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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

On the Fringe
July 14, 2008 - 8:57pm

Looking around at my fellow adjunct professors, it bothers me how many are mothers holding PhDs. I can’t help but wonder how many of us expected to land tenure-track positions after grad school but were derailed along the way by pregnancy and child-rearing.

It is no secret that women are under-represented in tenured positions and over-represented in adjunct and lecturer slots. I have watched colleagues step down from full-time appointments, some because they were unable to cope with the demands of research along with parenting, others because they felt they had been asked to sacrifice their families for their careers and they were unwilling to do so. While fathers are increasingly faced with the same “choice,” clearly this need to choose falls disproportionally on mothers. Ask any pregnant or breastfeeding scholar – it’s tough to escape biology.

I am part of a highly educated, talented cohort of mothers on the fringes of academia.

In the 1970s, Dorothy Smith wrote about how disconnect between intellectual and family life impacted women sociologists. Women, she argued, were more anchored to the physical world than men. Male sociologists could focus on their research because they had wives at home and secretaries in the office to handle all the pesky details of day to day living. It is difficult to be fully absorbed in the world of the mind with the continual demands of the bodily traipsing through, the incessant inner dialog, I need to take the baby to the doctor, payment is due for daycare, I have to get some laundry done, what on earth are we going to eat for dinner, did anyone remember to feed the cat? Men and women approached research from different starting points, and their different standpoints affected the artifacts they produced. At the time of Smith’s writing, the outcomes of the male sociologist’s labor were privileged over women’s. Acknowledgement of these differences led to changes in methodologies for collection and analysis of social data to better reflect the standpoints of the subjects under study. Unfortunately this is often sequestered in the discipline as “feminist methods” rather than just sociological methods, but I am digressing.

If mother scholars do not have access to academic resources, what effect does that have on the outcome of their work? Not to mention the reception of their work by their colleagues. I have met many adjuncts who could not secure book contracts until a “real” professor was added as a coauthor. Some universities will not allow adjuncts to submit human research protocols for Institutional Review; a full-time faculty member must be listed as the principle investigator. There are adjuncts working without an office, sharing a computer in a centralized lab with the graduate students. A fellow mama adjunct recently complained to me that adjuncts at her university are not allowed to use the recreational facilities. Regular faculty can come any time -- they even have their own dressing room – but she can’t swim in the pool. Another colleague of mine was denied a faculty ID and because of that she can’t check out books at her library. Forget about access to internal funding and research assistants.

Universities may argue that adjuncts are neither expected nor paid to do research, yet many adjuncts are continuing to produce scholarly work. We must if we have any hope of transitioning into a full-time position in the future. While many of us are here by “choice,” the university loses when we are ghettoized. And the discipline loses when the standpoint of mother scholars is missing.


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