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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Data Points
November 4, 2010 - 9:10pm

I remember a cartoon from my graduate school days that showed a cockroach-looking creature looking over the shoulder of what looked like a scientist working busily at a desk. The caption of the cartoon said “an Exogenous variable watches an economist at work.” I was shown that cartoon about the same time I came to the conclusion that there was really nothing in the world that is exogenous, or determined by predetermined forces. I realized that everything seems to be related to everything else, except for, perhaps, the day one was born, and even that is dependent on things which are not exactly exogenous in themselves. Everything else, it seems, from what you do for a living to where you live, is dependent on other aspects of your life, and all interacts to result in the life one leads. I thought of this cartoon recently when I was approached by a fellow mother who is writing a dissertation and looking for “data points” for her research. I have never thought of myself as a data point, but this presented an opportunity to become one, to have my life experience entered into the academic fray as someone studied issues central to the life I find myself living.

This graduate student, Laurie Petty, is working on a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Kansas. As part of her dissertation, she is assembling a survey from college professors who are also parents. She wants to study the culture of the academic world and how it relates to decisions about parenting, and is particularly looking for information from people who have become parents, through birth or adoption, in the last four years. I had to laugh at that last requirement, which I do not meet, since I still consider myself to be quite a rookie parent, and had never before thought of myself as someone who is experienced in this area. Surely my daughter would not classify me as an expert in parenting!

She sent me the link to her survey, and I want to pass it along to anyone who is interested. It can be found here. I looked through it, and it seems to ask many of the questions that address the issues we all face, from parental leave to whether one can occasionally bring children on campus. It is, of course, approved by the “human subjects” board of her graduate school. She plans on contacting a subset of the respondents for more in-depth interviews, on her way to putting the Ph.D. in “Mama, Ph.D.” Indeed, she shared a story with me about a recent experience that sounded oh, so familiar.

During a recent conversation with a colleague about sample design and statistical software, I found myself breaking off mid-sentence saying, ‘No, no! Don't put the gluestick in your eye! Use it on the paper only.’ In addition to talking with my colleague, I was also supervising the artistic endeavors of my children, ages almost two and almost four. The competing demands of family and academic life pull at me every day.

I don’t know all the details of her work, but I think that it is very interesting that academics who are parents are going to be the study of a project in sociology. This is our chance to speak for ourselves and have our own perspectives entered into the academic discussion. I wanted to pass this information along, in case anyone is interested in becoming a data point. This is an opportunity to, like the “variable” in the cartoon, watch important research about us unfold.


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