Saturday, December 4, 2010

Volunteer, shmolunteer

My point is not to say stop giving your time. Rather, it is a call to have us all recognize what that means. Which is a lot.

StraightMan forwarded me a link to this piece in the NYT, "Frazzled Moms Push Back Against Volunteering," with the comment: "Hm, dads holding down the fort with their 8.5 hours/week," which referred to the number of hours of child care that American men on average perform. (The number of hours for American women on average is twice that.)

He also added: "But it is also true that it's important to keep a tight rein on volunteering."

I definitely know some moms seriously overloaded with their volunteer commitments to their children's school and / or other related organizations. (You know who you are: You have no business reading this blog right now. You have something else that you really ought to be doing.)

The piece struck me because school volunteer work has been, and still is, unpaid and unacknowledged work that primarily women perform. In the past, it would have been performed by stay-at-home mothers, and it probably still is primarily SAHMs, but I have to say that some of the women I know who are busiest with their volunteer commitments also are full-time working mothers.

Or as StraightMan said to me, paraphrasing a bit of wisdom from his own dad, a former minister, about who you can trust to get something done: "Find the busiest person you know, and ask her."

I am not one of those women. At least not when it comes to school volunteer work. I do what I can: I go to PTO meetings at the elementary school, and I organize the monthly snack calendar and the Facebook page for the nursery school. I wish I could spend time visiting the kids' classrooms and so on. I think not only might it benefit my kids' experience, but I think I might enjoy it.

However. To call what all of these women contribute to schools and other organizations "volunteer" work is rather misleading. I might add: Trivializing. The work that all of these women donate is necessary to the basic functions and operations of the institutions themselves. Or as the NYT itself reports:

As local and state economies continue to struggle, budget cuts to rich and poor school systems are increasing the reliance on unpaid parent help. The need is so great that some school districts, like a couple of specialty schools in Prince William County, Va., have made it mandatory to commit to a small amount of volunteer time, and others are considering it. In San Jose, Calif., one elementary school district has been discussing a proposal that the families of its 13,000 students commit to 30 hours of volunteer work during the year.

Many parents are happy to volunteer uncoerced, and most everyone recognizes the worthiness of the cause. But the heightened need and expectations are coming at a time when many parents have less and less time to give.

"Parents"?! Ahem. Nowhere in this piece (which was 3 pages long on the Web) were men and fathers mentioned. Except to complain that their wives were never home (i.e., saddling them with "baby sitting" while they organized another school event...) - including the cautionary tale of the woman who did so much that her husband eventually left her.

For the record, the president of the PTO at my daughter's school is a dad. StraightMan serves with two other dads on the board of our son's nursery school. These guys ought not to be the exceptions.

My other response to the piece: I serve "voluntarily" on four committees on campus and in a national professional organization. (That is in addition to all that is entailed in teaching four classes and developing a scholarly career, without which, BTW, my teaching would be worthless...) I will not say all of the committee work, but I will say a lot of it is necessary to the basic functions and operations of the college itself.

A critical difference between school volunteer work and so-called professional service is that the latter becomes rewarded: With tenure. I hope.

It seems to me also that there is all kinds of gendered committee work that happens at colleges and universities. The untenured men can simmer down: I hear and see you. I know that you, like me, feel pressured to take on "volunteer" commitments. I will have to save that topic for when I have tenure...

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