Friday, January 14, 2011

"Myths & Mismatches" Part 6: Getting Priorities Straight

The week's theme continues today with a more posts in the "Myths & Mismatches" series, in which I respond to an e-course by Jo Van Every and Julie Clarenbach.

"Mismatch #3: Mismatch of Priorities."

As discussed in a previous post on the "Life of the Mind" and pointed out by Jo and Julie, "structurally, if not ideologically, academia still takes as its ideal employee the gentleman scholar". This means that if you have commitments to anything other than work, you're implicitly being considered an exception to the ideal. And while this is more or less obvious depending on context (and has been mitigated over the past half-century), in general academic institutions continue to be built on the assumption of this invisible ideal (which is similar to the assumption of a certain kind of student).

I think I also previously linked to a blog post about this, but the gentleman-scholar "model presumes that someone else -- let's call her a wife -- is doing all of the other work necessary for a life". This would be the person who tends to all the details of everyday living that are presumed not to trouble the solo academic, including of course domestic duties such a housekeeping and child-rearing. This stereotype is still quite real; consider the phenomenon of the "faculty wife" (written about here and here), while the "two-body problem" is encountered by partnered academics moving to new institutions. [Update: here is a new post from Jo Van Every on the same topic.]

We all have other things in our lives beyond our jobs, and these can be accommodated with varying degrees of success depending on context. The problem arises when we cannot reconcile academic life with other parts of life, because of the nature and demands of successful full-time university work.

Jo and Julie note that "a mismatch of priorities is often read as a lack of commitment -- if you really cared about this profession..." I want to point out that this problem is likely to be gendered; for example, women are the ones who take leave during a pregnancy and after children are born. Male academics are far less likely to have their tenure time-line affected by this, while women may be viewed as "less committed" to work if they choose to start a family.

I've definitely questioned my own priorities in light of the above assumptions. If I "really cared", I'd be willing to go anywhere to find the right academic job. If I cared enough, I'd take contract teaching work while applying for every tenure-track job of relevance that came up. Or I'd have had five publications by now. But I know I'd rather find a job in another "sector" when my PhD is finished, if it seems that there's no chance of getting something worthwhile at a university--which of course means I'm not "committed enough" to academic life.

I don't know--maybe that's true, but the most important thing is that I'm committed to my life.


Previous posts in this series...
Part 1: "Myths and Mismatches", Oh My!
Part 2: "Mismatches": Time, Place, and Opportunity
Part 3: Assessing Your Qualifications
Part 4: Structural Faults?
Part 5: The Myth of Academic Meritocracy

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