or faculty.

Wendy said...

I do think I'm lucky, but I also believe in making your own luck. I am flexible so that I can be lucky, if that makes sense.

And yes, I am lucky in my kids' health. But they both had bad years. When Soph started day care at 14 months, she had several ear infections and was sick for about 6 months. Eric had his asthma year and has had pneumonia. But now they're both in pretty good shape. I like to think this is the beneficial side effect of having a disgustingly filthy house. :)

Libby said...

Alas, I have a disgustingly filthy house, and it's not paying off in increased health for my kids!