by Claire Bischoff
A few weeks back, I was checking e-mail at the library of the seminary at which I did my masters degree (probably dressed in jeans and a sweater, looking much like I did eleven years earlier when I was a student there). I was there because the WiFi always works (unlike the coffee shop by my house), I knew it would be quiet (unlike my home “office,” where I can hear my kids wrestling and arguing even with my head phones on), and the tables are big enough that you can spread your books out around you (unlike the other coffee shop by my house where the WiFi does work).
Before jumping in to write the conference paper that was on the docket for this particular chunk of work time, I came across an article by Robert Zaretsky, Honors College faculty at the University of Houston, which was entitled “Unburdened by an Office.” Zaretsky begins from the position that “there have been few greater markers of professional power and authority in the academy” than the size of one’s office, and he goes on to narrate the academic rite of passage that is taping cartoons, photos, and treasured quotations to one’s office door, an act he see “as symbolic as Neil Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon.” But having been asked recently by his dean to share an office, Zaretsky is led to wonder whether offices still hold the same importance and whether academics actually might find some freedom in giving up their offices.
At the risk of sounding like an irrational and emotional woman, something female academics are accused of with alarming frequency, I wanted to throw my computer on the floor and stomp on it. And not just because the author paired his ponderings with a Dorothea Lange Depression-era photograph of a homeless man, tastelessly equating his plight of sharing an office with actual economic destitution. Reading this post brought up feelings of frustration, built up over the past five years of combining part-time academic work with part-time stay-at-home parenting, frustrations I had no idea cut as deep as they did. Frustration with never feeling like I quite measured up, either as an academic or as a parent. Frustration with having so much of my mental energy dispersed by the daily demands of feeding, clothing, and otherwise meeting the needs of my sons that there is little energy left for the creative, sustained, and integrative work of scholarship. Frustration with having such a hard time with the seemingly simple task of even finding a place to work.
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argues that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I think the same must be argued about female academics, and this goes double for those who are mothering young children at the same time. It is fine for those who have tenure to wax poetically about the freedom that can come from giving up an office. But what about those on the margins in the academy? What about the pre- tenure faculty who are scrambling to publish their two books and seven articles so that they can be assured of a job? What about the adjuncts, like me, who have no room of their own in which to continue carving out a career as we wait for a more permanent position to open up? It behooves us to ask what basic material and social conditions make academic achievement a realistic possibility for mother scholars and for others on the margins in the academic world. A room of one’s own is a good place to start.
by Claire Bischoff
My husband and I made a plan: aim for having our third child sometime during the spring semester, a time during which I had no adjunct teaching opportunities on the calendar. Then I got an e-mail from the department chair at a small university a half-mile from our house. Having received positive feedback from the two introductory theology courses I had taught there, the chair of the theology department invited me to teach an upper level course… the following spring, when I was supposed to be on self-assigned maternity leave. Internally, I hemmed and hawed. But eventually I said yes because the good of doing right by this particular department chair outweighed the bad of pushing the maternity timeline back three months. Did I mention that this lovely, social justice-oriented women’s university is just a half mile from my house? I need them to like me.
So then my husband and I made a new plan: aim for having our third child sometime during the summer, another three month span in which I was not scheduled to teach anywhere. Then I got an e-mail from the Dean at a seminary at which I teach online. Having received positive feedback about my teaching online, he wanted to lock me in to come to campus the following June to teach an intensive course in person, when I was supposed to be hugely pregnant or at the hospital giving birth. Again, I hemmed and hawed.
And this is when it hit me: There is no maternity leave for adjuncts. If I kept saying yes every time I was asked to teach, I would never find time to have a third child. But as an adjunct, saying no to a teaching opportunity is a scary endeavor, as you are often only as good to an institution as the class you are teaching that semester. If I say no to a teaching opportunity, there are countless other under-employed holders of PhDs ready to step in to take my spot. And then my CV goes to the back of the file (or in the recycling bin).
Usually, I can be heard singing the praises of adjunct work: no department meetings, no search committees, no academic advising. Working as an adjunct since completing my degree has given me time to pursue writing projects close to my heart (like this blog), and more importantly, it has made it possible for me to be home part-time with my two sons. But the flexibility of this work also means that I do not enjoy some of the benefits that come with full-time and more permanent employment. Fortunately for me, we get wonderful health care through my husband’s job. But I do not think I can count on his company to support my maternity leave.
In the end, I sent an e-mail to the seminary dean, telling him that I hoped to be gloriously pregnant at the time when he wanted me to come to campus to teach the intensive. I told him that I valued my relationship with the institution and asked if there was any other way that I could help meet their teaching needs. Then I panicked and sent him another e-mail apologizing for my lack of professionalism. Fortunately for me, this dean responded that he hoped that the seminary was the sort of family-friendly place where professionalism was marked not by ignoring the parental status of employees but rather by honest conversations about how to meet the needs of the seminary while also respecting the scheduling constraints of faculty, adjunct or otherwise. The dean and I together worked out an alternative plan in which I could meet the seminary’s teaching needs in my area in the coming school year without having to get on a plane nine months pregnant.
I am fortunate to be associated with an institution that aims to develop long-term relationships with their adjunct faculty and that was willing to grant me the “maternity leave” that I had been striving to carve out for myself. But not all part-time and at-will employees are so lucky.