Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The two-body problem

So, to put what I am about to say in context, let me give you a glimpse of the e-mail that StraightMan sent to me this morning:

And here’s an article that describes your life depressingly well:

Also, the AAA meetings in 2011 are in Montreal, November 16-20.

I love you! Thanks for cleaning out Bubbie’s potty this morning. All drop offs went well.

I think the above illustrates what the modern dual academic marriage is about - love, certainly. (The reference to Montreal even suggests romance?!) Obviously also communication, which indicates mutual appreciation ("Thanks for cleaning...") and shared responsibility ("All drop offs went well"). The juxtaposition of information about interests both professional (the AAA meetings) and personal (love, potty, drop offs) in an e-mail of approximately five lines suggests a need for efficiency.

Which leads me to my response to the article that indeed describes my life depressingly well: It might be just that I am coming off my Stieg Larsson bender, but I feel like Lisbeth Salander hacked into my life and fed its contents to a journalist.

For women intent on becoming both scholars and mothers, the timing of the tenure track could not be worse. The average female doctorate is awarded at 34, an age when many college-educated women are starting families. Tenure, a defining moment in a professor's career, is decided roughly seven years later, just as the parenting window is closing.

Researchers from Barnard College in New York interviewed 21 women, all striving to be supermoms at the most demanding time in their careers. Many of the women portrayed their work and family lives in irreconcilable conflict. One mother described working in "survival mode," just doing "the things that I can to not be kicked out." Another said she was no longer being invited to career-building speaking gigs. A third faced the hard truth that she was "never going to be one of those superstars."

Professors have few set hours and can largely come and go as they please. But the scholarly demands of the job -- writing papers, applying for grants, pursuing research -- are unending. Working mothers who devote day and evening hours to parenting duties end up repaying the time at night and on weekends, feeling somewhat like perpetual graduate students.

"You tend to carve out your time for research between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., when the kids are asleep," said Tracy Fitzsimmons, 43, a political scientist who is president of Shenandoah University in Virginia -- and mother of three.

"You could choose to meet the bus when your child gets off," she said, "but it means you'll pay for it at midnight that night."

A few corrections: I was 36 (not 34). The parenting window does not close at age 41 (or ever) - in fact, for some women, that is exactly when it opens. Because my kids have an early bedtime, "my" time is between 8pm and 12midnight, but during the teaching year, it still tends to be swallowed by tasks related to teaching. So, my time for research is in the summer. Which might be a reason why I tend to be a little irritated when people ask me whether or not I am teaching summer courses: Never.

It is eerie to see words that have fallen from my mouth in this article. "Survival mode" is practically a running joke between StraightMan and me. I confess that I have just enough arrogance to speak such lamentations about finally facing the fact that I will never be the kind of superstar that I really think I might have been. In fact, I think I might have blogged about this not so long ago :)

StraightMan warned me ahead of time that I would find myself in high dudgeon when I reached this bit:

Working fathers, in theory, ought to suffer the same setbacks as mothers in their quest for tenure. But research shows that parenthood has an opposite, positive effect on men's abilities "to move ahead in academic careers," said John Curtis, director of research and public policy at AAUP. Fathers bear fewer parenting burdens than mothers, and faculty fathers who do sacrifice work for parenting tend to be admired and rewarded, while the mother who makes the same choice is "seen as neglecting her job," Curtis said.

This is when the notion of the working "parent" really annoys me. Because it erases the still significant differences rooted in gender. For example, I imagine that the partners of married faculty mothers are likely also to be working. In fact, a number of female academics are married to male academics. Married faculty fathers are likely also to benefit from their careers being a priority for their wives, esp. when they are not academics or not working outside the home (or both). Plus, the wives themselves are engaged in unacknowledged effort.

The least, then, that any faculty mother or father can do is to send your spouse an e-mail to say thanks again for helping with the poop.

P.S. StraightMan, I love you, too.

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