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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: More work on weaving the lattice
December 8, 2008 - 9:40pm

Several of our recent Mama, PhD blog posts have generated a lively discussion in various other corners of the blogosphere. I happened on one such discussion at 11-D, the blog of political scientist Laura McKenna. She picked up on posts by Tedra Osell and myself about career tracks, and her commenters -- always a lively bunch -- kept the conversation going for much of the rest of the week: an eternity, on the internet. As McKenna notes, there was spillover and related discussion as well at Geeky Mom, Professing Mama, and ProfGrrrl. ProfGrrrl also cites another article I’d meant to blog, Mary Ann Mason’s piece about MBA students contemplating freezing their eggs in order to extend their biological clocks to mesh with the career ones. (She thinks it’s a bad idea, you’ll be relieved to hear.) And today Tedra Osell picked up the topic one more time, calling now on Papa PhDs to start redefining academic success so that we can all enjoy more flexible career paths.

It was encouraging to see all the discussion, but one thing I saw less of than I’d hoped was evidence of a strong lattice-culture already out there. There are those who have found fulfilling work off the tenure track entirely, still using their PhD skills and knowledge but not in an academic setting. There are those who have found administrative positions within the academy, happily setting aside research and teaching, at least for the time being. This is a time-honored path in the academy, actually, and seems to have little to do with gender. Unfortunately, many if not most administrative positions require a period of time on the tenure track -- and, often, tenure -- making them unsuitable for lattice-work in the early stages of a career. There are those with combined faculty-staff positions that involve both teaching and administrative work; there’s no tenure with these positions, but the hours can be reasonable and the workload predictable. (This is something like the option Dana Campbell seems most excited about.) I’ll be more convinced that these do indeed represent a lattice, though, when I see people move back and forth between them and more traditional academic work -- a move that still seems unusual, though it may be possible.

In Geeky Mom’s post, I saw a six-point wish list for making academic life (or, really, the world) family-friendlier. It includes both personal and institutional changes, and I think it would be a good start. I’d add to that list comprehensive, universal, portable health insurance: how many people do you know who are hanging on to jobs they don’t like, or are afraid to seek out new opportunities, because they’d lose their health insurance?

The problem, in other words, is multi-faceted. There are personal, institutional, and national issues to be resolved before we can all weave ourselves lattices. Yes, we need the Papa PhDs to agitate for change (and husbands to do housework); yes, we need academic institutions to think more creatively about what academic achievement looks like, rewarding innovative teaching right alongside ground-breaking research and paying part-time workers fairly; and yes, we need government policies that support public education and that decouple employment and health care. But it’s the end of the semester and I’m tired -- can someone else start agitating for change?


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