Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Single Academic Mom in The Meeting-est Department in the World

Not really. But sometimes it seems like my department must be the most meeting-happy in all of academia. Department cultures vary on this score, I realize. "A lot of meetings" means different things to different faculty. My last position at Smallish Private University (SPU) was in a department where monthly faculty meetings were the end of it. Two meetings a month caused eyes to roll. Committee business, whenever possible, was conducted via email.

Fast forward to current department at Anonymous Big University (ABU). Meetings monthly, which is pretty standard. But wait, and weep for me won't you: day-long focused meetings three times this term to discuss changes to the curriculum and department mission, plus lunchtime special topics meetings sprinkled liberally throughout every six to eight weeks. Plus the random all day Saturday 'retreat' every semester. Specific purpose: uncertain.

I realize that I am getting a paycheck from these good people, and that they pay me for my time and effort in collaboratively working toward department and university success. There is work to do, meetings are part of that work, and I am not exempt from bureaucratic tedium any more than the next professor. (Please note that the aforementioned meetings are in addition to department and university committee service, which weighs on us all.) I am on board with the monthly meetings, the lunch meetings, the day-long meetings.

The all-day Saturday meetings stick in my craw.

It's wrong of me. I'm not a happy camper, there is no "i" in team, every time I point a finger there are four pointing back at me, fostering collaborative department culture is critical, 'best practices' suggest that creative ......... blah blah blah. Around this point, my inner uberscholar who is busy quoting from Mentor in a Manual is drowned out by the eerie noise that all of the teachers make on the Peanuts holiday specials.

See, I am a single mom. I am divided on what this means for my career. In other words I am a hypocrite. I fully expect that my status as parent will not count against me in any official way. My work is quite good. I am in a strong place, tenure-wise. I've heard the phrase "go up early" several times. I would not expect that my having children would be held against me. If I were passed over for opportunities on this basis I would be apoplectic. Yet when I hear that a meeting has been scheduled for all day on a Saturday, I immediately feel slighted. Don't they remember I'm a single mom??! It does not help that I am the only unpartnered parent in the department, as my own beloved lives in another state.

I lose more than a day's recreation on retreat Saturdays. It costs me around $40-50 to secure child care for the hours I need to be able to get to the retreat site, stay for all of the goal-setting and mission-stating, and get back home. I lose a day's leisure and the cost of my monthly phone bill. And that is if I can get childcare for all day on a Saturday. On Saturdays when there is a sporting event, festival, or concert I might as well be waiting for Godot. If I can't go I seem a bad department citizen due to circumstances not of my choosing. If I draw attention to this tangle, I seem like a bad and bitter citizen.

This is only one event of many. Regardless of purpose or type of event, they are all essentially the same. Here's the template: required event critical to (department success, executive position in professional group, chance at getting major grant, ad nauseum) comes up. Dr. O gets notice (in department mailbox, through email, in snail mail) that her attendance is highly encouraged. Said event or activity is during time when conventional childcare already purchased for a small fortune is not available. Making necessary accommodations for attendance will cost Dr. O two to three times the monetary ding felt by other non-single-parent faculty, will bring about ire from ex on 'Dr. O. is too dedicated and works too much to be good mom' with vague implications of potentially reopening custody case, or will otherwise engender strife

My options for response are limited. Usually I smile, nod and dissemble (if in person) , or else breathe deeply and wait until I can do 'office hours voice' (on phone) or compose reply that doesn't include the word "asshat" (email). I only swallow my tongue half the time these days, while choking on my gracious acceptance.

Now what? Here is where I get stuck. Now what? I don't want to be accommodated, treated differently because I am a single mom. I also don't want to have to pay more, do more, panic more than ninety percent of my tenure cohort all in the name of equal treatment. Even if it does give me fodder for meeting with the other ten percent -- the rest of the single moms -- so we can laugh until we cry about the absurdity of it all over mojitos at our conferences.

Since I won't pack my children up and send them to relatives to raise, and since I won't give up on thirteen years' and six figures' worth of education, the change isn't going to come on my end. I won't be one of those single moms who tallies up the emotional and financial costs of academia and packs it in to work in an real estate instead dammit.

Academia is going to have to change. Period.

Stop flipping me off. This isn't as unreasonable as it sounds. If my personal circumstances, common and banal as they are, prevent me from being fully competitive in my field despite my competitive performance and skill, then academia is failing at its own project. This isn't a "Shakespeare's sister" argument. I'm not the rare high-achieving woman hampered by a predominantly male field of play. Women's enrollment in college, in graduate school, is climbing -- and divorce rates are not similarly dropping. More and more highly trained mothers, who will not abdicate a beloved career or who cannot even if they want to because of student loans and other financial responsibilities, will find themselves raising children alone. More and more academic fathers, also, will find themselves as single parents -- or will find themselves shouldering a larger proportion of the parenting load as their wives' careers and incomes are necessary to the family economy. We have to dump the academic model which assumes that a professor will have a stay at home partner to manage 'mundania,' leaving our hero's energies for Higher Things.


Anonymous Professor said...

Holy shit! I complain a lot about my job, but I now realize I have no right to. Saturday retreats? I would murder someone for making me hang out with my colleagues - I already want to kill them as it is, and I see them only once or twice a week. My department has a faculty meeting maybe once a semester, if that. There just really isn't anything worth talking about, because as soon as you pose a suggestion, there's always that one prof who dissents to the suggestion.

I have a friend in the History department, she's married, has a kid, and she lives in a city that is a two hour bus ride away. Her department is forcing her to do a monday-wednesday-friday schedule because it believes that everyone (read: Assistant Professors)should have to do one of those every year. Thus, instead of just spending Mon-Wed in her shitty rented room in my city, away from her husband and child, she has to spend Sunday - Friday night (they also feel that profs should teach these MWF courses at 8 AM, apparently) in my city, which means she needs to stay over Sunday night. They couldn't give the woman a break? No, apparently not. And what is she doing? Applying for jobs elsewhere.

And why in your case doesn't someone think, "You know, maybe we should make this optional because people might not want to donate their Saturdays to Big Anonymous U?" Perhaps everyone is thinking the same thing you are, but no one is willing to stand up and say these retreats are for the birds.

Dr. O. said...

I feel for your friend! How horrid. At least I'm not commuting in! I can't imagine a 2-hour bus ride. God help her, I hope her marriage is solid. Coming out of my previous three years' experiences, the cynic in me hopes she never has to go through a custody evaluation. It would be a nightmare, what is 'determined' and 'hardworking' today could become 'neglectful' and 'selfish' when recast by an attorney tomorrow. Smart woman for going back on the market, on many levels. Sending "tenure track without commute" vibes to her wherever she is.

I teach MWF too, have last semester and this one, just asked for a MW or T/Th for next fall (would be my first 2 teaching days/week schedule in 3 semesters) and was told that the only hours for MW would get me out after 5, too late for me to race out to pick up the smalls. So, I have to keep the MWF if I can't get the T/Th, and evidently T/Th is primo and everyone wants it. But I can do a MW schedule if I teach a night class. Which, of course, I can't do.

I should say right now that I am fortunate in another way -- I really do like my colleagues. We all get along more or less, and most of us get along so well that we actually have fun, go to lunch, hang out in the hall when office hours are slow, and so on. I haven't yet wanted to kill anyone, so that puts me ahead of a large swath of the academic community.

OTOH, drives me nuts when we have meetings to talk about what we are going to talk about at the next meeting. Swear to God that is what we just did. It was a metameeting.

The Saturday things are cast as being unity-bulding. Which is nifty, because in defining them this way if you dissent, well...boy howdy that isn't very unifying now is it? And then you get the story of how it "used to be" before you got there and how these things are necessary and you just don't know the history....cue violins.....

Anonymous Professor said...

Well, I have to confess that I am sometimes apt to hyperbole, and I don't quite hate the faculty members in my department (in fact, with the exception of one or two, they are all quite nice and friendly) but I WOULD hate them if I had to spend my Saturdays unity building with them.

I do dislike, however, some of the faculty members in other departments, though.

My friend is in a bad place and probably is going to do some creative things so that she won't have to teach many fridays - guest lecturers, films that other people can show. There are ways out of this.

I like the two day a week schedule. Get it over and done with. By the time I get going with the 50 minute session, it's already over.

Sorry about your custody battle and such. I was once good friends with a sociologist in a similar position - but the story is long and complicated and wouldn't fit in the margin of this page.

But I want to second your rant about meetings to discuss having meetings to discuss things. Why can't we just discuss it now? I was on the faculty senate and this is all we did, meeting after meeting. And we would discuss what we would discuss next meeting, then forget what it was that we had discussed that we were going to discuss as discussed in the previous meeting because no one took minutes at that meeting. So we met and discussed whether we should have a meeting to discuss having a new office of secretary who takes notes. Before deciding this, we had a motion to table, which was seconded and majority said yes, then a motion to ajourn, which was seconded and passed. I kid you not. It is like Wonderland sometimes at my campus! This is why I want to kill my colleagues - most of the time, they are great to talk with - but the Oh! the Formality!

dr four eyes said...

Seriously? I don't have kids (yet), but I would flip out about Saturday "retreats". So not cool.

And you are so right: academia does need to change.

Dr. O. said...

Hey Dr. Four Eyes,

Yep. But at least my department is being good about things. All of my attempts to find child care fell through, and no one is giving me grief really (I made an honest attempt and documented efforts with my chair).

I can only imagine how bad it would have been if I was in a department that wasn't family-friendly (mine is one of the better ones!).

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Seismic Academic Mommy said...

I am interested in your situation in that I am doing dissertation revisions for the most demanding supervisor in the department. He loathes children, along with most profs in the department. I feel that ever since I had my baby girl I am treated like department garbage in that I do not have time to attend every guest lecture or stroke my supervisor's ego while babysitting his visiting book collaborators (picking them up from the hotel or airport, taking them to lunch, fetching them crap). I am seriously thinking about finishing up my dissertation (if it is ever good enough for him and he is willing to lose his lecture sub (me)) and just getting a job doing anything other than academics.