This letter came in across the transom in the H-WOMEN digest Monday night:
I have a question that deals not so much with scholarship as with academic
life. I would very much appreciate hearing how other women in higher
education — and their institutions — may have managed having a baby
during an academic term. I am currently pregnant, due February 10, right
in the midst of Spring 2009 semester, which runs from mid-January to early
May. I am entering my 5th year in a tenure-track position, and am in good
standing. However, the university where I am employed does not have an
official maternity leave policy for faculty members. We all teach a 4/4
load, and the courses I will be teaching in the spring have already been
added to the registrar’s page, though I’m sure it would be possible to
change days and times.
I realize that I am of course entitled to 6 weeks unpaid leave via FMLA,
but my husband and I cannot go without my paycheck. I will have to work
out the details with my dean and I am curious to know what others have
done in similar situations. I would like to have a few good possible
plans in mind before I meet with the dean.
This is a real request for ideas to take to the Dean–although I’m sure the vast majority of us think it’s ridiculous that any university would still not have some kind of a maternity leave policy at this point, let’s keep the laments to a minimum and the helpful advice and suggestions to a maximum. At Baa Ram U., at least in the Liberal Arts College, people giving birth or adopting a child are now entitled to a one course release from our 2-2 load, in addition to maxing out whatever accrued sick leave time one has. (I believe that it’s typical even for newish Assistant Professors to have 6 weeks of paid sick leave for a vaginal birth, and 8 weeks total to recover from a C-section.) This of course still doesn’t solve the problem of who might cover or teach your courses during your recovery–that is still unfortunately handled by the pregnant individuals themselves, who must rely on the kindness of colleagues–and that’s a terrible burden to put on an untenured person especially. It’s one thing to ask a colleague and teaching assistants to sub for one or two classes–and quite another magnitude of annoyance to have to worry about covering four classes!
Coincidentally, yesterday I ran into a male colleague in another department, and heard a tale of woe about his last academic year, which was marked by different surgeries followed by other surgeries meant to fix infections and other problems caused by the initial surgeries. He told me that he wished he had taken the whole first semester off (he’s got a wad of accrued sick leave), because 1) he pushed himself too hard to get back to work because 2) he really disliked relying on the charity of his colleagues to cover his classes while he recovered. (Why can’t the Dean keep a little pot of money to distribute to hire emergency adjuncts to take over and teach for a month, or two, or for the rest of the term, without forcing us to make decisions on the fly while ailing, and burdening our already overworked colleagues?) Although we are hired for our minds, those minds are unfortunately embedded in human bodies, which are subject to traumatic injury, decay, and transformation. Given that fact, my suggestions to this maternity leave question are, in no particular order:
- Find out what paid sick leave you’re entitled to–it should be decent, given that you’ve been there 4 years. That may help you decide what kind of relief you’ll need, and when.
- Since you’re married, your husband should investigate what kind of parental leave his job offers, and how to go about taking advantage of it.
- Suggest to the Dean that you be offered a one- or two course-release next spring. (After all, it doesn’t cost 25% of your salary to pay an adjunct to cover a course–sadly, they can probably get that done for $3,000.)
- If you’re not already signed up to teach a seminar course or two (or other such course that meets only once a week), see if you can change your schedule in that fashion.
- Consider offering to teach some summer classes, in order to “pay back” courses, if they’re unwilling to grant you one or more course releases, and see if you can do it over the following two summers rather than just next summer.
If you, dear readers, have dealt with this issue before, or if you have knowledge as to how this has been handled at your university (productively or otherwise), please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below. (I’m also picking up the Bat Phone to see if Ann Bartow and her coven of legal experts can help!)
UPDATED 8/14/08: H-WOMEN has posted some interesting, angry, and helpful replies to the above query, although I don’t see too many strategies that haven’t been suggested here and in the comments below. See here for a collection of replies, and see also Catherine Clinton’s thoughtful and sad commentary on the lack of progress for academics on this issue over the past twenty-five years. Sigh.
UPDATED 8/15/08: H-WOMEN has seven more responses–these range into more personal reflections, some of which are more useful than others. See especially Susan Yohn’s post on the personal versus the political, and also her thoughts from the perspective of a department chair. She offers both practical advice for now, as well as urges us to take political action on this issue. Sounds like we’ve got an old-fashioned Consciousness Raising going on right here on the internets!