Sunday, September 13, 2009

Crabs in a barrel.

Tenured Radical has a post up about saying no to excess work in academe. It's a good post. I liked it, with the exception of the tiny little part where she writes:

If any attention is called by those who are working hardest to those who are making themselves unavailable, shrieks about academic freedom, child care, and commuting rend the land (despite the great number of people with small children, or who are in commuting relationships, who do manage to come to work.) At the risk of annoying the hard-working parents who do come to work and carry a fair load with the rest of us, I need to ask: if you have a child and I don't, and we get paid the same salary, why am I doing your work for you? I didn't have children because I wanted the time: instead, I got no child and I got no time. You get someone to help you navigate the nursing home, I'll end up with a big bottle of Klonopin mixed in a bowl of ice cream.

The implication, of course, is that it is the parents who are not pulling their weight (yes, I know she says earlier that most parents do come to work, but it is still parents who are the problem in this paragraph). This opinion is not limited to TR (who, in the comments, seems to feel less that it is parents actually not doing the work and more that she should be able to suggest, for the purpose of her argument, that it is parents not doing the work). Almost anyone, parent or not, has heard this idea in the workplace. Parents very often volunteer to take early-morning classes specifically to avoid being perceived as someone asking for special favors, though I've had colleagues who have had special arrangements made so that they could go home to care for their pet (which, by the way, is fine with me - but I think it's interesting that there is not a chorus, in these cases, of "why should I have to do your work so that you can go home to walk the dog?"). Or, as TR mentions, the commuters; I had a colleague once who lived a good hour outside of town. Had she been allowed to leave early to miss rush hour, we would have had to work later. (I was happy to do this, by the way, but she was not allowed to do so.)

In bringing in one of her reasons not to have a child, TR also trots out the old, I-made-the-choice-not-to-do-this-but-you-made-the-choice-to-do-it-so-why-should-I-have-to-accomodate-you-in-any-way? This is a common response to those of us struggling to balance parenting and working out of the home. I have been surprised at the vehemence with which people I would think would otherwise be sensitive feminists respond to this issue.

Don't be fooled. The issue is not that a few parents make a big deal out of needing to rush home to pick up little Johnny and therefore can't make a committee meeting. The issue is that, in academe, as in many other places, we are crabs in a barrel. We know, as TR has pointed out, that if one of us is working less than the others, someone else will have to work more to make up for this slacking. And so we watch carefully to see who is doing what and who is excusing what.

It isn't fair that parents get special consideration for their children's needs when others who need special consideration for a host of other needs don't get it. It's also not fair that mothers in academe are mostly adjuncts because academe isn't a place that accomodates mothers. Too bad, right? Guess we should have thought of that and elected either not to have children or found another profession. But I don't accept this response - I think we have a responsibility to change the system. Academic parents - largely mothers, I would hazard a guess - have forced the beginnings of a change in academe by at least making the problems of balancing academic work and parenting public. The literature itself has become a new field of study. People are paying attention to these issues, and while we have not necessarily made great strides - I can think of one person who has been made to give up her maternity leave entirely to chair her department and teach additional classes beyond her normal courseload - we have at least begun to take small steps.

The response to this, from some corners, is a great, wailing, "that's not fair!" And in some cases, it's not, and this should be rectified. No one should be able to use their children as an excuse to get out of work. But at the same time, hopefully, we're all here together in academe for the long haul. When my son is very young, I might ask not to teach a night class. When my son is a little older, though, I could teach a couple of night classes a semester. So why not think about rotating teaching schedules over longer periods of time, for instance? Not getting out of work - balancing the work, recognizing that people (not just parents) have different needs at different times. You write best in the early morning and have a book to finish? I can teach at 8am this year so you don't have to. And so on.

I don't really want to write about this next part, but it's happened so often that I feel the need to talk about it.

The conversation in the comments on TR's blog focused on parenting. She didn't like that. She felt the parents were "obsessing" and that this focus, when her whole post was almost entirely about something else, simply illustrated that parents insist on focusing only and always about their children.

She didn't understand the weight of what she had written about parents, which is why it became the topic of conversation. She totally missed that she had used the most pervasive negative stereotype, that stereotype that parents don't pull their own weight.

The reason I'm writing about this here is that I'm reminded of some of the huge feminist blow-ups that have happened when one person has pointed out that another person has said something offensive. You can go read the comment thread for yourself and come to your own determination. But I'm left with the sad awareness that someone whose blog I like thinks it's ok to make nasty asides about academic parents and feels that calling her out on this is selfish and blog-hoggy (I left 3 out of 46 comments) and in my case, a bully. It is also stunning to once again see that explaining why these kinds of comments are so painful for and detrimental to academic parents is often perceived as claiming parenthood as a privileged status.


Until we can learn not to scapegoat each other, whether we do so with real venom or with rhetorical flourish, for the purpose of making a larger point, we are not going to get anywhere with making any real change in our workloads - or anything else.


Anonymous said...

IRL, I never see this negativity towards working moms by coworkers without kids. I never see this, "I pick up your slack" complaint except for in feminist things online. You seem to talk about it a lot. Aren't you a women's studies professor? Do you suppose that's why you see so much contempt towards people with kids? Have you noticed by now that the idea of women having children really ruffles feathers in the feminist world?

Plain(s)feminist said...

I actually don't see this happening so blatantly IRL, either. I don't see contempt toward people with kids at my institution, at all. In fact, I can only think of one instance of it happening IRL, and that was toward a male professor at another institution (and there were other issues of male privilege at play).

However, I have heard that in other kinds of workplaces, such as an office setting, this is a huge issue.

But Danielle, do you remember that thread a couple of years ago? The childfree people who responded weren't feminists, I don't think. Within feminism, generally, I see a strong push on behalf of women with kids and on behalf of kids, themselves. I don't think this contempt is coming from feminists, as a group, though there are some feminists who share this contempt. In this case, I think the academy, itself, or the workplace more generally, is a big part of the problem.

Plain(s)feminist said...

P.S. I've said this before, but it has been in Women's Studies settings that I have felt most welcomed as a mother who works out of the home.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I remember it a teeny bit. In fact, I notice a lot of things online that are not so in real life. Maybe the internet's sense of anonymity brings out something in people that makes them talk about things they don't irl?

From what I've seen in child free people is that they very much are feminists. They are very much in favor of birth control and abortion (for obvious reasons) and many of them are fighting for women's rights to have a tubal ligation even if they've never had a child. To me, that's very feminist.

At my job, the children's museum, I think they look at me like I have more knowledge of things because I have a child. A lot of times, it's "Ask Danielle, she has a kid." And since I bring my daughter there for free all the time, insofar as I actually feel like being there on days off, I get to experience things on the "customer side" of the whole museum experience. They like that, too.

It all depends on your situation and what job you do...

Sungold said...

Hey, I read the thread at TR's place, and I really don't think you overstepped. You made your case passionately and unapologetically, but you neither bullied nor "filled up her blog." Subtracting out the quoted matter, your original comment wasn't appreciably longer than Historiann's, which was actually much tougher in tone. (I read Historiann's blog, I like her and her work, but she made a big leap in using the term "heterosexualist" to describe those who were defending the needs of families.) You also noted some of the things you liked about TR's post.

Of course, maybe I'm just taking your side because I agree with you on the substantive points 100%!

I've been lucky to have highly supportive colleagues, too. I'm in a women's studies program, and maybe that helps. As a trained historian, I've seen much more hostility in history than in WS to combining family with academia, though I don't have a whole lot of data points, so that may be a gross generalization.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Thank you.

What is a "heterosexualist," anyway? I've never heard that term before. It doesn't sound pleasant. (Rhetorical question - but I'm pretty sure that heterosexual people didn't think that one up to describe themselves.)

CrackerLilo said...

I have heard that kind of attitude quite blatantly, well outside of academia. I've never, ever taken a women's studies course, either. (Marketing major at a state school, then an interior decorating certification.) It comes out like, "Patty had to go pick up her kid *again*, so I got stuck with..." Accompanied by a martyred sigh, always about a woman. (Men who pick up their kids are usually good fathers who know what's really important!)

I'm childless, and perfectly okay with though it wasn't my choice. (I am infertile now, and miscarried three times in my twenties.) This attitude boggles me, though. I mean, right now I'm playing around on blogs while I wait for the people I need to call to get to their phones. A lot of guys (and a handful of women) in my office are devoted to fantasy football, and we all know that started up again whether we participate or not. Some people love to go to the day spa at lunch occasionally, and take their time getting back. And then, of course, we sometimes have real responsibilities like sick partners or spouses, aging parents, volunteer work, crumbling homes, etc. Don't tell me non-parents are doing everyone's work and never, ever get distracted ever.

I wish more people would remember that they were children once, and needed to be cared for by parents. I find this attitude *really* jarring when it comes from childfree/childless people who got along well with their parents.

Sorry this upset you so badly.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Thanks, CL. What upset me, really, was the playing out of that tired exchange where the person who raises objections to an offensive comment has to be a bully, because it's never possible that the comment might actually be objective. I've seen this happen numerous times online, but I think it's the first time it's happened to me. I expected better from this particular blogger.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Whoops, that should be "objectionable." Freudian slip!

Trina Smith said...

As a mother and a sociologist, I have a few responses to this. One, I would like to see an actual measure of time here. Meaning, in academia all of our work is not always done in our office. So, you may not be able to teach at a certain time or whatnot because of children, but how much time do we spend responding to emails, etc and working from home? Also, there is a gendered element to this in who is more responsible for the child care issues. But moreover, if we did look at time, per what I said earlier, I still would wonder if those who do not have children spend all that much more time "working", since our definition and place we do our work is quite fluid in academia. And I think our issue is that we get into these debates because we "see" these things, but what is the big picture? Someone needs to do a study on this. There has been one study about the motherhood penalty recently, but it's not exactly on this issue.

Anonymous said...

Tenured professor of psychology here...and I've seen this attitude more than I care to acknowledge. Worse, I see women professors who have children suddenly dismissed as no longer being good colleagues, their publications magically disappearing in the minds of their coworkers. Funny, though, new-father professors are not seem the in same way.

carrie said...

i'm a tenure-track anthropologist who's just starting a new research project on first-time moms and the return to employment (inspired by my personal, generally positive, experiences teaching at a small lib arts college where many junior faculty women are starting families--we are a force to be reckoned with!), so this is all great food for thought for me.
my most distressing conversations at work have been with senior faculty feminists (i'm tempted to use scare quotes there) who talk about the bad old days of being back to teaching three days after giving birth and then openly question whether jr. fac. women are having babies so they can pause their tenure clocks (because it's so easy to finish your book while nursing 'round the clock and re-re-re reading that dora potty-training book to your toddler). i'm more than grateful to our foremothers in academia who have paved the way for the likes of me, but there's still so much more to fix, isn't there?! i've been really inspired of late by joan williams' _unbending gender_ (2000) and her call for feminists of all stripes to find common ground on work/family issues and advocate for more humane workplace policies for caregiving (for kids, sick partners, aging parents, etc.).

Plain(s)feminist said...

Trina - absolutely. Particularly now that so much of our work is done online, being available at particular times for face-to-face meetings is less and less important.

Rachel - I feel fortunate that I haven't seen this pattern so far on the campuses where I've taught, though I have a couple of friends who had an absolutely miserable time of it (at different institutions) when they had their kids.

Carrie - thanks for the suggestion; I will check out Unbending Gender.