Flexibility for Faculty Fathers

September 6, 2011
By | 5 Comments

I’m writing this piece in the shadow of Eleanor Seitz’s excellent post in this series, So You Want to be a Grad Student Mama. I think that’s quite apt, as (in my experience) fathers operate largely in the shadows of mothers in the parenting realm. (And while grad students are often in the shadows of faculty members, like mothers they’re often there doing all the real work!)

Eleanor wrote about becoming a mother in her first year of graduate school and how that dual identity became inextricably linked. Similarly, my wife and I had the first of our three children during my first year as a faculty member, so I’ve never really known what it is to be a professor or a father without simultaneously wearing the other hat. While every job and every kid is distinct with its own particular histories, contexts, and fussy temperaments, hopefully a few of the ways that my fatherhood has tinted my career may speak to some other people’s specificities. (I should note that I write this from the extreme privilege of being a tenured faculty at a supportive institution, a privilege that many of you reading this might be working toward, but is far from guaranteed.)

One of the most important keywords as a faculty member (and parent) is flexibility. On a micro, day-to-day basis, being a full-time college professor is one of the most flexible professions there is: aside from your class schedule and regular meetings, your daily schedule is quite amenable to the demands of parenting. I can usually pick-up my kids from school, shuttle them to activities, stay home if they’re sick, or otherwise make adjustments to fit the family’s schedule. And even though I have a constantly growing to-do list, nothing on it is ever as important as taking a kid to the doctor – our daily work is generally low-stakes and highly-flexible, while parenting has much higher and more vital demands.

But at other levels, being a college professor lacks macro-flexibility, putting a number of major constraints on a family. Most notably, it often forces people to move across country for a job with comparatively lower pay than other professions with highly competitive national job markets – talk to a doctor or lawyer about what would draw them to relocate for a job for some perspective (and while money is not everything, having extra cash is a way to buy time as a parent, in the form of childcare, housekeeping, etc.). This is most challenging to a faculty spouse, who probably must work to supplement that meager pay, but also must deal with being plopped down in whatever part of the country hosts the job you land. We’ve grappled with this constant imbalance, as I worked to get a job in a part of the country close to extended family and in keeping with the lifestyle where we want to raise our kids, despite the resulting limits on my wife’s career options. And I write this as someone who knows that I’ve won the academic lottery with a great job where we want to live – for the majority of PhDs, the choices and trade-offs are far more dire and limited. But for almost every academic parent I know, choices are first motivated by what is best for their families rather than what might be best for their individual careers.

One great appeal of being a faculty member is the flexibility of how we spend our professional time, allowing us to choose what to research, what forms of publication or scholarly output we wish to pursue, how much time to focus on teaching or service, and generally the freedom to self-define the arc of our careers. But this flexibility has a sting: without clear markers of what you need to do for career stability or advancement, many of us feel like we need to do it all. Likewise, parenting without an owner’s manual often leads us to think that the right answer to choices about what to do for/with our kids is All of the Above. As both a professor and a parent, I find myself stressed by self-inflicted pressure to do more, do it perfectly, and say “yes” to new opportunities. One of the most important lessons for both parents and professors is that it’s alright to say no, and that it’s ok to fall short of perfect on some of those things we say yes to.

Another great bit of mixed-bag flexibility of this career is technologically enabled – aside from in-class teaching, most of my work can be done anywhere, needing only intermittent WiFi and power. This is quite useful when I need to stay home with a sick kid, edit an article in the car during a soccer practice, or catch-up on emails after everybody’s bedtime. And technology also makes our familial choice to be at an isolated rural locale feasible, enabling professional connections and communities via blogs like Antenna and other technological tools – I know I would have been far less happy as a professor at Middlebury a generation ago, when isolation was far more acute and professional advancement more limited by geography.

But the curse of constant connectivity is that I have trouble resisting the urge to check email while dinner’s cooking, or stop writing a blog post while I could be taking care of something on my parental or homeowner’s to-do list. Pervasive connectivity is a boon to someone with a flexible schedule, but always having one more thing to do (as both father and faculty) and a predilection toward distraction makes it a curse. (I would love to hear from others who’ve found ways to overcome this tendency.)

Another more disciplinary-specific intersection between faculty and fatherhood is that with the flexibility to aim our academic interests at self-defined projects, I’ve found that I often get inspired by my kids to explore new avenues of media studies. Watching my oldest daughter learn to use our DVR led me to write “TiVoing Childhood” for Flow, and I’m currently writing a piece about my kids’ favorite current show, Phineas and Ferb. I’ve also taught a course on Media & Childhood that stemmed in part from my own experiences as a parent watching my kids interact with media, and I even drafted my daughter and her friends to create a student video project on climate change for kids. Obviously it helps that media scholars grapple with issues and developments with clear connections to our children’s lives – my fellow faculty fathers who research PTSD or hate-speech have not found similar opportunities for synergy! – but it’s been a great boon to my academic interests to be able to see television and media through the developing eyes of my children.

One last thought, going back to issues raised in Eleanor’s post, is that parenting foregrounds issues of gender in ways that complicate many of the post-structural feminist theories I studied in graduate school. Having two girls and a boy makes me view gender as less of a discursive free-for-all than I used to think, as daily behavioral differences reinforce gender as something more biologically-grounded than I’d been taught. Yet as a faculty father, I try to articulate my identity as one in which my kids are an active and visible part of my professional life – they often come to my office and my colleagues hear it when they want to schedule meetings that are less than family friendly. Hopefully such behaviors by me and fellow faculty fathers carve out a more family-friendly workplace for all, but especially for female faculty who face many of the pervasive issues and assumptions that Eleanor outlined.

As always, stories of someone’s career or parenting are highly individual. So I hope this post prompts some conversation among academic fathers, mothers, and non-parents about flexibility, visibility, and priorities – I look forward to further discussion in the comments!


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5 Responses to “ Flexibility for Faculty Fathers ”

  1. alexj on September 6, 2011 at 11:39 AM

    Jason: Thanks for this. I’ve passed it on to a group of Moms where I work. We’re hoping to discuss these things amongst oursevles. Which does raise the gender question up front. Thanks for speaking so conscientiously about being a Professor/Dad. As you begin to conclude, you suggest that “parenting foregrounds issues of gender” (for our kids), but of course also for us parents (in hetero and homo contexts, I’d suggest). As much as our generation actually sees a new kind of feminist fathering, and parent-sharing, there are so many ways, of course distinct in each couple and family, but also probably legible across families, where gender (roles) continue to structure our parenting, and its relationship to our work. It becomes a necessary feminist project to name these, and understand them as political and institutional.

    As for your question about pervasive connectivity, I actually have made it a pretty strong habit to not do work when I am with my kids (including email). The kids end up providing the check all us humans need: to stop and focus back on the world. As my kids get older, this is harder to do, as they are often connected (and emailing, facebooking, etc) while I try to stay true to my anti-technological mantra.

    One other note, as a divorced Mom, I get something that many parents in couples do not: days off.

    • Jason Mittell on September 7, 2011 at 2:49 AM


      Thanks for the comment. In my first draft, I had more about my own gender roles as a father and how it related to my professional identity & our family’s dynamics. But I found it hard to explore without talking directly about my wife’s role & career in ways neither of us would feel comfortable laying out for a general readership. In short, it’s caused both of us a lot of anxiety to reconcile our feminist beliefs with our practices where I’m the “primary professional” and she’s sacrificed career options to focus on parenting (& living where my job took us). Perhaps someday we can find an effective way to publicly write about these issues, which I agree are hugely important and very complicated.

  2. Sarah Jedd on September 7, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    This is such a fantastic post. I really like the macro/micro flexibility discussion– a helpful way to explain the trade-offs we make. My husband is a professor at the community college level, and we both find ourselves working at home during the week to split the care of our young sons. With this amazing flexibility, though, comes an erasing of the boundary between work and home. He coaches flag football with his iPhone in hand, and I edit chapters while nursing a baby. Our offices are strewn with preschool art, and neither of us can attend a meeting, teach a class, or take a call during the witching hour. Because I study and teach about rhetorics of mothering, my students often have conversations about parenting, and I am encouraged to find that this kind of parent-sharing was what they grew up with, too, and what they seem to take for granted in their own future lives. Parenting is changing, and we are raising children on the cusp of that change. Thanks for bringing visibility to such an important topic.

  3. Eleanor Seitz on September 7, 2011 at 10:55 PM

    Dear Jason, terrific post. I am very grateful for your post because a) it continues this very important and relevant dialogue on it means to engage with our children in this profession and b) because I am happy to get the male faculty perspective on parenting in academe. You hit the nail on the head when you mention that the dual role of parent and scholar possess a “self-inflcited pressure to do more, do it perfectly, and say ‘yes’to new opportunities.” For me, this comes from a fear that if I fall short or say no, it will be attributed to my position as a parent. This over whemled (at least for me) state of constant commitment often leads me to distraction by email, writing, or reading when I am with my daughter, and this has resulted in several shocking discoveries when I emerge from the computer to find a child covered in mud or painting our wall with yogurt. But my own style of parenting is to go with it, and I think that any success I have at balancing a career and parenthood is rooted in a need not to take myself or any ideas of perfect house cleaning or scheduling too seriously. This is, of course, in addition to being lucky enough to have, at least on the micro-level, a flexible schedule. I also love that you bring up the specific nature of our role as media studies scholars with our children, because it is an intersection I consider often. My position as a TV studies scholar demands that I do a lot of research through watching TV, and I feel conflicted because my husband and I have agreed to be very careful and restrictive with our daughter’s TV consumption. This is not to say she does not watch any TV or movies, but we keep it low. Not forever, but she is young, and I want her to experience some things firsthand before she makes sense of them through TV. And of course, studying media from a cultural studies perspective has made me very sensitive to the role media play in shaping opinions and identity. I also know the pleasure that media engagement brings, and so I am ambivalent on this. I could keep writing, this is a topic close to my heart, but I will stop before I get into the gender dynamics of being the female breadwinner/career academic in a family with small children and all the personal baggage that might conjure up in this public forum. Thank you again.

  4. Jeremy on September 8, 2011 at 2:59 PM

    I’ll echo the points above, though from a grad student/post-doc dad’s perspective. The flexible schedule is a major bonus at times. Personally, it’s allowed me to spend a significant amount of time with my kids as they were infants, and to provide a lot of extra assistance to my partner, while she was on mat leave (I’ll leave the details Canada’s maternity, and paternity, leave policies vs. other countries for another post!). A lot of dads I know in other professions are certainly much more time-constrained. That said, the flexibility can eat away at the time you reserve for other commitments. Especially if you’re someone who requires lengthy periods of silence/relative peace in which to get reading or writing done. Planning to be a dad and a grad student/new prof requires just that, planning. It requires being hyper-organized/productive with your time while still being flexible to ever-changing kid schedules (i.e. sometimes 2 hour naps only last 45 minutes, who knew?). It’s something I’m still getting used to 4 years into this whole parenting thing.

    And I’ll agree with @alexj…when the kids are young enough, they’re all the check I need to stay off technology. If I try and clear emails with them around, it’s not long before they are either a) screaming or b) crawling over my computer. Neither seems to help with the emails.

    Thanks for the post.