Your Kids Can Help You Be a Better Professor

I may not get tenure, writes Erin L. Thompson, but becoming a mother has been the best thing that has ever happened in my life as an academic.

March 23, 2017
 
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Mixing parenthood with professorship is tough. I have plotted escape routes in case my morning sickness got the better of me during field trips, submitted final grades from the neonatal intensive care unit and turned down speaking invitations because my husband quite reasonably said no to yet another stretch alone with two kids under two. My decision to have children as an assistant professor means that my productivity will probably be lower than that of my male and childless colleagues, and that my chances for tenure are smaller.

We, as a profession, need to fight the motherhood penalty. But I am surprised by how often articles about parenting while being an academic focus solely on its downsides. How many essays about children torpedoing careers must a graduate student read before she decides to put off having a family until after tenure -- if that ever happens?

In fact, I am glad that I overcame my misgivings, because becoming a mother has been the best thing that has ever happened in my life as an academic. Parenthood has improved my research, teaching -- and even my service contributions.

Sure, I can no longer spend endless hours in the library or hop on the train to an archive in another city on a whim. I even had to move all my books from home into my office, since too many games of hide-and-seek ended up with me “hiding” by a bookshelf, checking a reference. But it turns out that those glory days of grad school library marathons were not actually all that efficient. When I cut out coffee and Facebook breaks, I end up fitting in almost as much productive writing time as before, even if I’m racing to finish a paragraph before day care closes.

More important, parenthood has changed the focus of my research. Spending months on an article about the chemical composition of the glaze on some ancient Greek vases no longer seems worth the effort. Instead, my worries about the type of world my children will grow up in have pushed me to broader, more timely questions. Now I work on issues like the destruction of art during wartime or how to balance the preservation of culture with the protection of human victims of conflict. At first, I felt presumptuous taking part in these debates. But unsurprisingly, many more people care about the future of culture than ancient pottery techniques. I now have many more career opportunities and reach vastly broader audiences.

Watching my children learn has also had a huge impact on my teaching. I used to be skeptical of scaffolding assignments or requiring drafts. Why not just give students a clear and comprehensive set of directions? After all, writing a visual analysis of an artwork seemed simple enough. I held firm to that way of teaching until my oldest child began to learn how to stack blocks. I certainly didn’t hand him a sheet of instructions on block tower construction and then mark him as a good or bad stacker based on his first effort. Instead, he watched me stack blocks hundreds of time and undertook an endless-seeming series of attempts that were pretty far off the mark (or at least I thought so, as I fished blocks out of the toilet).

I no longer expect my students to master a new form of writing without help. Instead, before their final assignments, we do visual analysis together, over and over again. I ask them to write a few sentences at a time during in-class exercises and then work up to more. And -- the most fun -- we knock over the analysis written by others to see how exactly they stacked up their ideas.

Having children has also changed the way I schedule my classes. Previously, I required students to show up to field trips on weekends and thought nothing of emailing a few days in advance about an event they could attend for extra credit. But after my son arrived, I understood that securing just a few hours of extra child care can be an overwhelming task. I now give more flexible extra-credit options, like watching a documentary that students can stream online, and I arrange for them to take self-guided museum trips at times of their choosing. They can even visit museums virtually. And I am thanked by a surprisingly high percentage of students: not just fellow parents but also the many who have full-time jobs, care for elderly relatives or have other responsibilities that make it difficult to be flexible outside class hours.

As for service, besides becoming even more ruthlessly efficient than I was before -- no use meeting when an email will do! -- I also have a new secret weapon: hormones. The same hormones that ensure that I gaze lovingly at my daughter as she shrieks during 2 a.m. diaper changes, instead of pulling my pillow over my ears and ignoring her, make long meetings at work bearable. I allow some of my feelings to spill over onto our students, and suddenly I’m up for hours of discussion on redrafting financial-aid advice documents. I shifted my service commitments to student-focused tasks, and I am now a better contributor to my college than when I took whatever assignments were offered and spent meetings checking email.

Parenthood has made me a better professor. Of course, I am lucky that is true. I have many partners in raising my children: my husband, nearby family and the day care that I am lucky to be able to afford. Aside from a few early but ultimately minor scares, my children have been healthy, happy and sometimes all too eager to leave me behind for day care’s superior toys. I have academic mama friends, who provide advice about things like how to pump breast milk while at a conference (and what to do if, as once happened to me, the room provided has a large video camera unnervingly aimed at the occupant). And my university provides me with parental leave and the flexibility in scheduling that I need to have my shot at tenure.

Everyone should have similar support from their workplaces and communities. With this support, we would be reading a lot more articles about the many upsides to being Professor Mom.

Bio

Erin L. Thompson (www.artcrimeprof.com) is an assistant professor of art at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (City University of New York). She studies the damage done to humanity’s shared heritage through looting, theft and the deliberate destruction of art, and has discussed art-crime topics in The New York Times and on CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera America and the Freakonomics podcast.

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