Parenting and Professing
Sharon D. Downey, Professor and Chair
Department of Communication Studies
California State University, Long Beach

(Interview by Kristen Hoerl; Downey writes in first person)

I was never good at taking advice–solicited or unsolicited–so I am very apprehensive about giving it (I’m actually better at match-making than advice-dispensing). Still, as a decade-long chair of a large Communication Studies department, I do understand what life is like as a professor who is also a parent, and a department chair who works with parent-professors and parent-graduate students. And perhaps, contrary to popular belief, life is pretty darn good in both combat zones.

I was asked to address work-related challenges and expectations that confront graduate students and new faculty who simultaneously have family obligations. Aside from the fact that I am composing these comments while preparing a class lecture and doing laundry, I found this assignment surprisingly difficult because my department and university have been so successful at accommodating employees’ personal and professional roles that I had a hard time identifying what is challenging about what is already naturalized in our work environment. So, before writing about what a department and faculty expect from you, I want to tell you first what you ought to be able to expect of your department and faculty: that your obligations/lives outside of work merit attention, careful consideration, and continual adjustment. In this day and age in academia, faculty, department chairs, or university administrators who maintain rigid lines of demarcation between the professional and the personal are at minimum creating unnecessary tensions and more likely are misguided and out of touch.

Please let me explain, using my department as an example. The Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Long Beach (“Speech at ‘the Beach’”) is home to 65 teachers: 21 tenured or tenure-track faculty (half of which have been hired in the last 5 years); 22 Teaching Associates; and 22 full-time or part-time lecturers. Importantly, our group’s parental and familial responsibilities are just as assorted. My department sports grandparents, old parents, new parents, odd parents, not-yet parents, child-free colleagues, pet lovers galore, and a host of faculty caring for immediate and extended family members. Currently we have a baby boom in our department, most notably among Assistant Professors, and full- and part-time lecturers. My point here is that, in our diversity, we are an extraordinarily normal academic unit; and this justifies and demands sensitivity to individuals’ needs. In addition, my university, like most, is in the midst of a technological revolution that is dramatically altering the way faculty have to approach their teaching, research, advising, and service commitments. Take your pick: e-mail exchanges, on-line instruction, hybrid classes, classroom and faculty office shortages, budget constraints, parking problems, long commutes, greater numbers of working students, working parents, and dual career couples, research and conference access via technology, evening and weekend classes, and heightened needs for “concentrated time” for scholarship, instructional preparation, and computer training. All of these transformations in university life dispel the notion that there is any longer such a thing as a standard work day or work week. Our jobs might more accurately be 24/7. Although this sounds burdensome, it is in fact a huge advantage for faculty, especially working parents. My point here is that academia provides us with virtually unsurpassed options and flexibility compared to other professions. Taken together, these realities should allow you to expect to be able to balance parenting and professing roles without undue discomfort. So, academic departments to which you now (or in the near future will) owe your allegiance probably are already accommodating you; if they aren’t, they need to start pronto.

Now let me respond to questions I said I would try to answer.

1. What expectations do faculty members have about graduate students’ time commitments? And to what extent do faculty members take graduate students’ family commitments into consideration?

My first reaction to these questions is to say that faculty are people too, are all former graduate students, and most likely are faced with their own family obligations, so they naturally are sensitive to graduate students’ time demands. Then I remembered that there are indeed unreasonable faculty among us. But, then again, these unreasonable faculty are wrong by virtue of their unreasonableness. You ought to be able to work around them. Having said that, faculty and department chairs are accustomed to graduate students’ financial hardships, and thus often yield to students’ second jobs. We’re a bit less accustomed to mediating students’ family schedules, mainly because deadlines and meeting schedules are designed to fit our own time demands, or are “standing times” like all classes and certain committees. But that doesn’t mean we’re intractable; it does mean, however, that we need to know your time constraints and what, for you, is non-negotiable. It may not be politically correct to connect the personal and the professional, but it is effective and advisable for mutual goal attainment. We may not always be accommodating, but I can guarantee that we will try and often good solutions present themselves. For example, I never schedule parents to teach classes at 8:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m. because this is when the kids’ schools start and end. In my department, all graduate students are also on two day teaching schedules. In addition, since class schedules are prepared a year early (the university bureaucracy in action), it’s relatively easy to assign working parents to classes well in advance in order to minimize problems with family routines. Our job as faculty members is to help students meet their academic and professional goals, regardless of personal or family circumstances. And, while it may not seem so at times, we really do care that you have the support you need to succeed.

2. What kinds of time commitments should students expect during the course of their graduate education?

There’s no doubt about this one if you’re a TA: You will spend inordinate amounts of time in the first year preparing for and learning the content, skills, and art of teaching. (If you’re a research assistant only, then this won’t be an issue for you, unless you’re working for one of those unreasonable faculty mentioned above). You can’t help but make instruction your first and sometimes overriding priority for a lot of reasons: because your ego is at stake every day you walk into your class; because your students expect it and their expectations count; because you probably haven’t taught much before becoming a graduate student, so all is new–content, structure and method; and because you likely intuitively know that if you really want to know something, then teach it–and you’re in school to learn. So, don’t stress overly much if you find that your teaching responsibilities are taking up the majority of your time. This is perfectly normal, and you’ll soon settle into a manageable balance between teaching and your own graduate studies and research for the next couple of years–that is, until you start working on your dissertation. Then all bets are off. Your best bet is to stay at your university until you complete your doctoral degree. With this option, you can plan on spending an agonizing year being highly focused and narrow-minded (maybe even boring), but then you’ll be done! That’s the reward. If you leave the university ABD, especially if you accept a full-time teaching position, just realize that it will take you about 5 semesters to complete your dissertation. That’s the average, and the delay is understandable–your time gets divided and your concentration fragmented. So, in my experience, good graduate students emphasize teaching, their own studies, and then their scholarship in that evolutionary order.

3. How do the expectations of faculty and the department change for new faculty members? How does it relate to time management? And do those expectations change over time?

Tenure-track faculty in any department are expected to be effective teachers, productive scholars, and good university citizens. These ideals aren’t any different than they were in Aristotle’s era, and balance is the key here. But, if pressed, I suppose I would say that your academic life evolves over a period of 5 - 10 years from prioritizing your students and discipline, to emphasizing your own interests, to contributing to your university and community. Similar to graduate students, you undoubtedly will spend the first year or so mired in teaching, preparing course content and materials, and developing your talents as an instructor. Again, this is normal, in part because the university hired you to profess (and your students won’t wait for you to figure out somewhere down the line how to make their learning meaningful and interesting), and in part because hardly any new Ph.D.’s have taught upper-division or graduate classes in their areas of expertise. For example, most new rhetoric faculty have taught public speaking and argumentation in graduate school, but not rhetorical theory or criticism, and they were hired for the latter. Most universities recognize this reality, and offer new faculty reduced work loads for the first couple of years for the twin purposes of instructional development and getting one’s research program on track. The life of academia won’t be very satisfying for you unless you enjoy teaching and are willing to spend the time required to make a positive difference in your students’ education.

These same early years are the time to make your mark in the discipline as well. Your employer expects that you will develop a solid research agenda and pursue it consistently and continuously, certainly for the six years it takes to apply for tenure, and for whatever subsequent years it takes to earn promotion to Full Professor. Discovering the balance between teaching and research is the goal here, and the challenge this presents can be mighty frustrating at times. Successfully accomplishing it, however, is what makes you stand out. In general, your service to the university and community increases gradually. It take a while to get acclimated to the university environment, and even longer to learn the policies, procedures, and structure of governance in the department or college. The usual pattern is for a faculty member to begin to embrace a more “university perspective” at two points: after earning tenure, and then again after earning a full professorship. These passages seem to be accompanied by a shift in a faculty member’s orientation from concern for self to concern for the whole. Where you once relied on others for guidance, others now turn to you–it’s not dissimilar to a role transformation from child to parent. You’re likely to participate in important decision-making committees in the department and across campus, engage in significant interactions with or service for the surrounding community, and/or work more collaboratively with students on research projects. This seems to signal “maintenance” time for faculty, and it’s a nice place to be.

4. What challenges do faculty confront trying to raise children and work on academic careers?

What I really want to say here is that the challenges of academia are no different than those arising for parents in any profession. But, in truth, I think our jobs are easier to manage time-wise because faculty tend to be an autonomous lot who need a lot of “alone” time to write, research, read, grade, and think. Such solitude is an intrinsic component of academia (even though some department chairs and administrators tend to forget this at times), and is what allows us considerable latitude to create our own work schedules around other obligations. This bodes well for us working parents because we can write, research, read, grade, and think just as well (and often better) in our home offices as we can at school, and at night, early morning, and on weekends as well as during the administrative work week. I was never adept at time management until I became a parent; then my priorities became clear instantly, and I quickly learned how to get things done (not always to my satisfaction, but who’s perfect). There are consequences to this alleged freedom, though: you’re constantly on the move, and this can be tiring; you develop multi-tasking competencies but tend to be absent-minded; it’s too easy to get distracted when you’re working at home (but this is preferable to fretting while at school); you end up with too many immediate deadlines that never seem to end; and downtime is nothing but an illusion. Perhaps the biggest downside for working parents, at least in my experience, is the loss of “concentrated time” to grade that stack of papers in one or two settings, or to have a couple of uninterrupted days to polish off that convention paper submission. But, if all you lose is a few hours of sleep after the kids are in bed, then I would consider that a fair trade-off.

I was asked if there is any “best” time to plan a family. Remember the adage that there is no good or bad time to have a child? This is true; life finds a way. If you are so organized that you can plan pregnancies or deliveries, then you certainly don’t need my advice. Still, in the ideal academic world, babies would always be born early in the summer, during the Christmas break, or at minimum between semesters.

5. Do you have any recommendations for graduate student or new faculty?

Yes, I do, and ironically they relate to things we teach in communication anyway. I think new faculty (and for sure graduate students) assume that the best way to assimilate into a department is to keep quiet and eventually how the system operates will come clear. I suppose that’s OK under certain circumstances, but not when the absence of information potentially compromises your family’s well-being. If you’re the kind who tells your students, “if you know what you want, and can ask for what you want, you’ll probably get what you want,” then you need to practice what you preach. So, my recommendations are two-fold: request information and disclose your needs (well, as they pertain to child and family obligations).

When candidates are applying for faculty positions, they always ask the right formal questions: how many classes do I have to teach? What service commitments do I need to make? How many publications do I need for tenure and promotion? What kinds of benefits can I expect? These are great questions, but you also need to ask the more informal, or less procedural questions: What degree of autonomy will I have over my work time? How much influence do I have in scheduling my classes or what and when I teach? How many hours or days am I expected to be on campus or in the department? To what degree does the department and university take into consideration a faculty member’s child or family responsibilities? In addition, make sure you meet with the department chair to make your time constraints known, and don’t presume you’re being pushy or inappropriate. Department chairs, by and large, are good mediators. They’re paid (paltry sums) to problem-solve, but good chairs figure out how to make it work for the benefit of the university, the faculty member, and the faculty member’s family, as long as they have sufficient information. So, more communication is better communication here.

© 2003 Sharon Downey

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