When I saw the university logo on the envelope, I knew what was in it.
I had heard rumors that the budget crisis might reduce the 12 visiting assistant professor’s department positions to three positions that would be offered only to new Ph.Ds. Now, I knew the rumors were true. I was without a job.
I read the letter and the kind, hand-written note added by my Chair and walked back to my computer. Over the computer, I had posted a list of applications I had sent out, one a day, since I first heard the rumors. I also had an old list of college teaching applications from the past two years, but this new list had different categories: teaching high school English, editing, and publishing.
Needing assurance, I ran my eyes over the list repeatedly. I needed to know my possibilities, that I had a plan. My back up plan was well worked out. Store my furniture, live in the trailer at the beach, and teach part-time at the local community colleges. “My family won’t starve,” I kept repeating to myself.
Nonetheless, I put my head down on the keyboard and cried. Big, heaving cries, sounds I hadn’t made since I signed my divorce papers. Since I first learned my ex-husband’s problems were still harming my daughter. Since I learned my mother had cancer. I knew this was it. Even though I had been interviewed by good programs over the last two years, I couldn’t go on looking for another college teaching job. Like getting out of a bad marriage, I had to get out of this bad career relationship. I had a family to support.
I spent two days crying intermittently: as I washed the dishes, as I let the dog out, as I folded laundry. I startled my mother, and I am sure I worried my daughter’s teachers as I came, red-eyed and shaky, to pick her up. But then I did what worked when it was time to leave a relationship: I made a list of the pros and cons. I set college teaching against independent high school teaching. What I saw made me feel better.
High school teachers have smaller classes with more student contact. They are evaluated on their teaching performances, not their publication records. They get to know their students as people, not merely as a folder, a number, a name. So, this is good, I thought. My focus on teaching would be rewarded, and my creative energy would again be my own. I could write what I wanted to write and teach students who would be more to me than one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs.
Then I thought about what an independent school environment might offer a single mother. Significantly, independent schools provide substitute teachers, making it easier to take a day off to care for a sick child, causing less disruption to a densely packed syllabus. Schools other than universities recognize and support personal and sick days. Universities expect us professors to deal with family illness on our own without disturbing anyone else. I might do better in a school system that recognizes that people sometimes need days off.
Also, my daughter would be able to get a private school education at reduced tuition, and, more importantly, would be close to where I worked. While child care centers sometimes exist on college campuses, they usually offer no financial breaks to faculty, and they don’t offer K-12 schooling. My daughter could go from kindergarten to high school on the same campus as I and get an excellent education (because I would only choose a good school). Amazing concept!
Furthermore, K-12 education is not a place where faculty members’ children are unwelcome. Children are everywhere, integrated into the life of the school. I would not receive a memo, as some colleagues did, asking me not to bring my child into the department. I could, potentially, bring my daughter to after-school events. I could bring her along with me as I worked in my office. I could (gasp) let my students see me as a mother and not have them think less of me as a professional.
It became clear to me. I could be a better teacher and mother if I left college teaching for high school teaching. I could better integrate my professional and private lives. I could be happier in a
place other than the ivory tower. After so many years in the profession, this idea stunned me, but I saw its merits.
I decided to dedicate my job search to finding a position at a private school. I contacted the Southern Teachers Agency (a placement service for teachers), sent them my materials, and set up an interview. For first time since I received that letter, I slept through the night without waking to cry.
Today, I cleaned out my university office. No more nomadic academic life for me.
I am now the Head of the English Department at an independent K-12 school. I am thrilled with my new job, but I don’t think my academic friends know what to do with me. I keep getting condolence messages such as:
“Sorry to hear . . .”
“You can always come back . . .”
“When October comes around, you’ll find the perfect job . . .”
“We’ll still see you at the MLA, right? You’ll still be interviewing?”
Some of my academic friends can’t believe that I could be happy anywhere but at a university. Right, now, I feel fairly confident that I’ll continue to like my new job just fine.
I did have one severe moment of doubt when a university called regarding a last minute tenure-track job opening. I thought, “Okay, I can get out of this new job contract. I can go on this interview. I can somehow . . .”
Then, like a junkie who realizes she is rationalizing her addiction, I stopped myself. No. Go in for another tenure-track job? At age 40? With a three-year-old and an ill mother? I won’t have time to write the book required for tenure because the research and writing are done after teaching, committee work, community work, family work, house work, yard work, and walking the dog. With no partner to share the child care and home responsibilities, I knew doing research after all this other work would be too hard on my child and on me. And what would happen if I don’t receive tenure because I don’t write that book, because I refuse to leave my child with a paid child-care provider most of the time? Because I care for my ill mother? Because I don’t have large blocks of time in which to do the research? I’ll be right back where I was a few weeks ago. Unemployed and scared. No thanks. I’ll stick with my initial plan.
I know that despite our efforts to be enlightened, we academics–male and female alike–still tend to value the work that we do along gendered lines. What has been traditionally considered male (career, research, intellectual work) is often valued over what has been viewed as female (family, teaching, and nurturing work). In many ways, teaching is the “nursery” of academia, the place that feeds the US higher education economy and raises the next generation. In contrast, research is the “den” where those who don’t have to do the work of preparing the meals and changing the diapers can have the time for important intellectual pursuits. Academia reflects the traditional family structure. We privilege the stereotypical, traditional male figure (whether actually male or female) who slams his den door to block out the noises of family, teaching, and nurturing work to get the research done.
The argument in the traditional home goes that some must nurture so that others can work. The argument is similar in academia: that some must teach so that others can publish. But I remember that this argument didn’t work for Henry David Thoreau in “Resistance to Civil Government:”
It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even to the most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.
In the context of academic life, Thoreau’s argument suggests that it is not ethical to build research careers (higher paid and valued) on the backs of others’ teaching careers (lower paid and valued). It is not ethical for the women (the majority of part-time and adjunct faculty) to teach the children while the men (the majority of the research faculty) sit in the den of intellectual achievement.
What would make our current tenure structure ethical and reduce the gendered bias in academia? We should value teaching as much as research. Create tenure track lines that are devoted to teaching and others like the ones we have now, where research is the major component in tenure decisions. Allow professors in all tenure track lines to move between a research focus and a teaching focus throughout their careers, varying their commitments along with the changes in their life cycles. A professor with children and heavy family responsibilities during one phase of her life could focus on teaching, while another, whose children have gone to school, could focus more on research. An older professor approaching retirement may choose to teach less and research more, gathering the intellectual achievement of a lifetime into important final publications.
When the nursery is valued as much as the den, then we can talk about reducing gender bias in academia.
Until then, teaching at a high school is a good alternative for a single mother who puts the highest priority on her child. Smaller classes. Students who are more then a number or a name. Lower teaching load. An interesting and challenging faculty. A chance to make a department a place I want to work in. My daughter and me being able to go to the same school. Acceptance of me as a mother and a professional. New challenges. New goals. New dreams.
I’ll be just fine outside the ivory tower.
This is the last Mothering in the Ivory Tower column.