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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: More on parenting and pedagogy
October 6, 2008 - 8:52pm

It's great to be part of this Mama, PhD community, where faculty with children can share their stories, weigh in on important issues, and generally feel a little less alone in the neverending negotiations that all parents who work outside the home perform. Today I'm struck by Tedra Osell's comments on parenting and pedagogy in her Monday Career Coach column. She identifies a number of the ways that being a parent has changed her pedagogy, such as being sympathetic to parents in her classes, trying to nip disruptive or inappropriate behavior in the bud, and heading off problems before they start. These are all great examples of how being a parent can really improve your pedagogy, making you a more sensitive and responsive teacher.

But I have to confess, I did not see myself in Tedra's comments. I'm that professor who says -- to her spouse, her colleagues, and sometimes even her students -- "I'm not my students' mother!" I don't call them when they miss class. I keep my door open during office hours, and close it for the student with a problem s/he wants to discuss privately, but I don't seek my students out and invite them in except under the rarest of circumstances. While I see the wisdom of Tedra's approach, it's not mine -- and, I think, it's because I'm a parent that I don't do what she does. To be blunt, I don't feel that I have the time or the energy to parent other people's children when I have two of my own.

Of course, we're teaching in very different circumstances. Few if any of my students are likely to be parents, as I teach in a private university where the vast majority of students are traditional-age. They're not getting phone calls from school nurses or distraught babysitters, for the most part, so I don't let them keep their phones on during class. They don't need to, nor do they really need my sympathy as much as they need my professionalism. I look like their mothers to them -- I'm the right demographic, after all. But I do my best not to mother them -- that job is already taken, and I have a different one.

Nonetheless, I do know that parenting has changed my pedagogy. As I've noted before, it actually changed my field of scholarship and along with it, my main teaching assignments -- I came into the profession as a Victorianist, but after two children and lots of children's books, I moved into children's literature as a specialty. But the changes go beyond that. For the last four years I've been parenting a child in high school, and I've now seen clearly how American high schools were producing my students. The students who told me that their high school teachers had insisted on MLA format "because your college professors will"? They weren't lying -- my daughter's teachers told her the same thing. Formatting, presentation, detailed rubrics and punitive grading -- all the things that I didn't quite believe were important in high school, because they hadn't been (and still weren't) to me -- they were at the top of my students' concerns, as they were my daughter's.

And then I saw how this generation of students got "connected" -- first through IM, then through texting and facebook. And I saw how they wrote all the time -- but not in their classes. My students, like my daughter, are proficient keyboardists, thoughtful (if brief) commenters on their social and political scene -- but they are rarely asked to harness those skills in formal writing assignments in classrooms, and when they are, it's back to formatting and presentation again.

So my pedagogy has adapted; I talk a lot more than I used to about the difference between formal and informal writing, between email and college essays; I assign a range of different kinds of writing assignments to get students used to shifting voice and thinking about audience. I am clearer about my expectations, I think, than I was when I began, and I try to use the communication tools that will reach them (though no, I don't "friend" them on facebook). It's been easier to sympathize with the students who don't know how to talk about a book in an English class when I've seen the tests my daughter took, focusing far more on factual data (in Beowulf?) than literary analysis. I don't "dumb it down," but I do make sure I'm clear about what we're doing.

I'm sure there are more differences as well. I'm not a perfect teacher, any more than I'm a perfect parent, but I do see the two practices informing each other. And the fact that I see it differently from Tedra doesn't mean I think she's wrong -- indeed, I think she's just right for her students and her kind of teaching. We parent differently, no doubt, as we profess differently -- but I can't separate the two any more than she can.


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