2001: A Work-Life Space Odyssey

December 17, 2001

In the constant effort to balance our lives as faculty members and as family members, we sometimes assume that balance means separation: Keeping our work lives from impinging too far on our home lives, and vice versa.

I would like to offer another way to look at this: My work life and my family life have been so interconnected throughout my years as a professor that I have found myself drawing lessons from one and applying them to the other with both surprising success and a good share of attendant comic relief. From my own 2001 work-life space odyssey, then, I offer some observations and possible strategies for the successful administration of a family and a faculty.

I've come to some of these conclusions from a major study I worked on at the University of Arizona this year called "The Millennium Project" in which we analyzed the work-life climate for faculty members at all 15 colleges of our public research university. Using both quantitative and qualitative data, the "Millennium Project Report" found that female and minority professors face a particularly challenging or hostile campus climate. Change begins at an individual level, and one has to be able to laugh, even in the midst of a crisis, in order to flourish. Hearing the voices of the hundreds of faculty members interviewed for the Millennium Project and comparing their stories to my own experience, I came to recognize a number of areas of "common ground" between family and work spaces, with certain shared rules for daily negotiations.

Handling toddler tantrums or cantankerous colleagues: Don't give in and don't give up. Over the years, I have periodically observed workplace behavior that has astonished me with its rudimentary "me-first" emotionalism -- colleagues, to name just one example, who protest everything from innovative programs to new hires out of fear that they might sink in the university pecking order. Having weathered toddler tantrums with four children, I have concluded that some of the same principles can be applied to faculty feuding. For example, don't reward tantrums or negative behavior with attention. Instead, offer constructive alternatives, and reinforce positive behavior -- such as offers to share toys or resources of time or materials -- with affirmation at every possible opportunity.

Mediating "sibling" rivalry: Every voice needs to be heard. The squabbling over finite resources and the jostling for positions of power that occupy the energies of every department head resemble nothing so much as sibling quarrels. In both cases, every family or faculty member needs to feel that their voices have been heard, and their positions given serious consideration. Whether considering middle children in a large family or female and minority professors in a large university, no group must be allowed to flourish through inattention to other groups, particularly if the "minority groups" are less visible. Often the sense of a fair audience can help resolve the conflict, even if resources are limited.

Mentoring adolescents or junior professors: Remember that each of us went through that stage once. A little respect goes a long way with both groups, as does the full acknowledgment of the individuality of each voice. Even if the anxieties that preoccupy an adolescent or an assistant professor may not seem substantial to an unsympathetic older sibling or a full professor, it is important to recognize that such anxieties can legitimately define a large part of the daily experience of that individual. In either case, unfamiliar rules of social behavior may seem to govern the hallways, whether of a new middle school or a new university position.

Negotiating with family partners or campus administrators: Insist upon mutual respect, give credit where it is due, and stay calm. Change can be accomplished most effectively in a setting of mutually beneficial partnership. If you expect confrontation and enter the negotiation process with hostility, conflict will result every time. But if you approach the negotiation with optimistic resolve, change often can be accomplished and realistic goals achieved.

Whether it's your family or your tenured colleagues, you can't fire them, so fire them up. Older siblings may be dominating younger ones, or deans or department heads may not be treating their faculty equitably. Because we must work with what we have, it is advisable to create strategic incentives for good behavior. Praise and public recognition work surprisingly well in both cases, and equitable treatment of faculty members by administrators can be encouraged by a balanced system of strict accountability and reasonable rewards.

So far I've been applying some parenting tips I've found helpful to the workplace but I'd also like to offer some lessons I've learned that apply equally well at work and at home.

If it ain't broke ... In other words, if it's already working, get out of the way. Just as we need to avoid any temptation to micromanage challenges at work, so also we need to practice a hands-off approach in certain family situations, even if the conclusions being arrived at are not ones that we would have come up with on our own. So look the other way when your self-dressed toddler heads off to school in a particularly creative combination of clothing and hold your tongue when a colleague vents a familiar pet peeve, unchallenged, at the first department meeting of every year.

Not everything that's broken can be fixed: Don't ever promise to fix more problems than you can handle. Both at home and at work, dashed expectations can be more challenging to deal with than naming the problem honestly: No, that balloon dinosaur cannot be repaired after its close encounter with a paper clip, and no, those summer travel funds cannot be traded in for a laptop after they have been partially spent. There is always next time.

Admit your mistakes: This is always hard, but nonetheless necessary. Good university leadership includes the acknowledgment of failures, and likewise, parenting can actually be more effective when other family members understand that mistakes can be admitted, as well as forgiven, at all levels.

Recognize your limitations and your strengths: We all have them, although positions of authority, whether as parents or as faculty members, can alternately inflate or deflate our sense of our own capabilities. When I'm halfway through grading an enormous batch of undergraduate papers, for instance, if I find myself getting annoyed at seeing the same mistakes over and over, I recognize that it's time to switch my grading locale in order to give the second half of the batch the benefit of a fresh perspective. Similarly, if I find myself losing my patience with yet another toddler or adolescent heels-dug-in-the-sand attitude, I would be better off building a metaphoric castle with all that sand than digging in my own heels. Knowing our limitations helps us to draw on our strengths.

As a university or family administrator, is your goal simply to achieve "peace and quiet," or to enable your faculty or family to develop to full potential as a diverse community of individuals with different voices? Harmony arises not from the imposition of a single vision or perspective, but from a concatenation of collaborative acts. As those of us who are parents know only too well, superficial peace and quiet will not last. The challenge is to enable all members of one's faculty or family to participate equitably in the vision of the whole.

Naomi J. Miller, an associate professor of English and women's studies at the University of Arizona, was co-chair of the University of Arizona Millennium Project, aiming to improve the work-life climate for all faculty members at the university. She recently edited a collection of essays, "Maternal Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modern Period" (Ashgate, 2000).