Last week I dropped by the departmental office to pick up my mail, take care of a few errands, and attend an (optional) all-day conference on teaching and assessing critical thinking. Our office’s administrative assistant, seeing me professionally dressed at 8am on my sabbatical, commented, “Watch out, people will think you’re actually working this semester.”
I don’t know about you, but these kinds of comments drive me nuts, and I heard them before I was on sabbatical, usually during the summer when everyone seems to think teachers are “off.” To keep from ruminating on it later, I make it a practice to respond to such comments, correcting false assumptions with what I hope is good grace. “I am working this semester,” I responded to our staff member, “but it’s true that I ordinarily work in my pajamas.” I try to assert the value of my work, while also acknowledging that I am privileged to be working at home, not tied to rigid schedules and dress codes. And let me quickly assure you that I do feel lucky, lucky to have a job that’s meaningful to me, but not lucky because I’m getting paid for nothing.
Tellingly, I heard similar comments when I was on “maternity leave” (technically, sick leave) with my infant daughter. I suppose if you’ve never taken care of children, staying home with a baby sounds kind of cushy. After all, they sleep all day, don’t they? Even my husband (usually a paragon of sensitivity) once remarked on the virtues of a friend’s husband because he chipped in with their three kids “after working hard all day.” Ironically, my husband would readily admit he’d be OUT OF HIS MIND if he had to take care of two boisterous boys and an infant all day. So I wonder if his comment and others like it, point to an assumption that women are naturally good at childcare and therefore it’s easy for them, or that unpaid work isn’t really work.
I don’t bring up these examples to complain about being a mom or a professor: I love both of these roles. And in today’s economy, you can bet I’m grateful to have my job (and my house and my sanity and what’s left of my retirement). I’m mentioning these petty examples because they point to a larger issue: intellectual labor, teaching, and caring for children are devalued in our society, and the consequences are real, not just for us, but for the students and children we teach.
The University of Wisconsin system faces 120 million in budget cuts this year, yet even in good economic times, we’ve had to fight for funding. And daycare workers, who care and teach our children, are abysmally underpaid.
I’ve often thought a shadowing program or a one-week job switch would be an excellent way to foster mutual understanding. Members of the community would see that most academics work more than 40 hours a week, that we’re rarely “off the clock” and that most of us are dedicated public servants. And perhaps we would better appreciate the occasional resentment of those who work at jobs that are in no way fulfilling.