Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Good (Academic) Wife

The Good (Academic) Wife

The pseudonymous Julia Goode offers an interesting column in the Chronicle this week discusses academic summer schedules. As with many of the Chronicle's offerings, it has its downside. (Note to self: try not to do what you are about to criticise when submitting the audition "First Person" column ... ) The author seems to imply that her problem is one more limited to legal scholars than to all of us, especially those whose families don't have a tradition of academic employment.

So I try to explain that even though I'm not teaching, I am still "working" and that I need to do research and write an article during the summer. That obligation never sounds substantive enough for a nonacademic to understand that I might not be available for weekly park outings on Thursday mornings.

Other moms seem surprised and dismayed to learn that even though I'm not teaching this summer, my children are signed up for camp five days a week. So I fill my answers with more disclaimers about how my schedule is very flexible and how we're always available for an afternoon here or there. Then I rob Monday night to pay for Monday's trip to the zoo with a playmate and her mom. Or more accurately, I rob January, nearly killing myself trying to finish my article for submission March 1, to pay for the June that I will spend with my kids in the park.

Lady, you're not alone. Really. It's not just a mom thing, either. Granted, this particular professor is perhaps feeling the pressure more than many of us do, since she has a couple of small children and a tenure-track job wherer she is expected to produce a substantial article a year. My hunch is, though, that most academics, especially those whose partners are not academics, have to cope with the same problems. It's true even during the academic year, I think. There seems to be a perception that we only work when we are teaching classes, and maybe grading papers. In my house, it was only after my spouse found out that lots of my colleagues work 10-12 hours a day (I can think of one who puts in more, but he's head of the Faculty Senate Council and Professional Development Coordinator) that he stopped thinking that I was just hopeless at time management. I'm not good at it, but teaching at least one new prep a quarter in writing-intensive classes takes a bit of time to do even reasonably well.

For those of us who have been employed as contingent faculty, I think that it actually gets a bit stickier. For those who find summer jobs (something I thought would go away after I finished college), there is little necessity to justify to others how the summer is spent. For those who are fortunate enough to have the financial wherewithal to "take the summer off," though, it often comes at the same price that the author of the Chronicle piece pays. At our house, for example, summer is a time for projects. Gardens must be tended, yards weeded, decks cleaned and re-finished, interiors painted, and there's a general expectation that the house will be cleaner than it is "when I'm working." The problem is, of course that all of these things take time away from catching up on reading, writing new lectures, prepping new classes, and getting book reviews and articles researched and written. And, of course, landing a tenure-track job is less likely unless those things get done!

All that whingeing aside, I do sometimes wonder how much of this we bring upon ourselves and how much it might have to do with the expectations society still holds of women. Goode says:
Admittedly, summer outings and my pathological need for social acceptance among peer mothers aren't the only suspects in the case of my missing time. Because my husband has clients and other lawyers demanding his attention at specific times and intervals, most interruptions in the schedule fall on me. Whenever our children are too sick to go to school, whenever they have dentist appointments or whenever the heater breaks, I'm the person who stays home to handle the unexpected. Carpet cleaning, furniture delivery, car maintenance, school holidays -- those 8 a.m to 5 p.m. intrusions fall to me.

Individually, the division of labor makes sense. If someone has to take the dog to the vet, my husband's absence will be noticed at his law firm. My absence will not make the piles of unread law-review articles even raise an eyebrow. But in the aggregate, the individual diversions can take a huge bite out of my course prep and research time.

What she says makes sense, but does that have to do more with having a flexible schedule or with her work being perceived as less important? Or indeed, with her own perception of her work as being less important in the grander scheme of her family life? I don't mean that I think Goode is not entirely dedicated to her career -- far from it. I do wonder, though, if women are more likely to make those flexibility compromises than are men. One of the things I like about being a full-time (if contingent) faculty person is that I have an office, and I'm expected to be on campus and available for most of the week. I commute an hour each way to get there -- so I can't just run home to wait for a repairman and go back to the office. I can justify a certain lack of flexibility and get more work done. Before, either when working or in grad school, I'd always been the person who took care of such things, as well as the vet, school appointments and kid things when there was a kid at home. And like Goode says, it makes sense. Sort of.

Why sort of? Because I think part of the problem is that when we are willing to be that flexible, we run the risk of robbing Peter, but paying Paul with exorbitant late fees. Scholarship is actual work. It may not be as tangible as other work, but the more I think about that, I wonder how tangible any white collar work is. Does a programmer have to justify his time at work by saying, "I wrote x number of lines of code today?" When we treat is as something that can be shifted around and put off, we run the risk of devaluing it in our own eyes and thus in the eyes of others. Looking at my male colleagues, I don't see that happening nearly as much. There seems to be much more of an innate sense that whatever they do, their time is worth something. Not worth more, mind you, but of value.

For those who are reading this, thinking that I've not proven the male-female point well at all, I agree. It's just something I'm wondering about. It could also be something to do with how non-academic society sees academics -- or maybe how that translates for people from non-academic backgrounds make a transition to a life of teaching and scholarship. With nothing to compare to, and with no one in the immediate family to understand that in many ways, academe really is another world (although no more so than medicine, law, internet start-ups or restaurants) with different expectations, it's easy to understand a willingness to allow one's work to be undervalued. I knew a couple of guys who dropped out of grad school because of that. So, it could be neither, or both, or some of each ... what do you think?


bitchphd said...

I totally think it's a gender thing. When I was writing my diss and Mr. B. was working f-t, I was totally the "drop everything" person. Now that I'm employed and he's not, I still struggle with having the "right" to GO TO WORK and leave stuff to him in the morning--and he struggles a bit, too, with not "letting" me dawdle by fixing breakfast for pseudonymous kid, etc. Problems he didn't have when he worked. It was a major breakthrough a few months ago when I finally realized that I shouldn't have my study shoved into a corner of the guest bedroom, and I really had to keep checking with him to make sure that was okay (to his credit, he was very firm that yes, as a professor, I should have a dedicated work space at home).

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I think it's a gender thing too. Long Distance Husband is one of the least hung up on traditional gender roles men that I've ever met, and completely supports my work. And yet...somehow we fall into the most amazingly traditional gender roles in terms of the household. The kitchen has somehow become "mine" (even though one of the deals when we first moved in together was that he would cook...but I'm such a picky eater that it ended up easier for me to cook most of the time) and he's reluctant to do much in it because he's afraid he'll "mess things up." Somehow I end up (most of the time) being the one who takes the car for the oil change, scheduling vet visits, etc.

I think for us partly this is the result of our past long distance experiences - living on my own, I had to do everything, and once we were back together, I think he didn't want to look like he was walking in and controlling everything, and I was in ther habit of doing stuff. But it's also fairly traditional, so what do we do with that?

I did have a similar reaction to yours, reading Goode's column, though - why should she have to be more flexible all the time? She sounded like she herself was devaluing her own work, at least to me (though, like you, I do think she's completely dedicated to the work).

Mel said...

I was really irritated by this article -- as much as I wanted to be sympathetic to her -- finding myself struggling, especially in the summer, to balance the demands of house/family and my own work. But her repeated insistence that she feels she has to be super-mom because of what other moms think seems to undercut the larger issue about gender inequalities that surface even in highly educated/professional couples. But I don't have kids so I suppose I can't really speak to some of the issues in the piece. (or I can but no one will listen)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Yeah -- I think it is perhaps tougher for those academics who have kids. It's a lot harder to fight the stigma of being a "bad" mommy than it is the "selfish" wife. My family are starting to get used to the fact that, if I visit over Spring Break, I will arrive with tons of grading in hand and need a fast internet connection. Thank goodness I can submit grades online! Still, as the 'non-working' person this summer, my spouse assumes that I'll keep up with all the housework, pets, refinish the deck, garden, mow my share of the lawns and his ... he knows I have tons of work, but it's not like it's an eight-hour a day job, after all! Sometimes I want a TT/tenured position purely in order to have a permanent office elsewhere and to be able to get research grants that take me out of town to work (or to skive off from the household duties?)!

~profgrrrrl~ said...

Re: tangible work...

When I was a 9-to-5er I did a lot of written work, but never counted pages or words or anything. I might say "I finished this project." but mostly I would just count the time put in, conscious if any was overtime. My feeling was that as a corporate soul the important thing was logging my hours (first) and getting things done (second). As a professor it seems to be getting things done (first and second and third) and who cares about how many hours are logged because it just has to be done, dammit.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I hadn't thought of that, but it's a great point. I expect that's why many of my most successful colleagues are those who are very able to break down projects into individual tasks. There's a certain tangibility to that that helps. I think. I'm not very good at that yet -- great at admin and class stuff, because there are deadlines. Getting reviews, etc., done is harder, because if you're contingent faculty, there's no serious reward, except knowing that you're acting like a 'real professor.' Buggrit.