Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Privacy and Diversity

Every so often, I'll hear some longtime employees complain that the newer cohort (of which they still consider me a part) doesn't care about the college like they did. The last time I heard this line, I asked what they meant; what made them think we didn't care? I wasn't expecting the answer I got:

"Everybody used to go out drinking together after work. Nobody does that anymore."

Well, okay. It's true that we don't now; it may be true that they did once. But what the hell does that have to do with dedication to the college?

"We used to make our entire lives revolve around the college. We worked together, played together, drank together, and gave it everything we had. Your generation doesn't do that. It doesn't care as much."


I think this is one of those "is it a rabbit or a duck?" moments. It's true that mandatory face time at the bar has gone the way of the typing pool. But I'd be hard pressed to call that a bad thing. Even leaving the whole drinking-and-driving thing out of it, there's something basically imbalanced about making your workplace your entire life. Workplaces change, they come and go, and they aren't really about individual people. All that forced togetherness can become coercive, and can force out or keep out people with different priorities. And the effect on family life can be devastating, judging by the divorce rates of the 1970's and 1980's.

That very different experience, I think, explains why I've taken a very different view of the relationship between privacy and diversity than the one I was taught in grad school.

In grad school, I was taught that the public/private distinction was a tool of patriarchal oppression, used to relegate women's concerns to the margins. I was taught that making the personal political was a necessary step towards egalitarian empowerment, and that 'problematizing' the public/private distinction pretty much wherever we saw it was the right thing to do.

And that view probably made sense in the context from which it arose. Certainly, "women's issues" (!) were often marginalized, and "privacy" covered a great many sins. And if you spend fourteen hours a day of face time at work, with coworkers at bars, and doing mandatory face time with coworkers at various events, then the private side could get pretty badly neglected. No argument there.

But there's also something to be said for being able to leave work at a reasonable hour and go home.

Part of respecting diversity is allowing people the time and space to lead different lives. Some people go home to their partners and children. Some go home just to partners. Some go home to heaven knows what. And that's okay. In fact, I'd argue that liberating people from the expectation of making their entire lives revolve around work -- getting rid of the coercive mandatory socializing at the bar, say -- is far more respectful of different life choices than "work together, play together, drink together" could possibly be.

In some ways, the public/private split actually serves real diversity quite well. When the boundaries between home and work get too fuzzy, what, exactly, does your job evaluation reflect? What do decisions get based on? How much of my life do I have to make over in somebody else's ideal image?

In my cohort (and the younger one), I see a much stronger impulse to separate work from home, and that strikes me as healthy. Let people lead their home lives as they see fit, and let them have time to do it. Work hard when at work, but live your life as you see fit when you go home. Let work decisions and evaluations reflect only what happens on the job.

In my faculty (and grad student) days, I was constantly frustrated that work was never really 'over.' I could always be reading more, or prepping, or grading, or trying to publish. That "sword of Damocles" feeling made for some pretty stressful times, since it seemed inescapable.

In administration, I spend waaayyyyy more time on campus than I ever did as faculty. But when I go home, for the most part, I go home. I don't make a habit of checking my work email at night, or of hanging out socially with coworkers. The sword of Damocles hangs in the office. I don't mind leaving it there. At home, I can be fully 'present' as a father. Call that 'patriarchal' if you want -- it's certainly paternal -- but being a 'present' father to my kids matters to me. If others choose to live their lives very differently, let them. As long as we can work together well, the rest strikes me as properly private.

It's true that we don't hang out at the bar after work the way people once did. And we're freer as a result. The public/private split gives the room for that freedom. I'm wildly dedicated to my work, and wildly dedicated to my kids, and they both take time. Carving out time for each requires keeping the two mostly separate. I'm plenty dedicated, as are my counterparts; I just reject the compulsion to neglect my family to prove it.