Faculty Bratitude

A professor's daughter who is now an academic wonders: Do I want my child to follow in my footsteps?

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

December 02, 2013

As a new mother, I accepted a part-time assignment to teach a few composition courses at Iowa State University. The job seemed a godsend, allowing me to spend time with my newborn and keep a foot in academe. Sure, the classes are eight-week "composition boot camps" with intensive periods of grading, but the students are better for the experience and I am on the campus for only 12 hours a week. That slim time commitment means I don't want to miss class.

So what did I do when the angelic woman who usually bounces and soothes my 5-month-old boy was unexpectedly sick and unavailable for the day? The scrounging began. With no relatives in the area, I turned to Facebook and put out the call.

In the meantime, I wondered if, against all logic, I could just bring him to class with me.

Smiling, I imagined him lying on a blanket in my office, perfecting his rolling abilities on the floor. Perhaps he would bat at the Kleenex box on my desk while students marched in and out with questions about their portfolios.Inevitably, my course evaluations would highlight the extreme cuteness of his dimpled chin and his cheek-pinchability. I imagined him contentedly tucked in his front-carrier, hanging off my body like fruit off a branch. In the grocery store, that setup works quite well; babbling, he turns his head from side to side to view the world, and I have my hands free. He can snuggle in and nap when the world seems exhausting, and I can continue to compare the advantages of one canned bean over another.

When I tried to imagine applying that hands-free logic to a three-hour composition course, however, the mental picture soon soured. I can barely get my students to sit quietly through lectures, let alone try to induce someone a 20th of their age to do so. Plus, my son's new habit of screaming, whether for joy or disgust, may not fit well in the rhetorical situation of the classroom.

As for office hours, sometimes they are my escape from the world of my child, lovely though he is. Adults—actual adults in the offices nearby—offer conversation unrelated to any type of liquid or solid entering or leaving his body.

All of those ruminations aside, I still needed to find child care, fast.

The idyllic image of my son and myself coexisting peacefully in the classroom popped into my head almost instantly, inspired by my own memories of growing up on a campus. Even now, I can picture the crumbling brick observatory in the Jesuit gardens, the priests feeding squirrels pieces of their lunch, and the long stretch of lawn behind Creighton University's administration building. My father taught in the political-science department at Creighton and often, on Saturdays and sick days, from age 5 or perhaps earlier, I was his unsubsidized, unhelpful TA.

Usually I sat with markers, trying to recreate the masterpieces that I'd watched artists draw and paint on a PBS program. My creations brought color to the bookshelves of political texts my mother had exiled from our home. At "Dad's office," I could sit in a department lounge and watch cable television, which we didn't have, and sometimes I got vending-machine money.

Being a "faculty brat" meant joining in on adult conversations early. It meant cookouts on warm summer evenings with the jargon of politics flowing as fast as the beer. It meant that the faculty became a familiar cast of characters throughout my childhood. At home I watched my father grade papers on his overturned chessboard, red pen in hand. The work was not glamorous, and perhaps hard on the eyes, but he never refused to set it aside so he could take me up on his lap and read comics for a few minutes instead.

I could not follow in my mother's footsteps as an accountant. Her rigorous attention to numerical detail, energy for a 60-hour work week, and knowledge of all things Excel are skills I marvel at but do not share. My husband's career is utterly disconnected from the university, and happily so. I find that he was raised more as a "hospital brat" than anything, tailing his father from hospital to hospital in the rural Midwest on summer evenings. He never grew up with his father's chalky hands leaving prints after a hug, or with a steady stream of graduate students coming over to baby-sit.

I was born late in my father's academic career. I never saw his struggle up the ladder; my childhood was relatively rooted compared with his transient early years finding an academic home. He didn't necessarily encourage his children to join the professorial ranks. In fact, he questioned me carefully on my choice. Even with that discouragement, two of my father's four children went into his profession, though neither of us in political science.

Will I encourage my son to enter academic life? Probably not. Although I would not trade my job for any other, my own experience struggling in the postgraduate academic job market necessarily gives me pause. Months as a receptionist in a job-placement firm, rather than in the classroom after graduation, made me nervous at my lack of other transferable job skills. I was thrilled to receive a position as a lecturer, but the uncertainty of waiting on a contract offer from year to year makes each summer anxious. Will we still have health insurance in the fall? Should I apply somewhere else?

Despite all of that, I have made my decision to stay in academe (at least for now). Perhaps there is a genetic determinant deep down that mingles with memory to make the pull of the professoriate difficult for a faculty brat to resist.

In the end, I did not bring my son to class. A friend stepped forward to watch him, thus saving him from the class discussion on plagiarism and MLA formatting. But is there a place for a baby at the university? Idealistically I have associated the university setting with many things: new ideas; bright young minds; a haven for research. Not until this quandary had I made the connection to family.

On my best days in the classroom I feel a link to my childhood self: playful, questioning, a sponge of new materials. On my worst days in the classroom I experience all of the rawness of new parenthood. I doubt myself, worry, and become distracted. Whether I like it or not, the university is an environment where diametric parts meet in all of their chaotic joy. Perhaps my students need a squalling wake-up call once in a while, as much as I need a safe, babyless haven. We didn't find out this time, but who knows what will happen the next time the baby-sitter gets sick.

Rachel McKenny is an instructor in the English and speech departments at Iowa State University.