In which we see once again that academia still functions as though it's 1956 (only with fewer tenure lines)

life inside the bubble

I have a friend who lives in a little college town who says, “It’s like someone put a bubble up around this town in 1956.”  Sometimes I think this is true of all of academia.  Dr. Crazy had an interesting post the other day about the essential conservativism of college professors:

You’d think conservatives would actually love a person like me.  I mean, instead of getting out there and organizing and protesting and sticking it to The Man, I spend my time reading books, harping on students about the quality of their prose, and spending endless hours in meetings and doing paperwork.

Her point was more about the essentially conservative nature of our work–great books, big ideas, the mechanics of reading and writing well–moreso than the conservative politics of most university faculty, but in “Sexism in the Academy,” Speaker’s Corner ATX reports a recent experience that suggests that there may be considerable overlap with respect to women’s imagined roles and ambitions:

Today when I told my male, child-free advisor that I am no longer married to the idea of being an academic when this is all done, he said IMMEDIATELY,

Why? You wanna have more babies?

Sigh. Even people who I respect so much and who have been very good overall in respecting my decision to have a child while in graduate school still react like this to my choices in my personal life. On top of that, he seemed surprised when I said “no”.

I can’t imagine that when a man decides that perhaps the Academy is not a good enough life for him or is not the ONLY possible future that he sees for himself or his family, he is met with such a reaction.

And just so no one accuses me of picking on my male professor – I once had a female professor who I love and adore call my son a “hurdle”. Ouch. And *shrug*. So it goes.

In fairness, it’s possible this advisor wanted to initiate a conversation in which he would urge her to stay in academia and have more children–but somehow, I think SCATX read this conversation right.  Many young women are treated like their functioning ovaries are visible outside of the body, and are always presumed to be rarin’ to go.  I’ve heard other antinatalist stories from other academic women–for example, the friend who felt like she was very well supported by her department when she had a baby, but then whose bona fides and ambition were questioned even by her feminist friends when she decided to have a second child before tenure.  (It all worked out fine for her–two children and tenure, that is.)

When I was in graduate school 20 years ago, absolutely no one had children except the few “older” students (in their 40s) who had had other careers and raised their children before pursuing their Ph.D.s.  Whereas most women my age (now in our 40s) didn’t have children unless and until they found tenure-track jobs (and some even waited until tenure), I’ve noticed that many younger academics in their 20s and 30s aren’t waiting for the brass ring that may never materialize, so they’ve had children in graduate school.  I was at a dinner party in Philadelphia last weekend with some recent Ph.D.s and postdocs, and they were the parents of an infant and a toddler.  I think it’s eminently sensible to have a child in graduate school, because 1) the job crisis of the past 40 years appears unlikely to ease up any time soon, and 2) the academic workplace still by and large hasn’t changed its leave policies to acknowledge that women are now on the faculty too, and aren’t just staff members.  So why not, when 1) getting a tenure-track job may never happen, and 2) if it does, most unis offer only 6 weeks of “sick leave” for maternity leave (8 weeks if you have to recover from a C-section!  W00T!)

So, good for you, SCATX, for living your own life, and for contemplating escape hatches outside of academia.  It’s like I tell my women’s history students every year:  do whatever the hell youwant to do, because the fact of the matter is that there’s always someone who will find fault with your decisions.  Be straight, be gay, or be celibate; have children, or don’t; stay home with them, or keep working; follow your dreams, or find another career; etc.  There will always be a friend, a relative, a distant acquaintance, or legions of perfect strangers on the internets who will tell you that  U R doin’ it rong!  There is no perfect magical set of choices or decisions to make because you’re women, and you’ll always be criticized, no matter what you do.

The only liberty is in no longer caring what other people say.  My friend who talks about the 1956 bubble around her town also has given me another bit of wisdom.  When someone asks a rude question or makes a pointed comment about you, turn to hir, blink your eyes, smile brightly, and ask in all feigned innocence, “why would you say that?”  You put the aggressor/rude interlocutor on the defensive, but only in the nicest possible way.  Don’t think you owe anyone a justification for your life.

0 thoughts on “In which we see once again that academia still functions as though it's 1956 (only with fewer tenure lines)

  1. Were my feminist friends talking about me behind my back? I never knew.

    I, too, have noticed the increasing number of grads with babies. I wonder if it has to do with larger shifts: when I was in grad school, most of my peers were right out/barely a few years out of ugrad. My grad students now probably average 25-30 when they start. Don’t know if my alma mater has caught up with the delayed grad school trend, but for most programs, I think older students may be more the norm these days.


  2. Pingback: Sexism in the Academy « SCATX: Speaker's Corner in the ATX

  3. Shaz–I think you’re right. We were a very young generational cohort. There were a few people who started in their mid-20s in my program, so most of the the “older” grad students were in their late 20s. I’m sure that’s a part of the grad school reproduction strategy, too. If you don’t finish a Ph.D. until you’re in your 30s, then the window for finding a job and having children is a lot narrower.


  4. “The only liberty is in no longer caring what other people say. ”

    I like this.

    I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t let my job made decisions about child-rearing for me. And I didn’t. So far it’s been working out ok. I’d probably be taken more seriously academically in the broader community if I hadn’t had my first child at the incredibly early age of 28(!), but I haven’t done too badly either. And of course, without even those 6 weeks of sick leave offered at my uni (I missed one week of class total thanks to a freak snowstorm), my colleagues here were delighted and are constantly inappropriately asking when I’ll be having #2. (Answer: not any time soon.)

    It is irritating that one of the big 2 year post-docs in my field is well known for not wanting married women because every time they’ve accepted one she has a baby during the post-doc. Men do too, of course, but somehow that doesn’t matter to them.


  5. I feel you, SCATX. While I definitely think the structural difficulties of having a baby as a female academic are a topic we *need* to keep talking about, sometimes what bothers me more is the continued assumption that women = babies and babies /=/ (or however you make an unequal sign) career in academia. A lot of the women I know waited until they had tenure to try to have a baby. The reasons to wait are pretty significant, especially when you look at that depressing Chronicle data about how few women with children make it to the associate/full professor level(s). But some don’t wait and are (Gasp!) still managing to have thriving careers or fulfilling lives generally. So we have two problems – one, the persistent penalization of women for daring to have babies, especially earlier in their career; and 2) the persistent belief that having babies is not compatible with career. They are obviously mutually reinforcing. There was a great post up recently at herbadmother that critiqued the language of maternal sacrifice. I thought it was really smart, and spot on – in sum, Catherine posits that this rhetoric creates mutual opposition between women and mothering, a full life and baby-making. My point is that the way we overlook the women who have babies – especially pre-tenure – AND career success contributes the overall belief structure that mothers and academia are mutually exclusive. Babies are Plan B or a Hurdle to be surmounted or not. Never just, like, someone’s private life and individual choice that has nothing to do with professional life, really.

    I get a lot of compliments on Having It All (TT job + book out + babies + commuting relationship), and while I appreciate this recognition of how hard I work, I’m not some exceptional superwoman. I made decisions about how I wanted my life to be (I mean, building on the elements that were luck) and made it so. It kind of works. Anyway, I worry about exceptionalizing women like me. To the Sexist Academy: Please close your gaping maw and get over your shock that an early-career women is capable of having children and a career. We are not dogs on bicycles.


  6. “the academic workplace still by and large hasn’t changed its leave policies to acknowledge that women are now on the faculty too, and aren’t just staff members.”

    … annnnnnnd where I am now (Ivy) and where I was previous (wealthy research university) and where I was before that (Ivy), family leave policies were and are much better for faculty than for staff. Let’s just say this all together, out loud — it’s ludicrous that a person’s family and medical needs should be dictated by her place on the institutional totem pole.


  7. With the benefit of hindsight, I think have babies in grad school is an awesome idea if the timing works for you, and I sometimes wish I’d done it. Your schedule is never so flexible as in grad school and if your kids are a bit older when you finally get a fulltime job and less flexibility, they will be at school part of the day, making daycare cheaper, etc. The downside, of course, is the lack of money many people have in grad school.

    Having been on temporary, but fulltime, contracts now for four years in a row and with no permanent job in sight, makes it quite hard to have kids at this stage in my career, because you need to do well in each post to get the next job. Taking time out to have a baby, even if not for long chunks of time, seems a much bigger risk to me. Whereas a little extra time on the PhD wouldn’t have made that much difference in the long-run, plus in the UK at least, we get to deduct time out for maternity when calculating our length of career (necessary for various funders etc).


  8. My husband and I have both gotten a fair amount of comments about being a dual career couple with a child. For him it seems to run the gamut from “isn’t it bad for the kids to have a working mother” (adviser who was 70ish) to “doesn’t your wife get a year on the clock already, why do you spend time with your child?” [I was in labor for a long time, 2.5 days, so my husband was with me for 3 days then and stayed home for the rest of the week because, hello, I was in labor for 2.5 days. His post-doc adviser actually reprimanded for that one.] I’ve actually received more direct support for this decision, from getting hired while extremely pregnant to getting a year on the clock. Also, people don’t mention/ask about the kid unless they are also parents (this is rare). Oh, and two older female colleagues have said, when seeing me at 8am, “oh, I remember the days I was always in this early, back when my kids were young.”

    When your advisee tells you they are pregnant, the correct response is neither “I will support your decision to have an abortion” nor “do you plan on coming back to the program.” Maybe, with the first one, there was a misapprehension of the nature of the relationship between the adviser and the advisee, in the second case…

    My male cohort is replicating much of what the older generation (in my field) did. They have stay at home wives. Often very educated stay at home wives who gave up their careers to follow their husbands. (And it is often the case that the woman’s career was as least as promising as her partner’s. ) This is not universal, but common across people I casually know in their 30s. I would even go so far as to say that my male cohort can *imagine* being a parent in a way that my female cohort (lesbians included!) simply cannot. The burden seems like it will fall more on their shoulders, they know that it will affect their career more, and it is something they discuss in terms of “maybe one day, I can’t think about it right now.”

    We did a casual list of the models we have, in the top programs, for succeeding as a parent on the tenure clock. Male models: assistant professors who co-parent with partners who also have careers, rare but out there; assistant professors whose partners stays at home or adjuncts we stopped at about 10 names; tenured professors who had the kids after tenure and now seem to co-parent, fairly common; tenured professors who had kids after tenure with a stay at home partner, fairly common; childless tenured professors, largely gay (this may be a bias in our method because this was made by me and two queer friends with kids)

    Female models? This was tricky. When we sat down and did this we realized how little we know about their family lives compared to the male scholars. We could only really assess our own grad and undergraduate programs. BUT, in that frame assistant professors who co-parent with working spouses, not uncommon especially women who had the kids before the PhD; assistant professors vocally without kids until tenure or never, we counted 5 close friends; assistant professors with stay at home spouses, we didn’t know of any; tenured professors with stay at home spouses, we knew two; tenured professors without kids, it seems to be almost everyone else. There is also one well-known professor–the kind who skips around the Ivies–who has had a really public battle with infertility.

    Conclusion: this still feels like uncharted territory. Conclusion: department culture varies a lot. Conclusion: academic women are brave and awesome We finished with a really long discussion about queer men and queer women, which I don’t have the energy to type out but which would also help balance out the heteronormativity of everything I wrote.

    And then there is the department chair of an Ivy with a great program who told the entire incoming class of 10+ that the women shouldn’t have kids during the degree but that it was different for men.


  9. That was long! Also a question: has anyone else encountered the assumption that you should wait until tenure because reproductive technology is so reliable these days?


  10. I just want to say thank you to Historiann for this post and the awesome support. And to all the commenters for their stories and their camaraderie around this subject.


  11. I’m a PhD student who’s gotten seriously disgusted with academia — not because my uterus is demanding more baby clothes, sleepless nights, and childcare expenses, but because my department is massively dysfunctional and incapable of working together and I’m tired of watching professors allegedly “collaborate” by arguing over whose research/course structure perspective is most valuable for the project. THAT is what I’m supposed to be aspiring for?!? If it’s the boobs that are causing me to be frustrated by incompetence and time-wasting, HOORAY FOR MY BOOBS.

    Frankly, the moment I fully realized the current grad school plan might be as bad as I thought was when my daughter brought a worksheet about careers home from school. They had to profile their mother or another female relative, describing their job, what they did, where they worked, and what they liked best about it. For the last question, daughter wrote: “She does not like it very much at all.” Time to ditch academia!


  12. Maureen–agreed. My point is that universities do nothing & implicitly rely on (mostly female) office staff to suck up the extra work from a colleague who’s out on maternity leave, and they do exactly nothing for faculty to find and pay for replacement labor. That’s left up to the individual faculty member herself.

    I have given guest lectures & looked after the classes of my ONE colleague who’s actually had a baby while on the tenure track in my department and who took the 6 weeks of leave. But the fact is that “let the girls figure it out” is a crappy system, and if a university isn’t going to give faculty women a semester or quarter free of teaching responsibilities, it should have a plan in place to pay for substitute labor.

    (This goes for all kinds of family and personal emergencies too, BTW, not just childbirth. As I’ve written here before–we’re all encased in decaying, imperfect human bodies that will eventually break down and fail.)


  13. I haven’t been on a date in a year, and I haven’t been in a relationship since I started grad school in 2007. Brava to all of you with the brass ovaries to go for what you want, I wish I had your courage.


  14. When I was in grad school (late ’80s/early ’90s), an eminent female professor in my department (one of the founding mothers of women’s studies) encouraged female grad students to go ahead and have babies while in grad school, since the juggling wasn’t going to get any easier. Several of my classmates took her advice. It’s hard to judge the longterm effect on their careers since the job market has been so bad for so long, but, all in all, I haven’t seen any evidence of harm. Many of the women I know who waited until after the Ph.D. (or after tenure) did encounter age-related problems with getting and staying pregnant.


  15. I have a friend who got engaged while in grad school — to an older partner who already had a well-established career. She was so paranoid about the politics of her department and the kinds of remarks and assumptions she’d already heard her professors make that she told no one until after dissertation fellowships were awarded; she was afraid they’d think getting married meant she wasn’t serious about her work.

    This is an ostensibly liberal, feminist department with a lot of powerful female faculty. But the belief that marriage is (for women) all-consuming apparently runs deep.


  16. I was in graduate school in the late 70s and a large part of the 80s and some people did have kids. Yes it meant they were sometimes not taken seriously and treated unfairly. But they did it. Then in the later 80s we hired a lot and I was constantly interviewing people; it amazed me to discover that most women candidates not only had kids but volunteered this information.


  17. …Anyway I think it’s practical to have kids sooner not later if you want. Or, hit ground running, get a bunch o’ stuff out by 4th year review, send off your copyedited book just after that, and have them.

    And, I notice that a lot of the younger men have stay at home wives — it’s the new trend, yes.

    And, I am fascinated at the idea about how it is WOMEN who shock everyone if they decide to leave academia. Who are betraying it if they find it isn’t a good enough life for them or if they can merely imagine more.

    This explains a lot for me since I am in academia out of shame and guilt. When I was going to leave, not because I didn’t like my research field and so on or teaching but because I found something else I wanted to do more, I was told:

    – don’t leave because we will define leaving for you as failing, not being able to hack it (threatening, shaming)
    – you were allowed to have a PhD in this field and now you owe it to the world to contribute all you can to said field (guilt trip)
    – you were allowed to have a PhD, which was already too much, and it is selfish to want even more than that (guilt trip)
    – don’t leave us, because we still love you, and we will try to improve the relationship if you just hang on (silencing guilt trip)
    – “your new career idea isn’t as good a person and may not be as good a lover as I, academia, am” (condescending, silencing)
    – you cannot live without us, you are not competent to survive on your own, you need us (disabling…)

    Verily, it is terribly easy to translate all the things I was told into the kinds of things men say to try to talk you out of leaving them. I wish I had thought of this before!

    …and a lot more things which, if you rephrase them slightly, really are


  18. Historiann, I’m confused. Granted, I only got two weeks of maternity leave at UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) because it’s a state institution and thus not subject to FMLA. And I’m clinical track, not tenure-track, so my only responsibilities were teaching ones, not service. But my department took care of finding an adjunct to teach my classes while I was on leave, and paid them for their work. Is that not standard practice for handling maternity leave?

    For what it’s worth, UIC also offers paternity leave; my (tenured) partner had a semester of leave, in effect, although it wasn’t quite that simple. He teaches 1:2, so I think he had the choice of a semester completely free of teaching, or one teaching half-time; i.e., it was essentially a course release, rather than an actual semester off. And he was still expected to come in for the occasional meeting. But still, it seemed relatively civilized, and was certainly a tremendous help to our family, given that I had to be back in two weeks (plus one week of sick leave, that I chose to take to finish recovering from my c-section). I don’t think he had to find his own replacement for the class he didn’t teach, either — the department just paid for an adjunct.


  19. @Mary Anne Mohanraj

    FMLA does cover state institutions:

    “The law also covers all public agencies (state and local governments) and local education agencies (schools, whether public or private). These employers do not need to meet the “50 employee” test. Title II of FMLA covers most federal employees, who are subject to regulations( issued by the Office of Personnel Management.” From the Department of Labor website:

    I was not covered by FMLA because I had not worked at the school for an entire year. (And the week I was out, a librarian taught classes how to use the library one day and a colleague the next.)


  20. Mary Anne: In liberal arts colleges, I’ve never heard of temps being hired to cover one’s classes while on leave. Some may do this, but everyone I know (at my uni and at others across the country) had to make their own arrangements with department chairs, deans, and colleagues. All of these arrangements relied on the kindness of colleagues as it was volunteer labor, and that’s exactly the problem.

    A friend of mine teaches at a Cal campus, and she got one quarter of leave time for each of her children. That’s the best deal I’ve heard of in the U.S.

    And FMLA only guarantees that you can’t be fired if you take UNPAID leave, so it’s not a great solution for most people.


  21. Wow, Historiann! When I had to miss some teaching time on my one maternity leave (other kid was born in May so mat leave was over summer), the university hired a full-time replacement for my three months of mat leave. It wasn’t the greatest situation since I didn’t want to time-shift my mat leave to a conventional term so my replacement started mid-term in fall and left mid-term in winter. But I still had three months of mat leave and I didn’t have to burden my colleagues even a little bit! Now the standard mat leave is six months. I love Canada!

    That said, if you’re in a university where child-bearing is seen as counter-productive or non-serious, you’re in trouble, especially if you’re a woman. I know some women who’ve been counselled not to take the extra year to their tenure application that they can use if they’ve had mat leave because their U will simply expect another year’s worth of productivity. *headdesk*


  22. I took FMLA at a state institution and got paid for the time because I had accumulated sick leave. When they were figuring this out, they said that if the sick leave didn’t cover it they’d work on finding a way to make disability coverage kick in. That didn’t turn out to be necessary so I don’t know if/how it would have actually worked.

    Classes, they did find adjunct money to cover a couple of them. The others just weren’t given that term, which meant students had fewer choices of courses, but these classes were at a level that is never totally full, so it just meant that some others that usually have a few spaces left in them, filled.


  23. Like Z I was in grad school in the late 1970s and most of the 1980s. I was at a major state university. I had two children before finishing my PhD, and while that probably contributed to me taking a long time to finish, it was less important as a delaying factor than my research, which took me out of the US for two years. A good friend who was a grad student with me in the same history department and same sub-field had a daughter the same year my son was born. Another female friend, also a grad student in the same department and sub-field, had a total of four children, at least two of them born when she was in grad school. Off the top of my head, I can think of two other women in the department (other sub-fields) who also had children in the early 1980s while still in school. All four of my friends have tenured jobs; I was an adjunct for a long time and am now a very productive independent scholar. So, from my perspective, female grad students who were in their twenties and early thirties were having children, being taken seriously, and getting jobs twenty and thirty years ago (my daughter just turned 30 last month). I have to say, I did not recognize the situation as described in this post!


  24. @wini: “My male cohort is replicating much of what the older generation (in my field) did. They have stay at home wives. Often very educated stay at home wives who gave up their careers to follow their husbands. (And it is often the case that the woman’s career was as least as promising as her partner’s. ) This is not universal, but common across people I casually know in their 30s. I would even go so far as to say that my male cohort can *imagine* being a parent in a way that my female cohort (lesbians included!) simply cannot.”

    This! x1000!


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s