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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Motherhood After Tenure: furloughs and invisible work
October 15, 2009 - 8:10am

In the last couple of months, my husband and I were both “furloughed”: we were each informed by our respective employers that we had to take 5 (in his case) and 8 (in my case) unpaid days off. Of course, like many Americans, we smarted at this financial blow. But we also thought heck, it’s better than being laid off entirely, or watching our co-workers get laid off. However, there was one crucial difference in our respective furloughs: my husband (who works in the private sector) was told to take those days off. In contrast, faculty at my university have been told not to cancel classes; in effect, we will be working on our days off. Our intellectual work –like the labor of parenting—is made invisible once again.

Unlike some other campuses, faculty at the University of Wisconsin system have been told that we cannot take our furlough days on instructional days. Since we still have the same amount of service and the same scholarship requirements, this means that we are working as hard, if not harder, than ever. Our furloughs are actually pay cuts, and while I’d rather have a (hopefully) temporary pay cut than a permanent one, I think it’s a mistake to allow our labor to be made invisible.

While some of our furlough days are officially designated — the day after Thanksgiving, for example! — the rest we’ve been told to claim on days when we’re not teaching, which means the days that we spend conducting research and writing our scholarship. Aside from the fact that I teach every weekday (and we cannot designate weekend days as furlough), asking faculty to spend less time doing research puts us at a disadvantage at tenure and promotion decisions, and ultimately makes us less competitive in getting jobs elsewhere. Even if we assume that teaching comprises only 1/3 of our duties, shouldn’t we be able to take 1/3 of our unpaid furlough days as days off from teaching?

The argument has been made that the public would be outraged if universities cancelled classes when tuition has sharply increased. Probably so. But I have yet to see how absorbing cut after cut has increased the public’s appreciation of or support for public higher education.

Our silent acquiescence to endless budget cuts gives the impression that universities have lots of fat to cut, that faculty work isn’t really labor (it’s just who we are, somehow), and that we can exist just fine without public support.

As a feminist and a parent, this notion of unpaid, invisible labor makes me uneasy. No, wait, it pisses me off.

On the other side of the equation, I have now become the primary wage earner in our household and I’m in the process of turning over to my husband some of the childcare and household work, much of which has been “invisible” to him. As a mother, I still feel responsible for how my house looks, for whether thank you cards are mailed, etc. It has taken a certain amount of discipline to let some of these duties go –our daughter went to school today without her lunch, for example. But we either make our labor visible or else we’re going to have to do it all, ourselves.


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