Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Academe and Parenting

Over at IHE, there's a story glossing two new studies that suggest that academics are less likely to have kids – and to have fewer, when they do -- than professionals in other fields with similar levels of training. The comments are worth reading; stories on this topic always generate a fair bit of interest.

Admittedly, my first thought was that the comparison groups – lawyers and doctors – were misleading. They make much higher incomes than do most entry-level faculty, so it's easier to pay for daycare or to have one partner stay home. If a general practitioner is making, say, 150k, her partner can work part-time or not at all and they'll still be fine. If an assistant professor is making, say, 45k, the same isn't true, at least on the coasts. Yes, we have similar levels of graduate training, but economically we're much closer to high school teachers than we are to doctors. (In the case of adjuncts, the economics come closer to office temps.)

There's also a problem with the term 'academe.' Even if used only to refer to post-secondary education, it's still terribly broad. The demands of a position at a research-intensive university are different from the demands at a community college. Judging by what data I've seen on the percentages of women faculty at each level, it appears that community colleges (and teaching colleges generally) are more hospitable to people with children, though even here it's often a struggle.

Part of the problem, I think, is the potentially infinite demands of the job. How much time does it take, per week, to prep and grade a typical class? No, really. I suspect that an honest answer for a course you've taught before would have to be “it depends.” (New preps are very time-consuming.) If you made a point of doing the absolute minimum you could get away with, how little time could it take? Alternately, if you put your heart and soul into it, how much time could it take? And that makes negotiating family time difficult. When you're trying to negotiate childcare responsibilities with your partner, and a significant chunk of the work time you're trying to claim is 'soft' like that, it's tough.

Although I put in far more hours per week in the office as a dean than I ever did as a professor, I'm not sure if the total workload is more. It probably is, but by a much smaller margin. Most of my job can be left at work, even if the leaving sometimes doesn't happen until later than I'd like. (Of course, idiot that I am, I add blogging to my home time.) That mostly isn't true as a professor. Yes, class times are scheduled and therefore finite. Office hours are also scheduled, and generally finite. Grading is finite (even if it doesn't always feel like it), and largely cyclical. Just looking at your syllabi, you can usually tell when you'll be in 'grading jail' and when you won't. Committee work is generally much less onerous than faculty folklore would have you believe. (If you don't believe me, try administration for a little while. I dare ya.) But things like “reading in your field” and “preparing class lectures/discussions/exercises” and “writing” are potentially infinite. They're never really done. So, depending on both internal and external pressures, it can be nearly impossible to leave work at work.

That puts a real strain on homelife, especially when childcare is part of the equation. Putting off some background reading for a day is less costly than, say, skipping a class. Of course, if you do it too much, you lose effectiveness. But it can be hard to quantify that when other things – the end of the elementary school day, say, or the empty refrigerator, or the science fair, or the infant screaming at three in the morning, and four in the morning, and five in the morning – are both urgent and concrete. Children are urgent and concrete.

So if you combine tricky homelife with a nasty market with comparatively low salaries and potentially infinite demands, it's not surprising that intelligent people tend to hedge their bets.

As my regular readers know, I have kids. The moniker “Dean Dad” is supposed to reflect the two roles that take up most of my waking hours, and my efforts to do justice to both. I have very little patience with those who suggest that children are just another lifestyle choice, like kayaking or blogging. They're a choice, yes, but of a fundamentally different kind. We have ethical obligations to children that we don't have to kayaks or blogs. To suggest that childcare is worthy of no more respect than, say, a model airplane club strikes me as monstrous. If a model airplane takes up too much time, you can store it or sell it. If your daughter takes up too much of your time, you can...what, exactly? Especially on a young academic's salary?

I'm concerned that the family-unfriendliness of higher ed is becoming self-reinforcing, and is undesirable both inherently – there's no contradiction between being smart and wanting kids – and politically, as we grow ever more out-of-touch with the rest of the culture. But the usual suggestions for ameliorating it – onsite daycare, adjusted tenure clocks, 'awareness' – fall terribly short (as welcome as they would be). They're potentially helpful, as far as they go, but they don't get at the employer's market, the low salaries, or the 'soft' and undefinable contours of the work. Weirdly enough, I actually have an easier time as Dean Dad than I had as Professor Dad, since the dean's job at least has easily understood time boundaries. In some ways, it's much closer to a traditional office job, so it's more in synch with the rest of the culture.

A question for my wise and worldly academic readers who have children: how have you drawn boundaries between work time and parenting time? For those whose partners aren't academics: do they get it? If so, how?