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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: 'Balancing Teaching and Research'
January 12, 2009 - 9:43pm

Someone just asked me to participate in a panel discussion on “balancing teaching and research” (this in the context of a series on “Managing the Challenges of the Tenure Process for Women Faculty”) and my first reaction was to say no. Not because I’m too busy (though I am), or because it’s someone else’s turn (though it might be), but because I was afraid I wouldn’t have any credibility on the subject. Like the subjects of this study, I have found the classroom more satisfying than the library, and I have the record to prove it. While I remain active in research — I regularly present at conferences, I have several active research projects going, I used to co-edit a scholarly journal and still regularly contribute to reference works — I, like many of my cohort, am starting to see my (mostly male) colleagues publishing books and achieving promotion to full professor, while I have yet to reach those milestones.

Then I realized: that’s exactly why I need to participate in the panel. It’s not easy, but at some level I am actually balancing these two areas of my work life. It’s not like a see-saw, though, with research on one end and teaching on the other; it’s more like a bicycle that I’m riding. In other words, the “thing” being balanced is me, not some object outside of me. And it’s movement that keeps me upright.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I’ve been able to reshape my research program to integrate it with my teaching. I now work almost exclusively on children’s literature, which occupies the majority of my teaching load, and I have shaped courses around my research interests for years. As far as I can tell, the courses have been successful. Although they haven’t all resulted in published articles, they have provided fodder for conference papers, columns, and informal talks. And I do continue to plug away at the more formal research as well. If that hasn’t yet resulted in a book, or promotion, it may be because my less formal research isn’t being recognized, or it may be because I’m moving too slowly. But I am moving.

I’m still not sure about balance, of course. It’s an elusive concept in so many ways -- whether the “balance” being sought is between work and family or research and teaching, equilibirum remains an elusive goal. And of the four terms, it’s research that gets the shortest shrift, at least in my experience, because it makes the quietest demands. (Obviously I’m not a scientist with experiments running.) My research does not pound on the bathroom door for attention, or send me an email asking what its grade is; it has few if any deadlines, and those are more flexible than the ones for kids’ science projects or student papers. In fact, if the annual articles about how ridiculous the MLA convention is are any indication, large percentages of the population would actually prefer that my sort of research not get done at all — if they even know it exists. (Here’s a link to a slightly less dismissive one of those articles, from several years ago, with the requisite links to the more dismissive ones.) Nonetheless I keep at it, glad to find time to download another article, read another book, start another chapter.

Now that the semester’s about to begin, of course, the research will again move to the back of the line while I finish getting the syllabi in shape, meet the first classes, and get the machinery rolling again for the day-to-day work of teaching. I’ve got a couple of research deadlines coming right up, though, so I’ll keep moving ahead, hoping that I’m going fast enough not to fall over.


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