Graduate Students, Parenthood, and the R1 Fishbowl

I just finished reading Kate Bahn’s post “When Grad School Eats Up Your Good Years” at Chronicle Vitae about the opportunity costs of being a mother and an academic. Bahn is a graduate student at the New School, and comes to the conclusion that combining motherhood and a career as an academic is simply too hard. Since she wants to have children she writes that she isn’t going to pursue an academic career. Bahn sees few role models in her field of economics and astutely notes the many institutionalized forms of discrimination that mothers experience. While I’m always glad to see younger scholars writing about motherhood and intellectual life, I came away from this essay incredibly frustrated.

As you all know, I’m all about working to name and change structures of discrimination within the academy. But Bahn’s post mostly made me angry for two reasons. First, Bahn repeats intensive mothering ideologies that it is just too hard to be a mother and do intellectual work. Decades of foundational mothering studies scholars, including Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Andrea O’Reilly, Sara Ruddick, Patricia Hill Collins, Fiona Green, Pegeen Reichert Powell, Sara Blaffer Hrdy, Elizabeth Podnieks and many many others have shown us that not only is it possible to think and mother, but that our scholarship is enhanced through our experience as mothers. Special shoutout to Elizabeth Podniek. Her edited collection Mediating Moms: Mothers in Popular Culture, to which I contributed an essay, was awarded the Outstanding Scholarship Prize (2012-2013) by the Women’s and Gender Studies Association, part of Canada’s Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Or as I call it, a fork in the eye of the idea that you can’t produce significant scholarship and have children.

Bahn’s essay highlights the importance for graduate students of not getting trapped in the feedback loop of senior professors at your R1. Faculty who came of age in a different time are not, in my opinion, the best people to talk to about the realties of the job market and choices available to faculty today.  First of all, at the at the conference I just attended I talked many women who have successfully combined motherhood and academic careers. And guess what? We have tenure and we’re on hiring committees. Second, the majority of jobs are not at elite research universities. Asking a professor who has spent their life within the peculiar strictures of an R1 for family planning advice is misguided. What I wish is that graduate students like Bahn might get out of the R1 fishbowl and talk to the majority of faculty members teaching at community colleges, regional state universities, and community colleges. We might have a different story to tell about intellectual labor and mothering.

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