When and How to Use the Other "F" Word

Brian Taylor

March 18, 2010

Case No. 1: You're an assistant professor, married with young children, at a small liberal-arts college. It's been a long year, and you're looking forward to the end of the semester. You have balanced the family budget just enough so that you won't need to teach in the summer and can take that long-neglected family vacation. Then your chair calls you into his office and announces that a senior colleague has unexpectedly retired: Can you cover her classes over the summer?

Case No. 2: You have been invited for an on-campus interview for a tenure-track position. At the get-acquainted dinner, the conversation focuses on elementary schools and the best place to hold an 8-year-old's birthday party. One of the committee members turns to you and asks, "So, do you have children?" In fact, you have two and are deeply interested in what you're hearing. But you wonder if too much kid talk at this stage will overshadow your attributes as a serious scholar and teacher.

The common element in both cases is one of the most nuanced and contentious in academe, that other "f" word: family. For most of us, but especially for probationary faculty members, family dynamics affect career success. Talking about those issues, however, is risky. Far beyond battles over politics and theory, family matters can incite testiness in the faculty lounge and glares at the coffee machine.

Let's begin with Case No. 2. Female faculty members are routinely advised to avoid mentioning their families in job interviews and limit such talk on the job. The rationale: A double standard exists, especially in the physical sciences. A senior male professor never worries about his scholarly reputation as he shows off pictures of his kids or grandkids; a junior female faculty member in the same department suspects, quite rightly, that lamenting her young son's sleep habits could brand her as a "mommy tracker."

The decision about mentioning family is not, however, binary (yes/no, on/off) in every situation. There are times when talking about kids or spouses (or the lack thereof) is appropriate, no matter your station or gender. And there are other times when even the department's top scholar should suppress chattering about diapers and family Scrabble marathons.

With that in mind, here are some protocols for when to bring up family matters and when to keep quiet.

Don't overplay the family card. Families are ready-made excuses to evade unwanted work or campus commitments. What academic parent isn't tempted to blow off a late-afternoon curriculum-committee meeting by saying, not necessarily in full candor, "Sorry, I have to pick up my kids from school"? But having children is not a "get out of work free" card. As a childless friend of mine once put it, perhaps too bluntly: "Is my time less valuable because I didn't breed?" Or, as another single professor dealing with two parents with Alzheimer's argued, most of us are caregivers of one kind or another these days. So yes, there will be instances when you must commit to your family over your students or colleagues, but you owe the latter a pledge to arrange your life to minimize those times. Furthermore, if people know that you rarely use family as an excuse to escape a work commitment, they will be more understanding when you do have to use that excuse.

Limit your cute-kid stories. I know of a language scholar—male and well published—who regularly updated his colleagues about his daughter's adorable antics and school achievements. E-mailed pictures and long digressions before, during, and after faculty meetings were apparently not enough for this proud papa: He dropped by people's offices to ensure no one lived in ignorance of the girl's many talents and wonders. Finally, his colleagues started avoiding him, even to collaborate on research. The price of co-authorship is too high when it involves listening to a third grader's poem of the day—every day.

Don't appear family phobic. You're not going to help your career, either, by being overly and overtly antifamily. I knew one assistant professor who loathed children, and his distaste for them brought him to the point of hate speech. In another instance, one tenure-track faculty member stated that nobody, including a teacher, should have a cellphone on during class. But, I asked, what about a family emergency? I noted that I kept my phone on vibrate and answered only if it was my wife, who knew my teaching schedule and would not call unless for a serious matter. My child-averse colleague sniffed, "Even then, you can wait until the break." All the parents in the room stiffened.

Seek out a good cultural fit. A friend who is a high-powered scholar told me about his job interview at an allegedly turbocharged department at a top research university that was heavily wooing him. As he put it, "One guy boasted about how he was neglecting a book project because he was occupied in fixing up his lake cabin's deck." Indeed, the two days of interviews revealed to him a corporate culture fixated on families, hobbies, and leisure. The department offered him a job, but he turned it down knowing that part of the meaning of "research support" is finding a research culture that matches your own character.

Overcome the culture divide ... if you can. Collegiality sometimes means putting up with topics of discussion that are not as interesting to us as they are to the speaker. Our patience, however, can be strained when we encounter ideas about work and family that are different from our own. A friend from an Asian culture that stresses a separation between work and family told me about a job interview in which he was taken to dinner by the department chair—and his wife and kids. My friend was nonplussed, especially when the tykes sought his opinion on such relevant-to-the-job topics as the children's television show Arthur and the fate of Harry Potter. To this day my friend believes he wasn't offered the job because the chair found him "child unfriendly." We both wondered at the propriety and legality of using one's kids to test out a job candidate. But he has now learned to fake interest in other people's families.

Err on the side of seeming devoted to work. You don't have to be antifamily, but at the end of the day, giving off signals that all you care about is your wood shop, your cat, and being a Boy Scout troop leader gains you less than it detracts. No need to say, "I never see my kids because I am in the lab all night and all day." But it's good to have a reputation as a hard and conscientious worker who understands that, especially during the tenure-track years, the personal must to some extent be sacrificed for the professional.

Which brings us back to the cases above. For the assistant professor looking for a summer off, it would be smarter to accept the summer teaching assignments without complaint. Helping the department out when it is in a bind is the right thing to do, and it provides a signature anecdote that the senior professors will remember when it comes time to vote on your tenure.

As for mentioning your family in a job interview, that's tricky. It's unethical for a search committee to ask if you have children. However, reporting violators to human resources is not the best way to convince an institution to hire you.

If the conversation seems to dwell too much on family issues, some honesty and redirection are called for. Briefly report on your family situation, then find a way to shift the conversation back to your teaching and research. A friend in the sciences described an especially deft job candidate who, upon being barraged with family-related questions by a clueless search-committee member, turned the situation to her benefit. She related how her children were fascinated by her research and how she had volunteered at their school to demonstrate science projects. The committee was duly impressed by her dedication to work but also her evangelization of their field.

I hope that some day soon, academic culture will evolve to the point where we won't worry that mentioning a rambunctious toddler or a sick mother will count against us at promotion and tenure time. Even then, however, balancing work and family does not mean that the scale will always be even. In these tough times, we should be grateful that we are in a profession that offers more family accommodations than most.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa.