There is a theory in Labor Economics that proposes that for some workers, the supply curve describing the number of hours of labor offered at different wage rates might actually bend backwards, leading to lower amounts of labor offered at higher wages. The theory is that at higher wages, some workers might use their extra income to “purchase” more leisure, thus actually offering less labor at very high wages. With the full realization that academic wages in my corner of the world are certainly not “very high”, I often think of this as a good explanation for why some of us choose academia over more high-pressured jobs in industry or government. Only for us, “leisure” should be defined very broadly, and include the ability to teach young people in a nurturing environment and pursue research interests of our own choosing rather than those assigned to us by superiors.
I found myself thinking of this concept recently when a woman who works at Ursuline ran into difficulties with people from the town in which she grew up. She comes from a working-class town whose name is immediately recognizable to serious students of the American Labor movement, a town where people are born, live and die, all within its several zip codes. The fact that she lives several states away is scandal to many who have found their own life vocations exactly where they were expected to find them; "home". Despite recent economic growth in her town, she was always aware and proud of the blue-color roots on her family tree, although she encountered great resistance as she excelled in school and chose a distant world-class university as the place to pursue her studies. When she decided to go to graduate school and earn a Ph.D., she was met by serious resistance by relatives, who did not understand her desire to spend her days studying, rather than doing something they felt was “real.” Despite looking for a position near where she grew up, she found her tenure-track job far from there, and soon married and did all the adult things usually associated with “settling down,” nowhere near where anyone would expect her to land. She is a good example of the type of student that has been the topic of discussion recently by my fellow bloggers on “Gradhacker.”
A Full Professor and sometimes Department Chair (by virtue of the “hot potato” quality of the role of department chair here at Ursuline, where the position is passed among the full-time faculty members), she was recently criticized by some of the friends of her parents. They felt that she should spend more time visiting her parents, who live hundreds of miles away from her. Although she does visit several times a year, these “friends” proposed that “she can take some vacation days and visit- why doesn’t she just do that?” Indeed, one was a relatively young woman from her hometown, who has a father who is a retired Ph.D. in Chemistry. After a career in industry, is now teaching a college class two days a week. For her, the schedule her father keeps is the model of what an academic life must be like. When I told the story to my husband, he pointed out that it is likely her father was probably not infinitely available to his own family, never mind his family of origin, during his years in industry.
These people from her home town took her mother out to lunch, a lunch that quickly turned into what might best be called an “intervention”. Although her parents are basically proud of the life their daughter lives, these friends tried to tell her mother that she needs to stand up to her daughter more directly and insist that she spend more time “home” (despite the fact that she is a mother herself and plays an important role as “mom’s taxi” and chief homework tutor, not to mention financially parenting and assuming typical “mom” duties of cooking, laundry, etc.) They also pointed out that she only teaches one class over the summer, and should therefore spend the rest of the summer “home.” They seemed to be unable to distinguish between the professional role played by a fifty-something Professor and the role of college student played by people in late adolescence. News of this criticism was devastating, and more than momentarily made her question her own career track. Would the world really be that worse off if she had not written the handful of academic papers on what most concede are boring topics, and had instead stayed in her home town to take care of her parents?
And so I ask my readers, especially those from first generation college graduate backgrounds. How do you speak to those outside of academia about your life as a scholar, and is there any way to help them learn to respect the decision to live this life?