Should we hire academics who are parents?

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 3, 2009

Harry’s post last week, and Kieran and Magistra’s comments on that post, reminded me of another problem with the academic labour market. In many professions, you have to be a certified, skilled and experienced person, but there is an upper-ceiling on what will be demanded and expected from you for hiring purposes. You have to be good and good enough, but you don’t have to be better than all the others. In fact, there may be no way to say who is better than the others if we compare candidates who are all above a certain threshold of competences and experience. In academia, it seems that the sky is the limit. So it is not good enough to have a PhD degree, some teaching experience, some experience in administration, some experience abroad and a handful of high-quality publications; no, you need more of this compared with your competitors on the job market. You don’t need to be just good; you need to be better than the others. So if there is someone competing for the same job, who has been able and willing to work significantly more hours than you over the last years, than all other things equal that person will have a more impressing CV and will be hired (except if this person is a really horrible character, or known to be a person who always causes trouble).

In such a job market, which in hiring people does not work on sufficiency principles but on comparative principles, anybody who has activities/responsibilities that are consuming lots of time outside academia are in an obvious sense professionally disadvantaged. Parents are one group belonging to this category, but other carers are in this category too, for example adults who provide care for other adults.

Is this morally problematic? Perhaps it is: shouldn’t parenthood and caring responsibilities be considered a normal state of affairs? (‘normal’ not in the sense that everybody has to pass through this stage, but rather that those who are in this stage should not be severely penalised for being parents or carers). Shouldn’t we design social institutions, including the labour market, in such a way that parenthood and other states of large caring responsibilities shouldn’t prevent us from also having labour market aspirations and opportunities?

On the other hand one should also try to look at this issue from the point of view of those who are childless (whether voluntarily or not). If you compare two job applications, and the nonparent has a stronger CV than the parent, then why should we hire the parent? After all, the nonparent could also have spent her time mountain climbing or watching TV; so should she now be penalized because she doesn’t have children?

So I think we’re in a dilemma. On the one hand parents should not pay too high a professional price for the fact that they are parents; on the other hand people who have chosen to devote their lives to their research should not be penalised for not being parents. It seems that the source of this little tragedy lies in the comparative principles of job allocation on the academic labour market. This is one thing that makes academia a worse labour market for parents and other carers than some other labour markets, especially for early-career people since they are the ones that need to be hired. I’m not sure I see a way out of this dilemma (if it really is a dilemma, that is).

Is this a women’s issue? In the current gender unjust world – yes, to a large degree. It is women who don’t have wives. It is women who bear and breastfeed the children and are paying the opportunity-cost-price for that. It is women who are subjected to stereotypes (including ‘unconscious’ ones) that discriminate against female professionals and that unjustifiably favour male professionals (Evidence? start with Valian). But gender egalitarianism wouldn’t solve this dilemma completely. Even in a truly genderegalitarian society, the parent-academic would not have what a nonparent-academic would have: lots and lots of time to passionately spend on their research – or be a workoholic, as some would say. There would be some redistribution of time between the two parents of the genderegalitarian household, but since they are parents they would still have much less noncare time at their disposal compared with nonparents and other noncarers. So gender structures are ‘gendering’ the dilemma and making it much worse for women than for men – but taking gender structures away would still not solve the moral tension between parents and nonparents on the academic labour market.

{ 108 comments }

1

Zamfir 02.03.09 at 9:28 am

I think the dilemmas you describe are very real, but not really specific to academia. The rest of the world also hires the best candidate available at the moment, even when all candidates are in principle good enough. And regrettably, that can mean the one least likely to be a mother.

Perhaps a difference is that academic careers have a high-competition phase early on, while other careers have their highly-competitive phase a bit later, when people are trying to get into middle management etc. But the idea “I’ll have children when I am 38, because I have to make career first” is widespread outside of academia too.

2

Tracy W 02.03.09 at 9:51 am

Also, it strikes me that the role of credit in academic work causes further problems. In many areas of life, people can delegate and achieve multiple responsibilities that way, eg my mother and her business partner hired a secretary sooner than they might have if they hadn’t had kids. But if an academic hires someone to do some of the investigation then ethics says that credit for that work should be given to the person who did the work.

3

Moz 02.03.09 at 9:52 am

Any kind of career break can be bad, but increasingly I’m finding that employers (in IT at least) accept and even respect people taking a yeah or two out to do interesting stuff with their lives. But then, my bit of IT is characterised to some extent by a fight to find and retain quality candidates as much as by winnowing the applicants to select the best from several that are good enough. This changes with the fads, of course, but there are always “in demand” skills and also employers who recognise good people and would rather train the clueful than hire the certified-but-clueless.

Academia is special mostly in that the metrics are readily accessible. In many commercial environments the metrics are know to be of low quality but that’s all anyone has. So “managed 25 people for three years” is used as a substitute for “competent, experienced manager” because how do you come up with a number for the latter… In academia at least you can say “papers in peer reviewed journal” and so on, which are pretty comparable. But managing five difficult people well beats managing 25 people poorly… metric anyone? (not to pick on managers, geek skills are just as hard to manage)

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Moz 02.03.09 at 9:53 am

I meant measure, not manage, at the end of the above.

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Barry 02.03.09 at 11:00 am

Moz, that’s nothing special (‘geek skills are just as hard to measure’). I have a cousin who is currently unemployed, as a project manager (IT, but it’d apply to any area). Does this mean that she helped get things done far better and faster than others, and more than justified her salary? Or that she was a plug-in project manager, probably worth her salary, but interchangeable with 1,000 others? Or was she a liability, and shouldn’t be touched with a 10-foot pole?

I’ve seen the same with engineers, managers, and several other fields. Once you get into fields where the technical skills are specialized, and interpersonal/organizational skills, adaptability and ‘wisdom’ matter a lot, resumes become low information.

At that point, you really want to talk with people who know the candidate, and know the work environment.

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Barry 02.03.09 at 11:06 am

Ingrid: “In many professions, you have to be a certified, skilled and experienced person, but there is an upper-ceiling on what will be demanded and expected from you for hiring purposes.”

I disagree with that – many employers are quite willing to demand a lot (esp. now!). The only limitation is on whether or not they suspect that the person is so good that, after they’ve been on the job and have sized up it and the employer, they’ll jump ship for a better one. Which I’ve heard of in academia, where jumping ship is also pretty common – a pure teaching dept (with nominal research) will worry that the candidate will keep their resume out, hoping that another year or two of research will boost them into the research university tier.

7

Sam 02.03.09 at 11:43 am

Is it true that people with children do worse on the job market? Some evidence suggests not. Men with children seem to do better and women with children do the same as single women.

Of course, this is merely an observational study, but the basic conclusion seems plausible.

8

arbitrista 02.03.09 at 12:19 pm

I think you’re making the mistake of thinking the framework of the academic marketplace as morally acceptable. It isn’t. Why should employers be permitted to place unlimited demands on time? Why should their claims always have lexical priority? How many hours are people to be expected to work, anyway?

This isn’t just true of academia, either, as other commenters have pointed out. From a certain perspective, employers view the people who work for them (or who are going to work for them) in very much the same way masters have always treated their serfs. The only difference in academia is that the job market is so scarce that university departments can indulge in that perspective more often.

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Zamfir 02.03.09 at 1:03 pm

Arbitrista, i think you partially answer your own question. The reason employers can place unlimited demands on time without being seen as extremely exploitative, is that there are enough people who are willing tobe used that way, if the good side of the job is good enough. That’s what ‘scarce job market’ is, in the end.

The trouble I guess is that in many important fields, the good side is status dependent, whether it is academia or management or IT geekery. If everyone worked 10 hours less, the ambitious crowd would still be the top of their field and thus happy, and everyone would have time for kids. But as it is, having kids makes it harder to be top of your field, unless you’re a man with an old-fashioned stay-at-home wife.

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arbitrista 02.03.09 at 1:07 pm

The point was attempting to make is that moral considerations about proper decision-making is quite irrelevant in this context. The structure of the labor market, and the relative position of those seeking employment, is grossly exploitative. Discussing ethics in this situation reminds me of discussions about the proper treatment of slaves.

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Russell Arben Fox 02.03.09 at 1:07 pm

Two points:

1) I agree with Zamfir; while there may well be some particularities with seeking a job in academia (and in particular an academic job at a relatively prestigious institution) that make it unique–such as the fact that perhaps the most intense stage of the competition for said jobs begins immediately after (in not before!) one’s training for them comes to an end–the truth is this a widespread and longstanding issue. It isn’t all that substantively different from the issue which plagued women and enlightened men during the high-pressue high point of the “organization man” world of work during the 1950s.

2) I was having a breakfast break with a few colleagues at an APSA convention a few years back, and as the conversation turned to this issue, I mentioned to Dan Drezner the schedule I’d worked out with my wife during my graduate training and the job hunt afterward, trying to come to a more egalitarian arrangement in regards to raising our four daughters. Dan asked me what I had to give up to make that work. “Ambition,” was my answer.

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Tracy W 02.03.09 at 1:19 pm

I think you’re making the mistake of thinking the framework of the academic marketplace as morally acceptable.

So arbitrista, if an academic by long hours of work makes a series of important contributions to their discipline, a level of success that they could not have achieved if they also had child-raising responsibilities, how should we regard that?

If you were studying at university with the desire to get a great education, would you prefer to learn from a professor who was making significant contributions to the cutting edge of your discipline, had time to keep up with all the relevant work, and had time to educate you, or from someone who just didn’t have time to read as many journals, or do as much research, or spend as much time giving feedback on your work? One of my friends when doing his PhD eventually managed to get feedback from his professor by a strict quid-pro-quo – “you answer one question from me and I will fix one of your computer problems”. Was this a desirable state of affairs?

Why should employers be permitted to place unlimited demands on time? Why should their claims always have lexical priority? How many hours are people to be expected to work, anyway?

Well in many areas of work, the more hours you work, the more effective you can be. For example, the longer an archeologist spends at a dig, the more ground they can uncover, or the more students they can supervise if the students are doing the grunt work. The more an archeologist knows about what their fellow archeologists are doing, the more ideas they have that they can apply to their own work and if an archeologist provides feedback, they improve the state of archeology in and of itself (for example, say an archeologist reads a paper presenting a theory that she knows is wrong because of a discovery she just made, if she takes the time to say this then ideally other archeologists spend less time pursuing wrong ideas).
A politician suffers similar problems – the more people who know about you the more votes you are likely to get – very few people vote for someone they have never heard of. And, if a politician went into politics for some particular reason, eg to prevent overfishing, the more time they spend arguing for better fishing policies, from reviewing evaluations of what works to raising the profile of good fishing policies in the media to fighting down bad proposals in budget meetings, generally the more likely the policies are to be adopted.
In medicine, evidence is that the more experience doctors, nurses, etc have with doing a specific procedure, the higher the survival rates of their patients. (see for example http://jpubhealth.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/28/4/375). But building experience takes time.

Of course people do need to sleep and eat and there is presumably a point at which increased hours at work has marginal returns to productivity in any profession. But the problems are not entirely due to nasty overly demanding employers.

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Zamfir 02.03.09 at 1:21 pm

arbitrista, at least at the highly-educated, relatively high status end of the job market where academia sits, you have the fundamental freedom to choose between the exploitative structure and giving up part of your ambitions. Perhaps the people in the system are slaves to it, but most of them choose to be so very deliberately.

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dsquared 02.03.09 at 1:21 pm

One of my friends when doing his PhD eventually managed to get feedback from his professor by a strict quid-pro-quo – “you answer one question from me and I will fix one of your computer problems”. Was this a desirable state of affairs?

I am prepared to bet a very large sum of money indeed that the problem here was not that his professor was spending too much time on child-raising and domestic labour.

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Tracy W 02.03.09 at 1:26 pm

The structure of the labor market, and the relative position of those seeking employment, is grossly exploitative. Discussing ethics in this situation reminds me of discussions about the proper treatment of slaves.

The trouble with comparing academic employment to slavery is that everything I have ever read that was written by an ex-slave indicates that the slaves wanted for the institution of slavery to be abolished and many ex-slaves actively worked towards this happening. However, academics and ex-academics are not so universally agreed that being paid to perform academic work is a bad thing. For example, I have not read a single post on this blog arguing for the abolishing of universities and all other academic institutions.
If the sufferers from those institutions still want them to continue, then they are fundamentally different from slavery, and thus while you may find it reminds you of discussions about slavery, I don’t see why you expect anyone else to feel that way.

16

Anonymous Coward 02.03.09 at 1:26 pm

I deny the premise. At least in my discipline (history), the hiring process doesn’t work in anything like the way described. Particularly at research-oriented places, hiring committees value two things. The first is “promise,” which means that an extensive publication record can be a major disadvantage, since it makes it harder to project an idealized image of future success onto the candidate; what it does privilege is ambitious, or at least buzzword-compliant research projects, regardless of what they produce. The fact that it’s almost unheard of for anyone to read a job candidate’s writing sample aggravates this problem. The second thing committees (or departments) want is “fit,” which is a classic bureaucratic monster created by grafting together the bugbears and hobbyhorses of all the most ornery people in the group. This system has a lot of flaws–e.g. it’s slowly killing the discipline–but it doesn’t seem either in principle or in practice to disadvantage parents.In case you can’t tell, I’m bitter.

17

Tracy W 02.03.09 at 1:30 pm

I am prepared to bet a very large sum of money indeed that the problem here was not that his professor was spending too much time on child-raising and domestic labour.

You’d win the bet, in a hypothetical world where I was foolish enough to make the other side. What I was doing was outlining the educational responsibilities of many academics. Most university professors are not hired merely because their employers are power-mad psychopaths who love the idea of having hordes of minions to boss around, they are actually expected to perform some tasks that most people regard as useful for a society as a whole, such as helping their PhD students.

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jonm 02.03.09 at 1:38 pm

Zamfir’s posts nail this. I’ll add that academia is relatively kind to parents in that the hours are much more flexible than in most professions, making it easier to perform the core trade-off.

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professordarkheart 02.03.09 at 1:39 pm

It seems to me that there’s an assumption underlying this whole conversation that what any academic, parent or no, ought to expect of herself is a job at a world-class research institution. Aren’t we being pretty comparative ourselves by defining success as the “best” job rather than as one that’s “just good.” Perhaps parenting ought to be seen as a “normal” state of affairs, but who says that achieving top status in one’s field ought likewise to be seen as “normal”? Isn’t it more reasonable to assume that a “normal” mother in academia should end up with a “normal” job at, say, a job at a middle-tier state university, or at a liberal-arts college where teaching excellence may outweigh publications (the former, arguably, is less a pure function of hours put in). If someone achieves “abnormal” success because she saves time by choosing not to have children, or chooses to let her spouse do the bulk of the work of child-rearing, or has superpowers and doesn’t require sleep, I see no moral problem with the result that she has preferred access to an “abnormally” desirable set of top jobs.

Arbitrista asks: How many hours are people to be expected to work, anyway? It seems perfectly clear to me that academic superstars are expected to work far more hours that your average liberal-arts professor. Isn’t that true of superstars in any field?

For the record, I’m not justifying the current state of affairs where institutions are willfully replacing decent jobs with abysmal ones (i.e., adjuncting). But that seems to me a separate issue; the fact that we’ve been defining the median job downward doesn’t intrude on the principle that the median job ought to be the expectation of those candidates who don’t possess extraordinary talent or extraordinary amounts of free time.

20

mpowell 02.03.09 at 2:18 pm

I have to say, I really don’t see why this is limited to the market for academics. This is the same basic question that is primarily ignored in many debates relating to parenthood. The basic question is to what degree should parents bear the cost of having kids?

Obviously, we would like to get to a state that is gender neutral as quickly as possible. Only the most unpleasant conservative would really disagree with that in principle. Also, we should endeavor to insure, as much as is possible, that employees are not unfairly punished by their employer for having kids. But I am continually amazed how when the question of European parental leave comes up, asking how much of the cost of having a child should the society be expected to bear, appears to be off limits. Maybe the answer is just obviously: more than at present. But surely there is a limit.

Personally, I don’t see how paid parental leave is any different from discrimination in employment hiring practices. Details differ, but the fundamental issue is a shifting of the burden of parenthood from the parents to the employer or the state.

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lt 02.03.09 at 2:35 pm

There are important issues in the post but the way it’s framed right now (“Is discrimination ok?”) is pretty shocking. How different is this from a circa-1960 post asking “Should we hire women; they’ll just quit when they get married/have kids?”

22

Barry 02.03.09 at 2:44 pm

Russell Arben Fox 02.03.09 at 1:07 pm

“1) I agree with Zamfir; while there may well be some particularities with seeking a job in academia (and in particular an academic job at a relatively prestigious institution) that make it unique—such as the fact that perhaps the most intense stage of the competition for said jobs begins immediately after (in not before!) one’s training for them comes to an end—the truth is this a widespread and longstanding issue. It isn’t all that substantively different from the issue which plagued women and enlightened men during the high-pressue high point of the “organization man” world of work during the 1950s.”

I disagree with the uniqueness of academia in this respect. Obviously, it applies to several other fields (the larger and richer firms in law, finance, advertising), but I’ve seen it in engineering and the general corporate world. There are almost always multiple tracks, and some of them are not really enterable except when one is fresh out of college. They are, of course, leavable at any time.

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John Emerson 02.03.09 at 3:37 pm

A lot of the justification for monkish celibacy was to make it possible to escape from family demands, which were even heavier in the past than they are now. The corruption of the flesh etc. was part of it too, of course, but IRL people are subject to so much temptation and are involved in so many complications and compromises and time-consuming nuisances that self-perfection and scholarship were hard to swing.

Everywhere that work is supposed to be your total self will be anti-family. An economic or free-market analysis of life almost always overvalues work, and is thus anti-family. (James Buchanan of the Chicago school wrote a fulsome tribute to an economist who literally worked himself to death and felt bad on his deathbed because he wasn’t able to work). For a lot of real-world people today, the overvaluation of work is part of their folk ethic — it’s not a theoretical problem. (Call the Sandwichman).

In some highly-competitive trades people do makework and put in unnecessary hours just to give themself an apparent advantage in the excellence race, leading to a vicious circle of excalating hours. Superiors also make excessive demands as a way of hazing their inferiors , weeding out the sane, and maintaining themselves at the top.

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harry b 02.03.09 at 3:46 pm

Put aside the gendered nature of this for a moment. Then there is still a sort of dilemma, but it is not whether parents should be able to compete on a completely equal basis with non-parents, but rather how much employers should do to support parents, given that they are bound to compete with non-parents on an unequal basis. The answer to that depends in part on how much the government does (the more the government does, the less the employer is obliged to do). How much should be done altogether? Parenting is a vital socially productive task, but it is also, for many people, a great source of flourishing and is chosen. (Not only is parenting chosen, so are components of parenting; I am choosing to be less productive today in order to care for my sick kid, when I could have chosen to hire someone in to do the caring, and been more productive myself). As a society we should support parenting at least enough that it is generally done well and at least enough that people who will get fullfilment from it and do it well enough do not find it unduly costly, but not enough that they have exactly the same prospects of career success as people who are otherwise equally talented but choose to invest more of themselves in their careers.

Given the gendered nature of the problem as we actually face it, things are a bit different, for two reasons; the injustice of women facing a trade off that men don’t face (unless they and their spouse are unusually counter-cultural, like Russell) and the inefficiency of losing productive (female) talent from elite parts of the workforce (and having less talented men who are more free to invest in their careers in their place). Some days, though, I think it is only the second reason that the employer has an obligation to address. Compare it with healthcare (in the US). I think that healthcare is society’s responsibility. Our society chooses not to meet that responsibility. It can make sense of employers to provide health care to its employees because doing so is more efficient within this environment. But mandating them to do so is an evasion of responsibility; it is not their responsibility, but the voter’s and the taxpayer’s, to provide what justice demands. Similarly, expecting employers to solve gender injustice is not only over-optimistic but looking to the wrong agent. (That’s not to say that as a component of a program to implement gender justice the government shouldn’t force them to reorganize themselves, it should, when doing so is an element of the all-things-considered best strategy).

25

notsneaky 02.03.09 at 3:48 pm

In the Malthusian world the main justification for monkish celibacy was to get that fertility rate down so as to get that Malthusian income up a few notches.

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mpowell 02.03.09 at 3:59 pm

24: This is a really good commentary on the issue, in my opinion.

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John Emerson 02.03.09 at 4:26 pm

25: That strikes me as a post-hoc sociobiological rationalization, especially considering that the same church honored female fertility so highly for non-nuns.

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andthenyoufall 02.03.09 at 5:04 pm

(Part of) what scholars do is very much like art, IMO. First, scholars are producing (relatively) non-rival goods which can benefit the public, and for this are supported by the state and by wealthy patrons working through private institutions. Second, most scholars produce goods which are not very good, and so the people trying to support them try to be selective about whether they are supporting decent scholars or amazing scholars (with what accuracy, of course, is difficult to say). Third, all else equal the people who produce amazing scholarship will be the crazy workaholics.

So yes, because of the patronizing nature of the field, the academy, like the arts, will be slanted towards people who have an unhealthy devotion to their work (whether that devotion is made possible by childlessness or regressive gender roles). But here cruelty to scholar-parents is clemency for the people who benefit from scholarship, and for the people who fund it.

Within this framework, though, there are still ways in which there are arbitrary checks on parents that can be done away with. Isn’t it common now to pause the tenure clock during parental leave? Primary school for faculty’s children on campus would be another way to cut back on the extra hassle of being a scholar-parent. When renovating libraries, adding a playroom or a children’s section with a librarian mildly supervising would cut down on the number of children dragged into reading rooms and stacks by their parents – clearly that’s not an efficient way to work. I’m sure scholar-parents could think of other, better ways in which academic life makes it inconvenient to be a parent, not just because of the sheer number of hours involved in care work, but because of inconsiderateness of parent’s needs.

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Tracy W 02.03.09 at 5:09 pm

Lt – how would you frame it if you wanted to discuss whatever issues you think are important?

Harry B – I think you are facing a conflict here. On the one hand you talk about the value of parenting in and of itself (“a great source of flourishing”). On the other hand, you talk about the inefficiency of losing productive (female) talent from elite parts of the workforce. In engineering, efficiency is calculated compared to the ideal of being able to convert 100% of the energy from one form to another. What is the 100% efficient state here that you are comparing losing productive labour to? Is it that everyone should devote their time 100% to the formal economy, or at least the elite should? To put it another way, if a person, male or female, values the flourishing involved in parenting at least as much as they value creating great science, what is your basis for saying that it is inefficient for them to raise kids and work less as a scientist? The fundamental basis of micro-economics is that people maximise their utility, as distinct from maximising monetary income. A standard result taught in Econ 101 classes is that if a worker’s hourly wage increases we can’t tell from first principles if the worker will work more or fewer hours, or to put it in jargon if the income effect outweights the substitution effect or not. (Of course many people object to this model on the basis that many workers can’t pick their hours, but in the context of flexible working arrangements for academic parents that objection doesn’t seem applicable).

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Russell Arben Fox 02.03.09 at 6:15 pm

Anonymous Coward,

The first is “promise,” which means that an extensive publication record can be a major disadvantage, since it makes it harder to project an idealized image of future success onto the candidate; what it does privilege is ambitious, or at least buzzword-compliant research projects, regardless of what they produce.

I doubt that an extensive publication record could ever truly be a “major” disadvantage; surely the signs of past productivity are just as likely to be taken as signs of likely future productivity as otherwise. But on the general point of presenting oneself as an ambitious, engaged, busily-on-top-of-everything, up-to-the-minute type of scholar, yes, I completely agree. And this is, I think, a very hard thing to pull off when you take seriously your feelings and obligations to your children. One can, I believe, spend a lot of time on the playroom floor building Legos and still successfully show oneself to be a good teacher; it’s much harder to do the same with one’s time and have read the latest Big Book of Important Scholarship which had come out two weeks before the job interview.

Jonm

I’ll add that academia is relatively kind to parents in that the hours are much more flexible than in most professions, making it easier to perform the core trade-off.

I agree; the great majority of jobs available to someone like ourselves wouldn’t have allowed my wife and I much flexibility in our schedules. Though I would add that the same can probably be said of many of the more prestigious and sought-after academic positions out there; from what I’ve seen, friends of mine facing a desperate first-year-review or tenure-rush don’t have much more flex time than those working grinding 60-hour a week jobs–in fact, they may have less.

Barry,

I disagree with the uniqueness of academia in this respect. Obviously, it applies to several other fields (the larger and richer firms in law, finance, advertising), but I’ve seen it in engineering and the general corporate world. There are almost always multiple tracks, and some of them are not really enterable except when one is fresh out of college.

You’re probably right there; I don’t want to attach to much weight to the possible exceptional character of academia I mentioned above. It was just speculation, and very likely doesn’t hold when one takes a look at the production expectations which have long reigned on in Wall St., etc.

Harry,

Parenting is a vital socially productive task, but it is also, for many people, a great source of flourishing and is chosen….As a society we should support parenting at least enough that it is generally done well and at least enough that people who will get fullfilment from it and do it well enough do not find it unduly costly, but not enough that they have exactly the same prospects of career success as people who are otherwise equally talented but choose to invest more of themselves in their careers.

Very wisely said. Parenting will always be a sacrificing of time and energy and focus away from other ways in which people might be productive, and it would be foolish to try to create arrangements in today’s world that would make it otherwise. Though an ideal reform, of course, would make it equally apparent that the reverse is also true. Right now that is a truth broadly recognized–and often informally enforced–amongst more traditional communities, but it often plays out in such gender-specific ways (and usually quite unjustly so) that I can’t blame those who want to flee from it, and embrace the extreme–and, I think, just as inaccurate–opposite.

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sabine LS 02.03.09 at 6:16 pm

Maybe the comparison between academics should not be made only on realizations, achieved products but also on “how to” : how to be a good teacher, how to face your academic responsabilities, how to think in an original way… A very good paper is worth more than 15 good papers, I think. So quality and “know-how” should be the first criteria, instead of number of publications, number of conferences, number of subjects dealt with…
Very Best !

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Martin James 02.03.09 at 7:53 pm

There is an analogy to steroid use that could be made. Steroid use in sports provides an advantage to certain competitors at the risk of harmful long-term effects to the competitor. That has always seemed something of an arbitrary standard. Isn’t spending enormous amounts of time on an activity also possibly as deforming an unhealthy to one’s life as steroid use?

What is surprising to me is why academia is this way when those doing the hiring are typically other employees subject to the same standards. It would seem that there would be some opportunity for institutions to develop a reputation for being “caregiver friendly” or “lifestyle friendly” and recruit the type of talent that doesn’t depend on just additional hours to distinguish itself.

It may just be the case that those that work more hours routinely produce the best work but it would seem to depend a lot on the field and the people.

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Anthony 02.03.09 at 8:03 pm

Sam (@7) – the study asserts that being married is a reliable proxy for having children, given that some large fraction of the married students have children before graduation, but provides no support for that assertion. It is possible that having children reduces the benefits of being married, but not so much as to make being married with children less beneficial than being single.

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lt 02.03.09 at 8:11 pm

Tracy – Well, basically, it would be framed as “Is it true that parents suffer productivity wise?” (not obvious) and “if so, how can they be helped without penalizing other employees.” Rather than “Is discrimination ok?”

35

Brian 02.03.09 at 9:12 pm

For example, I have not read a single post on this blog arguing for the abolishing of universities and all other academic institutions.

Yes, well that’s because there aren’t any grad students commenting today…

I could have chosen to hire someone in to do the caring, and been more productive myself.

No, you’re an academic, you can’t afford that.

Isn’t it more reasonable to assume that a “normal” mother in academia should end up with a “normal” job at, say, a job at a middle-tier state university, or at a liberal-arts college where teaching excellence may outweigh publications (the former, arguably, is less a pure function of hours put in).

It does sound reasonable, but to take such a view would require that we not sweat it when there are fewer women professors in the nations top research universities.

Isn’t the reason we’re having this discussion that we’re not really comfortable with the way the top spots are distributed? At the end of the day, though, we have a system where those positions go largely to people who are willing and able to devote an extremely large amount of time and energy toward the endeavor. To say that “people who have chosen to devote their lives to their research should not be penalized for not being parents” is to say that the unequal distribution will persist.

36

JM 02.03.09 at 11:32 pm

So take away Michael Bérubé’s kids and he’d have a zillion books rather than a jillion? (I know of at least one he wouldn’t have written.) Sure, there are the single, childless people who produce huge quantities of research, there are the people with many children who can’t produce anything, but there are also single people who aren’t researchers, and women with children who are tops in their fields, or who simply get a later start and end up publishing a huge amount. I see no way of handicapping the system: you have two kids so you would have written one extra book for each kid you had, or you were childless so we are going to take two books away from your record?

37

Cala 02.04.09 at 12:21 am

I feel like we’re jumping ahead a few steps by acting as if a handicap is a plausible solution so we can conclude the problem is intractable because handicaps seem crazy. Surely the best way to increase (say) the numbers of married women with children isn’t to spot them a number of publications, but increase institutional support (family leave, daycare, etc) for families.

(And of course, one difference between TV and children/elder care is that it is generally considered permissible to turn off the TV. Children are people, which means we owe them a different set of duties. Most parents wouldn’t describe the time commitment that rearing children demands as a hobby.)

The institutional twist that the academy has is a relatively long journeyman period (graduate school) and a fairly rigid window that the determines the trajectory of much of the rest of one’s career (postPhD-through-tenure.) And there’s no way to interrupt that process and return to it, and it coincides reasonably well with female fertility.

38

notsneaky 02.04.09 at 12:54 am

Re: 27

I’m not so sure they did actually. The whole ‘every sperm is sacred’ thing wasn’t really that pronounced until 19th century. Or so I read somewhere. Anyway, we’re talking about a world with no effective birth control or really a safe abortion procedure. So the only way the church could push higher fertility would be to promote earlier marriage or encourage more kids once married. I don’t think they did the first and the second sort of happened anyway. I guess they did have some possible role in ending that infanticide thing which would make that the proper counter example here.

Oh, and it wouldn’t necessarily be the church who’d be pushing the celibate monkhood lifestyle choice. Landed gentry and the rulers would also have an interest in not seeing the land split up among too many inheritors.

39

cstars 02.04.09 at 1:12 am

One odd feature of this discussion is the assumption that there is a competition between the ‘productivity’ of academic employees and their having and raising children. We all seem to be assuming that universities and colleges exist for the sake of cutting-edge scholarship, alone. To my knowledge, even the vaunted ‘research’ universitites exist, in part, to educate – particularly to educate the young. Wouldn’t it be odd if – monk-like – academics chose only to educate the children of others and not to raise children of their own who might be educated (by other academics) in the future?
To be sure, the number of children that academics can contribute to the applications pool is relatively small, as academics are a relatively small segment of the population. So, what strikes me as odd is not simply the absence of a utility calculation. Rather, I think it perverse to suggest that institutions of higher learning should not want their own employess to be parents of people who will seek higher education. It is especially perverse when we recognize that the children of academics are most likely to be the [future] students who value education for its own sake rather than as a ticket to a job.
On the other hand, as I do not want to overplay the ‘education is special’ card, let me illustrate the perverse character of the assumption in broader terms. Imagine a society which persuaded its citizens that they should all work to their maximum ability in order to maximize ‘productivity’ and that having children is incompatible with this. So, everyone stops having children. In this case, both the utility problems and the perversity are readily apparent.
In other words, ‘productivity’ for what? A world with no future generations?

40

cstars 02.04.09 at 1:17 am

P.S. In my department, and at my college, we happily ‘hire parents.’ They are likely to be fully human, and they understand how children become college-age students and, thus, how to deal with the latter as full humans.

41

Z 02.04.09 at 2:36 am

Speaking as an academic on the job market and a father of a two-months old, I feel like many other commenters that you are exaggerating the singularity of academia, Ingrid. My experience of the post-doc job market for instance is very well described by your “good enough” criteria: if all you want is a post-doc position, and if you are qualified enough, you get a post-doc position. If however you are after a position with a reasonable teaching load, decent pay, in a certain geographic area and/or within a team which complements well you own research interests, then you better be very good or lucky. And if you want in addition a top (or well-known) institution, we are in “sky is the limit” territory. But this seems to me to be common to all top jobs (in management, the arts, sports…) and not unheard of in seemingly less competitive job markets: my wife tried to make a living in the non-governmental humanitarian relief system, and it seemed to me much harder than in academia.

Now about the dilemma, I think a smart hiring committee will strive to evaluate the plausible overall potential of a candidate. Seeing that a high percentage of people do have children at one point in their life (an estimation is hard to find but various statistics fluctuate between 70% to 85% depending on the country), perhaps the committee could take into account the fact that maybe the non-parent candidate will soon become a parent employee.

These quibbles aside, I think your last paragraph was very well put.

42

Sybil Vane 02.04.09 at 2:49 am

For example, I have not read a single post on this blog arguing for the abolishing of universities and all other academic institutions.

I am very very close to writing this post.

43

dr. fantastic 02.04.09 at 3:21 am

I am floored that not a single person suggested that being a parent might make you a better professor. I’m more engaged with my research, more empathetic to my students, a better manager of time because of my children. And my students tell me they are desperate for work/life balance role models.

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lemuel pitkin 02.04.09 at 3:29 am

As far as I can tell, this post makes the following assumptions:

1. Academia is, and must be, organized in a strict hierarchy with better and worse positions.

2. The hierarchy is and must be very steep, so that only the positions at the top really count.

3. These top positions are distributed on strict meritocratic principles.

(3a. Unlike other professions, which lack academia’s strict, objective standards of merit.)

4. Merit is strongly determined by one’s past academic work.

5. Having children substantially reduces one’s ability to do academic work.

6. There is no feasible way to reduce the demands of child raising.

Like other commenters here, I regard these assumptions as, let’s say, questionable….

45

Russell Arben Fox 02.04.09 at 5:07 am

Dr. Fantastic,

I am floored that not a single person suggested that being a parent might make you a better professor.

I’m not sure that’s true; maybe no one in this thread has come out said so explicitly, but in many of the comments there’s been a clear sense that the struggle to find a liveable balance between the often time-consuming demands of academia and the very real needs of one’s children is worth doing, and not just because your life choices oblige you to, but because (or, at least, also because) the upside of that struggle is the benefits and sense of perspective and wisdom it enables you to bring into the classroom, etc.

If anything, I think the primary point here has been that some academia is, in some ways, functionally closed to, or hostile to, parents…and since that portion of academia often happens to its most influential portion, people’s perspective gets warped, especially right out of graduate school

46

Another anonymous coward 02.04.09 at 6:33 am

“Some days, though, I think it is only the second reason that the employer has an obligation to address.”

Harry, I was with you up to there. I think the analogy with health care fails, unless we are imagining that we are talking about some very wealthy corporation. Assume society has not met its obligations regarding health care: Should the corporation provide health care for their staff, i.e., not as inducement for recruitment but in order to behave ethically toward their employees?

This is precisely the situation that universities are often in. In fact, they are in better situations than this. They are not even answerable to stockholders. There are effects on students (I doubt parenthood by faculty harms students.) Besides how well they teach, what universities are answerable to is rather imaginary. We worry about amorphous reputational issues, yes. In the broad scheme of things, these do have actual consequences but it would be a pretense to imagine that they have some kind of concrete reality the way a balance sheet has concrete reality. Options exist. We can take minor risks to increase fairness.

What you said suggests we can’t engage in ethical acts with political goals below the level of the state. I think, at every single level people are required to undermine gender and race disadvantage rather than just let the government do that for them. Academia has considerable leeway to do this and if the people within it choose to see their hand as tied in this regard then I really despair anything can be done at the higher social level. About anything.

Please, people, try to have some moral courage when it comes to social injustice. We do have choices here. We are not absolutely bound by all the norms arising out of fealty to the corporate model. And even those in corporations have the freedom to choose, let’s hope. I would hope we could consider what kind of universities we want to have, as well as what kind of society we want to have, as well as how our actions could promote that society.

What floors me is that it could even be asked if this is a question about women or gender justice. The issue is perception, not just reality. Perception exists at all levels of academic work, not only at the hiring stage. It’s as if it hasn’t occurred to anyone how incredibly disadvantageous it might be to women that they are continually subject to this line of thinking? Walking around pregnant in the university before one has tenure? You might as well have a target on your belly that says ‘shoot here, I’m out of the game.’ Everyone struggles to publish and one could always publish more. So, as a mother, you are always going to be subject to the question of whether your two articles could have been three if only you had not been so self-indulgent to have that baby before tenure until waiting and adopting or whatever also. Are you serious about your work? Are you sufficiently ambitious?

The only way women can get out of this is publish their way out and so, I will bet you dollars to donuts that women publish even more after they have kids. The pressure for women just increases to disprove the stereotypical thinking that some people are taking for granted here.

Finally, let’s have some data. Please do show me the hours worked by young, single men at major research universities as opposed to women with children (and I’m talking about academic labor only). Then, let’s talk.

Also, what Lemuel said. Especially about the meritocracy angle.

47

Sandwichman 02.04.09 at 7:02 am

John Emerson wrote:>/a> For a lot of real-world people today, the overvaluation of work is part of their folk ethic—it’s not a theoretical problem. (Call the Sandwichman).

You rang, John? Fred Hirsch made a number of points in Social Limits to Growth that speak to this issue of academics who are parents. First, Hirsch saw the growing credentialism for plum jobs as a consequence of economic growth. As people more easily meet their needs for subsistence, competition intensifies for scarce goods, such as more prestigious positions. In academia there’s also the factor that credentialism both expands the number of jobs but exacerbates the differential between the top jobs and the adjunct ones. So you have sessional instructors doing the “same” work as tenured professors, but with poor pay, no job security and no tenable career ladder for merely yeoman performance. Second, as competition for scarce top positions intensified, people find they “can’t afford” to spend time in ordinary sociability (and family life).

A third point, which may be a bit of a curve ball, is that this isn’t “just the way things are.” It is the way public policies promoting economic growth have made things. Sure, there was “invidious comparison” and “pecuniary emulation” back in Thorsten Veblen’s day or else he wouldn’t have struck a nerve with his analysis. But the parenthood/tenure type of dilemma is representative of a much more generalized condition today. There may thus be less absolute deprivation but more relative deprivation, relative to one’s ostensible “peers” or reference group. And government policies have contributed to that relative deprivation by promoting economic growth without at the same time taking measures to ameliorate the effects of that growth on social life. One might even suspect that because economic growth enabled higher tax revenues without raising taxes, policy makers turned a blind eye to the socially-disruptive aspects of growth because these only contributed even further to growth (in the form of the ‘criminal justice’ system, ‘health’ care costs, etc.).

48

Zamfir 02.04.09 at 9:00 am

Lemuel, you are absolutely right that all of those assumption are neither unchangable nor perfect models of the current situation. But they are close to the model both employer and employee have in mind at the start of a career, and thus it influences both hiring behaviour and child plans.

49

Tracy W 02.04.09 at 9:48 am

Surely the best way to increase (say) the numbers of married women with children isn’t to spot them a number of publications, but increase institutional support (family leave, daycare, etc) for families.

If parents take family leave they are probably not doing research (there are some exceptions, eg I understand some linguists have faithfully recorded their offspring’s language development, and I remember spending a lot of time with Mum in hospital waiting rooms for one year entertaining myself with a series of books, though I can’t remember what she was doing).

If you put kids in daycare all the time, why bother having them? I don’t object to childcare per se. Both my parents worked for most of my childhood, and we spent a chunk of time in daycare of various forms. I had a happy childhood, with the exception of school, which wasn’t anything to do with the hours my parents worked. But we still had a lot of time with both parents, when they weren’t working. If my parents had adopted the sterotypical pre-WWII upper-class British style of having their kids raised by full-time by nannies and nursemaids, I think they would have failed to obtain the full flourishing Harry B talks about (leaving aside the minor detail that it probably would have driven them bankrupt too).

To my knowledge, even the vaunted ‘research’ universitites exist, in part, to educate – particularly to educate the young.

Which requires professors in those fields to spend time keeping up with new developments in their field. Also, an argument for requiring research by professors is that’s one way of measuring academic quality – with many scientific fields no administrator could assess if the professor’s any good or has gone haywire, that’s a job for the professor’s peers, and there may not be any peers there at that university (eg my engineering school tried to cover about all the possible courses that could covered under the title of Electrical Engineering, probably because it was one of only two university engineering schools in the country, leading to a very diverse staff). If the professor is publising in good journals, they probably know what they’re talking about.

50

Chris 02.04.09 at 1:04 pm

The basic question is to what degree should parents bear the cost of having kids?

And clearly, since the US and the world both have an oversupply of kids, the rational response to this is “More so than they presently do, because the current set of incentives produces too many kids.”

This is where people get irrational in a hurry. Subsidizing parents is widely considered a moral duty *even though* we urgently need fewer, not more, parents ASAP to avert ecological (and other kinds of) disaster, and even though people’s individual desire for children will lead them to have children in the absence of a subsidy.

In short, we’re subsidizing something that is overproduced and which would continue to be produced (and probably overproduced) in the absence of the subsidy. If anything, we should (for some values of “should”) impose surtaxes on parents to get reproduction down to socially beneficial (i.e. ecologically sustainable) levels. Yet you can easily imagine the political popularity of this suggestion.

51

Cala 02.04.09 at 2:02 pm

If you put kids in daycare all the time, why bother having them?

You know, many, many families have to use daycare at some point, which you realize because that was indeed your own experience growing up. So why the assumption that a professor who would find an on-site day care useful is “put[ting] kids in daycare all the time”? That doesn’t describe your experience. It doesn’t describe the experience of the parents that I know (especially given the academy’s somewhat flexible schedule…)

And again, this is a strongly gender-imbalanced issue. The stereotypical young prof with the two kids and stay-at-home wife is considered stable, and no one questions his productivity (at least not to the same extent, or at least not just by announcing his wife is pregnant; I’ve even heard it described as a positive thing, “Young John has to work hard with that new baby to feed!”) or wonders whether he’s harming his own parental flourishing by having his wife as primary caregiver, or argues that maybe if he wants a normal life, he should head for a small liberal arts college. (Not sure what the SLACs think about being considered the fallback career…)

52

harry b 02.04.09 at 2:47 pm

Another anonymous — in my defense I only said “some days”. I agree with what you say other days. But I also think, contrary to what some have assumed (and as I explain perhaps a bit obliquely in the post Ingrid links to) that parenthood is much less harmful to productivity than it is taken to be, at least when employers make allowance for it, so that in most jobs (including nearly all academic jobs — perhaps not the high level management ones) policies which are good for parents are also good for employers.

Its true that to produce really topnotch research you have to be immersed in it. But how much really topnotch research in the Humanities and Social Sciences do we expect even the very top Universities to produce? Most of us produce merely good stuff. And among those who produce topnotch stuff, many have entirely balanced lives (so, to give an example, I understand that Peter Strawson treated his work like a 9-5 job. Would he really have produced better, as opposed to more, if he had neglected all other aspects of his life?)

Nice to see Malthusianism coming back.

53

John Emerson 02.04.09 at 2:56 pm

Most of Europe subsidizes childraising, and their birth rate is lower than ours, often much lower. Chris’s argument makes sense on paper, especially if you’re an economist, but it’s not empirical. What economists say about The Family is usually mildly insane.

54

harry b 02.04.09 at 3:09 pm

Mildly insane”? You’re in a generous mood today, John.

55

lemuel pitkin 02.04.09 at 3:19 pm

AC to Harry:

What you said suggests we can’t engage in ethical acts with political goals below the level of the state. I think, at every single level people are required to undermine gender and race disadvantage rather than just let the government do that for them. Academia has considerable leeway to do this and if the people within it choose to see their hand as tied in this regard then I really despair anything can be done at the higher social level.

This is an importnat point, I think, and not just in terms of race and gender (important as those are!)

Lemuel, you are absolutely right that all of those assumption are neither unchangable nor perfect models of the current situation. But they are close to the model both employer and employee have in mind at the start of a career, and thus it influences both hiring behaviour and child plans.

Well yes, this is mostly true. Mostly, tho! — I know several fairly successful female academics with kids, and while they have ertainly worried about whether this would affect their attractiveness as candidates — to the point of scrupulously avoiding mention of their family on campus visits — I don’t believe I’ve ever heard any of them suggest that having kids actually hurt their ability to do acadmic work.

The point is, tho, that every one of those six assumptions represents a margin on which the conflict — real or perceived — between family and acdemic work could be addressed. But Ingrid skips right over them and presents the situation as if the only choice we have is a strict tradeoff between merit and childraising.

56

harry b 02.04.09 at 3:34 pm

Can I say that, completely anecdotally, I observe a generational difference in attitudes among academic women, with older feminist academics often having a very strictly androgenous ideal, rather in the way that Ingrid attributes to Barbara Bergmann in her previous post, and sometimes seeming very disapproving of younger female academics visibly having children, and often advising them not to, whereas younger women who actually have children seem very unperturbed and relaxed about it (I know quite a few women locally on (or recently on) the tenure track with children and all of them that I know well seem (or seemed, and were) shoo-ins for tenure, and some seem much better than shoo-ins). I’ll add, though obviously there is huge selection going on here, that all the senior male academics I know locally well enough fro me to have an impression of this, at least appear to be entirely supportive of male or female colleagues having and raising children, and delighted by having children around the place.

57

engels 02.04.09 at 4:51 pm

It is always diverting watching well-meaning liberals tying themselves in knots trying to reconcile the two sacred cows of respectable American middle-class life, the bourgeois career and the bourgeois family.

In other words, on the one hand a model of the economic sphere which requires potentially unlimited time and effort to be committed to the competition for arbitrary prizes (publications published, hours billed, widgets sold) and the avoidance of equally arbitrary stigmas (time spent away from paid employment, breeding at the wrong time, breeding too much or too little) for the sake of projects and institutions whose social value could be optimistically described as hard to discern, all in the grand cause of securing for oneself and one’s immediate family a higher material standard of living than one’s fellow human beings, a higher place in the status hierarchy and the power to dominate their lives (albeit, in the case of academia, in notably small and unglamorous ways).

On the other hand, an ideal of the domestic in which Mom and Pop, conjoined for life if not beyond by legal deeds and the fear of social censure, safely locked away in a box in suburbia, exercise exclusive, obsessional control over the social, sexual and intellectual development of their progeny–a role which, like the other, calls for potentially unlimited time and effort–all the more effectively to mould them in their image, thus ensuring the continued operation of the whole soul-crushing machine.

Perhaps it is time to realise these two holy idols of life in bourgeois society can not in fact be reconciled to one another, are, in fact, in plain contradiction, especially when both are thought of as the natural aspiration and the birthright of every middle-class man and woman in the country; rather than vainly asking ourselves how to do so some us would prefer to ask a different and more fruitful question: how can we destroy both, and quickly?

58

harry b 02.04.09 at 5:07 pm

I thought you thought that it was really important for people to go to University.

(And, I absolutely promise, I shall, at some point when I’ve got time, write a post trying to convince you that I have a sensible and morally acceptable view about paying for college, but I’m sure I won’t succeed).

Teasing aside, I agree that the two can’t be reconciled. But we don’t have to try and abolish both. One of them is really valuable.

59

engels 02.04.09 at 5:19 pm

Well, I know you think that but, as I’m sure you also know, not everyone agrees. Judging by this thread most people who comment here do though. I’m agnostic myself but I think it’s sometimes worthwhile reminding people of the different perspectives that might be out there. Anyway, that honestly wasn’t aimed at you specifically, and wasn’t meant to come across as a continuation of our previous disagreement. I am sure you do have a sensible and morally acceptable view about that too, and I am sure I don’t agree with it.

60

lisa 02.04.09 at 6:53 pm

engels: I vote let’s get rid of bourgeois career, transform bourgeois family into something non-bourgeois.

61

JoB 02.04.09 at 8:43 pm

If Kafka were alive I think he’d be able to make us a fantastic story of some of the posts here.

The best of the worst has to be the idea that longer working-hours translates into more production and, to add insult to injury, that producing more automatically means that you achieve a higher productivity. The latter disregards the piles of garbage produced and the former the many hours spent at work getting up somebody’s nose or – maybe a bit more common – up somebody’s arse.

Unfortunately that’s the way in which a lot of society works – to my dismay apparently also the academic world – leading to a rat race where having children (or being lazy – or not wanting to bother after 5 PM) is mutually exclusive with having a societal impact & being useful outside of the kitchen (or couch – or bed).

As if there’s a correlation between spending lots of hours on your work & having talent for it (quite the reverse I’d say). Maybe the loss of talent by preselecting for those who are stupid enough to work long hours is the reason for the current economic mess.

This issue is much broader, luckily, than feminism. We are in dire need of rules that do not privilige the idiots that want to spend hours on networking and what have you – for instance that everybody can take 3 months paid leave for every 2 years of work (that’s the minimum I’d say) or at least 2 days per week are done from home (such that on the days like that nobody benefits from sitting around to show the boss he’s the last one to leave).

It’s urgent – one of these days somebody will write a ‘politically incorrect ‘ post that the West has too many children where the issue clearly is we have too many old people (& we should seriously start thinking Soylent Green).

62

harry b 02.04.09 at 8:57 pm

Just to say that I more or less agree with pretty much all of #61; as someone above said, most of what Ingrid is doing is making assumptions about what is widely assumed, not accepting those assumptions as true, but realising that if they are widely assumed they probably impact decisions. (That said, I’m only saying that I agree with #61, I can’t speak on that for Ingrid or anyone else).

63

lemuel pitkin 02.04.09 at 9:06 pm

On the one hand parents should not pay too high a professional price for the fact that they are parents; on the other hand people who have chosen to devote their lives to their research should not be penalised for not being parents.

Is anyone else reminded of Dinesh D’Souza’s complaints about how unfair it is to provide high-quality public schools for all kids? After all, he worked hard and made all sort of sacrifices so he could afford to send his kids to private school, precisely in order to give them an advantage over other kids.

64

harry b 02.04.09 at 9:12 pm

Hey, you can’t get me the cite for that, can you? That’s brilliant.

65

Righteous Bubba 02.04.09 at 9:15 pm

That had me on the Google pretty quickly. It’s apparently from The Virtue of Prosperity.

http://www.slate.com/id/1006238/

66

praisegod barebones 02.04.09 at 9:20 pm

Maybe I missed it somewhere – my eyes glazed over at about post 40 – but did anyone get round to questioning the assumption that parents are less productive researchers than non-parents?

For what it’s worth: in the department that I teach in, the three most productive researchers under 40 – over a five year period – have 3 children under 10 between them (one of whom has substantial learning difficulties). Their partners all have careers, and they have a fairly egalitarian approach to the division of domestic labour.

The three least productive researchers under 40 – over a similar period – are 2 single men and a divorcee with 2 children, neither of whom live in the same country as him.

More domestic responsibilities doesn’t necesarily mean less academic productivity. People who assume it does are – inter alia – contributing to a climate that makes it hard to argue for family-friendly work practices (and hence fair divisions of domestic labour). They should stop doing so

67

Doctor What 02.04.09 at 9:34 pm

The real problem is that we’re training far more qualified academics than we have jobs for, that’s why the academic institutions can be so picky about who they hire.

Back in the “good old days” when my college professors were starting their careers, you didn’t have to have such inflated CVs in order to succeed. But back then (the 1950s and 60’s) research funding was increasing, new colleges were opening, which meant that almost any reasonably competent person with a PhD (and even some with only a Masters) could have a reasonable assurance of some sort of decent academic career. And these people were perfectly good — the CV of my advisor was such that he probably wouldn’t get a job today, but he was an excellent teacher, and while his research didn’t win a Nobel Prize, he was a valuable resource to the community.

I don’t really see any evidence that these inflated CVs that seem to be a requirement for jobs these days really translate into better academics. I’m certainly not impressed with a lot of the research being published today, it’s a lot of irrelevant academic dithering and mathematical masturbation. And, I suspect that the successful “academic entrepreneurs” are to some degree, phonies, good only a PR and using the work done by their grad students and post-docs.

Any realisitc solution to this problem would involve cutting back the number of PhDs being granted so that institutions can’t be as picky about who they hire, seriously increasing research funding so that it takes less work to get funded, or some combination of both.

68

lemuel pitkin 02.04.09 at 9:47 pm

Maybe I missed it somewhere – my eyes glazed over at about post 40 – but did anyone get round to questioning the assumption that parents are less productive researchers than non-parents?

Sam at 7, LT at 34, JM at 36, and me at 44 and 55, among others.

69

harry b 02.04.09 at 9:51 pm

RB and LP — thanks! Fantastic quote. Will get a lot of use.

70

Matt 02.04.09 at 9:55 pm

In some ways it’s not fair to use a Dinesh D’Souza quote- he’s sort of like Stanely Fish in that if you need someone to have said something very crazy in support of a dumb view, you can always find something in one of their works. (Fish is smarter than D’Souza, of course, and at least has done serious work at some points, but he’s still the go-to guy for dumb po-mo quotes in the way D’Souza is for dumb conservative or racists ones.)

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lemuel pitkin 02.04.09 at 10:01 pm

More domestic responsibilities doesn’t necesarily mean less academic productivity. People who assume it does are – inter alia – contributing to a climate that makes it hard to argue for family-friendly work practices (and hence fair divisions of domestic labour). They should stop doing so.

I strongly agree with this, tho. Formally, this post is identical to any anti-affirmative action screed you’d find on a conservative site.

Assumption of perfect meritocracy except for efforts to help a disadvantaged group? Check.
Assumption that efforts to help a less-privileged group must take the form of a finger on the scales of meritocracy, as opposed to, say, a more supportive environment or different recruiting practices? Check.
Assumption that members of the disadvantaged group really are less qualified? Check.
Assumption of a zero-sum game between groups, so that any effort to help some must hurt others? Check.

I’d really like to know if other CT bloggers — Michael Berube, say — think of Ingrid’s views in this post. (Or rather, social norms being what they are, I’d like to know what they would think of the post if it weren’t written by a co-blogger…)

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lemuel pitkin 02.04.09 at 10:07 pm

RB-

The Slate article is where I got the D’Souza bit from. Hard to believe now how religiously I used to read Slate….

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JoB 02.04.09 at 10:10 pm

Harry, ‘pretty much’ – that probably leaves room to exclude the ‘Soylent Green’ bit, I guess ;-)

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SamChevre 02.04.09 at 10:11 pm

I think the quoted summary of Dinesh D’Souza is rather unrelated to his actual point. (A point with which I agree: government services should be provided equally, not equalizingly. If your child can read by the time she starts first grade, ignoring her until everyone else in the class learns to read is inappropriate.)

I’m in the “parenting is work, and you can’t be as good at two jobs as at one” category. Which is much influenced by the relative amount of study I’m able to do with two children under 2, vs the amount I could do when I could perfectly well spend 14 hours a day at my desk.

And I think parenting is more interesting, and more important, than my job. I also think that there are some jobs that pretty much require that they be the most important thing in your life. I think parenting is one of those jobs; I don’t know about academia. (I know most high-paid business jobs are in that category.)

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learner 02.04.09 at 10:53 pm

Let’s flip the logic of only allowing non-parents to be in the academy. There would no longer be any students who could say “One of my parents (or perhaps both) are professors.” I think that would be sad, since it is often a joy to have children of academics in one’s classroom. Also, aren’t many members of the current academy the children of academics? It’s a state of affairs that perhaps has it’s downside, and if it were eliminated something would fill the vacuum. But I’m not sure if the vacuum would necessarily be filled by something better.

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harry b 02.04.09 at 11:49 pm

I think parenting is more interesting and rewarding for most people, and more important, than most jobs. Perhaps not all jobs, and certainly not for all people.

matt – the point about the D’Souza quote is that it illustrates numerous mistakes, and although almost no-one makes them all at once, many people make at least one of them.

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engels 02.05.09 at 12:24 am

Lisa: thanks. I am happy to amend ‘destroy’ to ‘transform into something non-bourgeois’. No point in being doctrinaire about these things…

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harry b 02.05.09 at 12:45 am

Depending on how you spell out “bourgeois” and “transform into something non-bourgeois” I might be on your side.

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John Emerson 02.05.09 at 1:42 am

There would no longer be any students who could say “One of my parents (or perhaps both) are professors.”

An end to nepotism, another theoretical advantage of a monkish university!

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arbitrista 02.05.09 at 4:00 am

I think this is a fascinating conversation. I’d just like to say that what concerns me most is the collective action at work in so much of professional life. Every person has an incentive to sacrifice a greater proportion of what makes for a well-balanced life, so the expectations required for a modicum of success are endlessly ratcheted up. The price of even moderate levels of ambition is no longer “less time with one’s family” or “less free time” but to sacrifice those things almost in their entirety. Is this really a workplace we’re happy with? Sometimes I think we should make the 40-hour workweek a mandatory maximum in all professions. There doesn’t seem to be any other way to escape the trap.

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astrongmaybe 02.05.09 at 7:50 am

The word “productivity” – here, passim – always makes me feel rather ill. Is there anywhere other than contemporary academia where people sincerely wish each other a “productive vacation” or a “productive Christmas”? A very lonely Stakhanovism.

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Another anonymous coward 02.05.09 at 9:12 am

Harry, I was kind of overreacting. I liked your paper…I think it was the parental rights and the family paper (the one in Ethics). But then I was like ‘even HE doesn’t get it? But how can he not? And if he does not, we must be doomed, etc.’

Kind of like in my master’s program when I had a small crush on one of my professors and found out he was a libertarian. This caused me to become even more violently opposed to libertarianism than I had been (which is to say, kind of insane).

I think when you look at a system that marginalizes, discards, etc. certain (select) people though, it might be worth thinking about who is getting what out of it. Generally, it’s not simply that some people don’t understand that they creating a phenomenal burden unnecessarily. It is rare that this failure to see clearly has no purpose. (Obviously, one purpose that is served is putting women at a disadvantage…but that might not be the primary one.)

Or maybe it is just if we are all so busy working we won’t be able to see how screwed up everything is and we won’t have the energy to change anything. It certainly works that way in my case. I’m not trying to foment conspiracy theories and this speeding up of the academic assembly line could just be academics catching the fever of productivity that was supposedly sweeping the nation. But I wonder if that is all it is. Also, I’m almost entirely certain a full explanation will never be available to me. So I just say I find it all very *sinister.*

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Tracy W 02.05.09 at 9:25 am

Cala – as I understand it, Ingrid Robeyn’s argument was that parents suffered relative to non-parents in academia because of the time involved in raising kids. The reply was that more daycare could be provided. If parents have as much time free to spend working on academic issues as non-parents that implies that their kids are in daycare pretty much 24-7, like the stereotypical 19th century British aristocracy with a nanny and a nursemaid who slept in the kids’ nursery, and only seeing their kids once a day when nanny brought them down after dinner. This was not how I was raised, and it seems incompatible with the parents themselves getting much out of parenting, even if the kids are perfectly fine.

JoB – I don’t know who you are responding to. I talked about how an archeologist can translate more hours at work into more productivity (eg excavating more ground, providing feedback on more papers). This may mean getting up somebody’s arse, but that’s what we want in academic research – we want people to be pointing out other people’s errors, not being all fluffy and lovey-dovey and supporting each other’s self-esteem. Exactly how do you think that academia can progress if being nice takes priority over getting things right? Politeness is nice, but if attacking someone’s wrong theory means getting up their arse as they’re emotionally attached to it, I say well, get up their arse – just try to focus on the theory and the facts, not on personal attacks.

And yes, academic research does produce piles of garbage – this is necessay to uncover the good stuff. I don’t know any area of academic research that progresses without people ever producing garbage (eg failed hypotheses, irrelevant data (such as all the dirt that has to be dug away from archeological sites, the debris from lab experiments that exploded unintentionally, etc).

Or in other words, getting up people’s arses and generating piles of garbage are not necessarily bad things.

Praisegod barebones – yes, more domestic responsibilities doesn’t necessarily mean less academic productivity. People without children can spend their time doing pointless, non-productive stuff, or just have a massive run of bad luck. And sometimes people with domestic responsibilities can combine those with academic research, eg acquisition of languge studies. People who just assume that more domestic responsibilities means less academic productivity should stop doing so. This is why I have not been assuming such a thing but instead have been arguing that there is a conflict between a lot of time spent parenting and many forms of academic research. I understand Ingrid Robeyns is herself an academic, so I think you should grant the possibility that she herself is not just making assumptions but instead reporting what she has found in her own life.

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JoB 02.05.09 at 10:18 am

Tracy W, I wasn’t responding to you or Ingrid but I was inspired a.o. by your posts (but I didn’t catch your point so it seemed unfair to single you out on my point).

Getting up somebody’s arse means, for me at least, to suck up to somebody and sucking up is of the essence of the myth of hard-work meritocracy by which we’re ruled – & which I interpret as the issue with which Ingrid was struggling (it would help if Ingrid would chime in again).

I’m in the “parenting is work, and you can’t be as good at two jobs as at one” category. is one of those obnoxious concepts related to the myth of hard-work meritocracy. Some of us like to spend a lot of time with kids and some other don’t – there is no relation between the time that you put on it and the effect (either on yourself or your kids). Same goes for any decent job that is not mere paid slavery. So there’s no mutual exclusion and to enforce this point we need rules that avoid the people that suck-up until the middle of the night can arbitrarily preselect for the idiocy they have against those talented at anything but sucking up.

I suggested 2 rules – do you have an issue with them? I ask this out of real interest because I am really not in a mood to jest.

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Alessandro 02.05.09 at 1:23 pm

Dear Ms. Robeyns,

I believe that – at least in theory – the solution to the dilemma that you introduce lies in the capability to assess the quality of the work that a person can carry out during the hours in which that person is paid to work. I am aware that performances are not always easily evaluated; nonetheless, if a fair competition among all those who aspire to a single position is sought after, then the competition should not take into consideration variables like “how many hours one is willing to work for”. The number of hours should be specified in the contract. What shold matters is what one is able to do during those hours. Same as a soccer coach is not allowed to select more than 11 players for his team, employers should not be allowed to expect people to work for more hours than they are paid for.

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SamChevre 02.05.09 at 2:12 pm

No, JoB, I LIKE your 2 rules; they’d be greatly to my advantage.

But I just don’t agree that Some of us like to spend a lot of time with kids and some other don’t – there is no relation between the time that you put on it and the effect (either on yourself or your kids). Same goes for any decent job that is not mere paid slavery. It just doesn’t fit my experience at all. I can code until I’m too spacey to recognize friends and remember their names. I just cannot do as much good-quality work as is physically possible in any moderate time-frame AND have good relationships with other people. (This is not exclusive to children, but most adult friendships require rather less time to maintain than a relationship with a 2-year-old.)

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harry b 02.05.09 at 2:45 pm

another anonymous — well, you could hardly have couched the criticism in a more charming way. Thanks. I agree with all that, and you and others on the thread have convinced me that on those days when I have that thought I’m wrong. Thanks for that too — I’ll remember what you, lemuel, etc, have said if I find myself tempted. And finally thanks for liking the parents’ rights paper. I hope you, lemuel, etc, find my new post interesting.

JoB –yes, I was deliberately a bit vague because I wouldn’t want to commit to the Soylent Green bit. Not on paper…

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JoB 02.05.09 at 3:25 pm

Sam, I’m very happy you like my 2 rules – although I’d be happier if you liked them because you thought they were good rules ;-) Anyway, it doesn’t matter a lot because you’ve made me extremely unhappy by construeing my comments as disapproving of your lifestyle. You are doing it the way you want and others do it another way and both are fine – as long as there are as many rules as needed to avoid disqualifying parents (or lazy people, or people that need a lot of sleep) from having a societal impact. I would also not have an issue with parents that spend time on work like you spend time with your kid (as long as he/she doesn’t mistake the time he spends on his work as a proxy for how good he is at it).

Harry, so you are covertly employed in the making of green squares of soap? ;-)

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Chris Shea 02.05.09 at 3:31 pm

I wonder if the dilemma described in the original post is specific to certain fields. Surely an English professor or historian who has written an excellent book, and some superb essays, can compete with someone who has done nothing but work for a decade and has amassed thousands of pages of less-good stuff. You’d have to narrow the dilemma to describe some superman or -woman who had written, say, three books by age 30, all of which were excellent. Do such people exist? To make it hard on myself, I will assume that they do. Is the decision between someone who has written one brilliant book, versus someone who has written three brilliant books, so clear-cut? I’m not sure it is. Even it is, that’s a dilemma much more narrowly focused than “parents v. non-parents.” (Maybe in scientific fields, where there’s an expectation that you basically live in your lab, the scenario in the post is more relevant. I don’t know.)

I’ve havve heard this argument made by lawyers and investment bankers, by the way. (“The best jobs simply have to go to the people who work 100 hours a week. It would be unfair any other way.”) I have the same reaction to those comments that I did to this post: A discriminatory (against women, mostly, but also against men who share child-care duties) structure is assumed, rather than challenged. Maybe the dilemma would exist in a world with decent daycare and gender equality, but to leave those factors out of the initial hypothetical seems obtuse.

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lemuel pitkin 02.05.09 at 3:49 pm

that what concerns me most is the collective action at work in so much of professional life. Every person has an incentive to sacrifice a greater proportion of what makes for a well-balanced life, so the expectations required for a modicum of success are endlessly ratcheted up. The price of even moderate levels of ambition is no longer “less time with one’s family” or “less free time” but to sacrifice those things almost in their entirety. Is this really a workplace we’re happy with?

This is a good question.

And not to pick on Ingrid too much, but I find it striking that her imagination extends to a gender-equal family, but can’t conceive of organizing the workplace in a way that doesn’t disadvantage people who don’t sacrifice the res of their life to making maximum work effort (either by limiting the amount anyone can work, or by ensuring that the differences between the top positions and the lower ones are small.)

One might see it as symptomatic of (a certain strain of) contemporary liberalism. Or less charitably, of someone who really wants a top position, and is worried that more family-friendly workplaces could negate the advantage she currently gets from being childless.

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lemuel pitkin 02.05.09 at 3:58 pm

Sorry, that last sentence was kind of over the line. I retract it.

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Alessandro 02.05.09 at 4:05 pm

Rules are needed to make the job market a civilized area. If let to employers, all workers would be slaves. That’s why laws should regulate the job market, in the interests of all citizens, not just in the interest of employers. A government should be concerned about the well-being of its citizens, and the well-being of citizens depends also on how much free time one person has to take care of his/her family (or his/her other interests) after he/she has worked. If let to employers, unregulated capitalism would make any work enviroment in any part of the world similar to what it was like at the dawn of industrial revolution. This is so evident nowadays just by taking a look at what’s happening due to globalization, inspite of what all followers of the “laissez-faire” approach envisioned. Adam Smith’s invisible hand has guided the Western industrialized countries into a dark time of economic and social decadence. So, I agree with JoB: rules are needed to promote the talented, not the ones who will accept to work as modern slaves. To make an example, Chinese are not necessarily more (or less) talented than people living in Western Europe. Chinese just work more hours for less pay. Unless we want to regress to their standards, rules are needed to regulate our job market, and to regulate trades with countries which do not respect “our” rules on the job market.

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Harry 02.05.09 at 4:08 pm

Well, she is hardly childless. Perhaps because I know her pretty well, and know the concerns that animate her, I am quite bemused by the antagonism toward Ingrid that some commentators have evinced. It’s quite misplaced and really is based on a misunderstanding of the intent of the post as well, in lemuel’s case (#89) as a spectacular misreading of her own situation.

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lemuel pitkin 02.05.09 at 4:27 pm

Like I said, I regretted typing that the moment I hit “post”. Obviously one should not attribute people’s arguments to personal motivations. The fact that, as in this case, one is likely to be wrong about those motivations is only one reason. So, sorry.

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Ingrid Robeyns 02.05.09 at 8:25 pm

Haha, lemuel, first I couldn’t believe what I read, but then I thought – jeez, I am 36, I have a professorship and two kids – this is NOT about me! Anyway, you immediately retracted it so I won’t take offence for longer than a second.

What I find more worrisome is that people read views in my post that I don’t have. The truth is, I have no ‘all things considered’ views on how much we should do an affiarmative-action like action towards people who have large caring responsibilities, such as parents. I can see the value of people at both sides. I have been working (on and off, I should confess) on this question of conflicts of interests between parenst and non-parents for a few years now, and what strikes me is (1) how sensitive these issues are, and (2) how difficult we find it to put ourselves in the shoes of ‘the other side’.

(Why I find this worrisome is that this is not the first time that I get quite attacked on CT for posting something in which people read things that I had not the intention of writing, hence views that I do not endorse; so either my English really isn’t good enough, or else I am not able to write clearly enough (both should be enough reason to fire me, I fear), or else I should let a post rest for a day before I hit the ‘publish’ button, or else we have too many readers who dislike me/my posts and hence are predisposed to read the most uncharitable interpretation of what I write. Whatever. This is not the first time I think I am having a problem here with coming across like I’d like to be interpreted. Material for another post, I fear…)

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Ingrid Robeyns 02.05.09 at 8:53 pm

I agree that the dillemma described in the original post is not exclusive for academia. This doesn’t affect the main argument, though — it only implies that if there is a moral problem or a tension without easy solution between the legitimate interests of parents and non-parents workers (in academia or other similarly structured jobs), that this poses a problem in more labour markets than just the academic labour market.

I think that all things considered academia is a good profession for parents – but, as a 50 year old professor, and mother of three children, once told me: the advantage is the flexibility; the disadvantage is the number of hours you have to work to just stay up to date with your field and do some reserach (she was NOT talking about workign at a top university or publishing top research). This resonates with my experience in the social siences and humanities in the Netherlands.

Some of you are implicitely taking a US context as given; there are countries where there are no top universities, and no third tier universities. There are even countries where all universities are more or less similarly situated, in terms of what it means to work there and what is expected in terms of teaching load and research time. The Netherlands is one case. If I understand the situation in the US correctly, the inequaliteis between the universities, and between the kind of employment contracts that people get differ dramatically; here there are of course differences, but my informed guess is that they are minimal if one where to compare it with the US situation.

Intersting that two claims where mentioned in the comments but not further discussed:
(1) collectively we need fewer rather than more children;
(2) part of the problems with the academic labour market is that there are too many PhDs, who all want to have academic jobs.

The first is, in my view, one of the biggest taboos of our age (I don’t think we are able to reasonably and calmly discuss this claim); the second must be a context-dependent claim, but I subscribe to it for the Dutch labour market. It’s a different story, but the funding is being diverted from lecturer and reader-positions to PhD positions, and I think this is a bad development.

Finally, let me apologise for taking so long to get back to the comments section – I was working long days on hiring committees this week…. and I had two children I also wanted/needed to spend some time with…

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SamChevre 02.05.09 at 9:07 pm

JoB,

Anyway, it doesn’t matter a lot because you’ve made me extremely unhappy by construeing my comments as disapproving of your lifestyle.

I’m sorry if that’s the impression I’ve given, because it’s not true. I do not think you in any way disparaged my lifestyle; I think you want to support it. What I disagree with you on is a question of fact, not moral judgment: I think that more time and effort leads to genuinely more production in most cases, and so there is a trade-off between optimal parenting and optimal workplace productivity.

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Sebastian 02.05.09 at 9:36 pm

As a childless person I have an interesting counterpoint: children can be used to justify certain workplace practices which depending on how they are dealt with actually help parents. Vacations at various places I’ve worked often have to be negotiated to avoid too much overlap. In these discussions, the need to do something with the children is often used as a sort of trump card. I don’t really resist it too much, because I really want my coworkers to do well with their children.

A similar area where I did push back though, is helping your sick child. At a previous job I needed to take off a day and a half a medium-crucial time to help a friend going through a major surgery. My boss let a coworker take off time for children’s doctor visits all the time. I initially got a lot of crap for it, but eventually I said something along the lines of “this person is as important to me as the children X takes time for.”

The needs of parents vis-a-vis children are very important, and as a society we should support them in the very difficult child-raising endeavor. But don’t take for granted that “my kid needs it” is always a good reason to have a childless person do something for you.

(And Ingrid it doesn’t strike me that you are a person who would take that for granted–it is a general comment)

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JohnO 02.05.09 at 10:32 pm

At the risk of being a smart-ass, this argument seems to cry out for a philosophical analysis. And since I was a mediocre philosophy major long ago, I remember that we weren’t supposed to smuggle messy things like “gender” and “history” and “social science” into arguments.

No indeed. They stood and fell on their own logical consistency, or lack thereof.

Thus, for this argument, an old philosophical tool: the reductio ad absurdum.

So here it goes. Yes, of course you should hire the more productive employee. Businesses (even academies) are seeking to maximize productivity per employee. All other businesses should do the same. This is a foundation of capitalism.

In fact, when it comes to snow days, kids’ sick days, class breakfasts, soccer practices, annoying quasi-holidays when schools are closed but “real” businesses aren’t, or summer holidays, the non-parent will always have the parent beat.

Thus, on a macro scale, it would evolve into a system where Workers work and Breeders breed and raise children — but don’t work themselves, because they’re not productive enough.

However, the only way to sustain such a reasonable system would be for the Workers to financially support the Breeders, since it’s not in the Workers’ best self-interest to stifle the supply of future Workers (for economic and corporate growth is the foundation of modern capitalism). Also, the only way for future Workers (i.e., children) to acquire the proper socialization to join the existing Workers is if Workers are not actively hostile to children and Breeders by refusing to provide for their material, social, and intellectual needs.

And if Workers are reasonable and proactive, they’ll have a vested interest in such a system, because when they retire, younger Workers who were once children will cook for and take care of older Workers in retirement homes, and they wouldn’t want these younger people to be incompetent, or worse, to hate them.

But the only way to support such a system is if the Workers will have to work even harder to sustain themselves, children, and Breeders.

But it will come to pass that some workers resent this — “Why should I work to support these people who are on a kind of welfare?” — just the same way many people resent paying property taxes to fund schools, even though they benefited from these same schools when they were children.

And it may also come to pass that just because a Worker is childless, it doesn’t mean they’re not an incompetent, or a bad Worker. In fact, doing-nothing-but-work May make Workers bitter and hostile, since the breeders are off going to the park and the beach and on bike rides, while they’re working 18-hour days. And what if, while working these 18-hour days, these Workers become less productive?

In that case, Workers who are incompetent, bitter, burnt out or merely less productive end up dropping out of the working pool, because, let’s face it, every time they look out the office window and see those happy kids, they’re getting evidence that there’s more to life than just work. Or, just looking outside the office window is a sign of non-productivity.

(And just to simplify, let’s just ignore the possible squeamishness that children might have about entering the Working system, or the hypothetical situation where Breeders or children stumble across the writings of someone like Karl Marx.)

And the more Workers that drop out, the harder the other Workers have to struggle, because now they have to support a whole other class of dependents: Former Workers. And pretty soon they can’t, and the whole system collapses.

QED

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JoB 02.05.09 at 10:37 pm

Sam,

Not to worry – it was typical blog-reaction hyperbole. But as to your facts: if you want to win the marathon you have at least to run for more than 2 hours, that much is clear. Nevertheless, there will be those that need to practice a lot and those that practice not so much. The difference between them is talent. What I’m getting at roundaboutly is – your fact (certainly as far as intellectual achievements are concerned) is not a truism, and a major problem nowadays is that it is treated as one. The result is lots of talent is bein wasted because we expect people to work with their minds as our parents used to work with their shovels. Human progress is to be able to work less, not more (and this applies to parenting as well – but please note the ‘to be able’ in the sentence).

Ingrid,

For the record: as far as I, as a fellow lowlander, have a part in this misunderstanding you feel in the reactions: I think I got the gist of what you were driving at – although I have to admit I did not understand the details, but this can be the consequence of my limitations in English as well – but I do think that singling out the ‘less kids’ idiocy out of the above is doing less justice to your thread than any injustice done to you in it ;-)

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Tracy W 02.06.09 at 11:28 am

JoB, I think we have different preferences. If I mentally picture someone literally trying to get up my arse, I also have a tendency to mentally picture me trying to dig their eyes out of their sockets, as per that self-defence class I took. If you ever want to suck up to me, I advise trying a cosy chair and a nice cup of hot tea – I don’t do the S&M scene.

I’m in the “parenting is work, and you can’t be as good at two jobs as at one” category. is one of those obnoxious concepts related to the myth of hard-work meritocracy.

Lucky for me then that I have no problems with being obnoxious per se. I’d far rather be right and obnoxious or wrong and obnoxious than never venture an opinion for fear of saying something that someone somewhere might possibly regard as obnoxious. I find the mere concept of worms growing up in human flesh absolutely creepy, and yet it does happen and I understand the worms can cause serious health problems, so I don’t see obnoxiousness per se as a reason to stop discussing things, although sometimes it’s a reason to delay discussion until after dinner.

I’m not sure about what you mean when you say that there is no relationship between the amount of time you put on spending time with kids and its effect on anyone. Surely, if my parents had not spent time with me as a kid, I would know rather less about them? I do recall quite a few enjoyable times in their company as a child. I think I don’t understand what you are trying to say. Or to take the role of academic research – are you trying to say that there is no relationship between time spent saying reading journal articles in your area and how much you learn?

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JoB 02.06.09 at 11:53 am

Tracy,

Nice try at talking down but just because the ‘obnoxious’ in my ‘obnoxious concepts’ & your ‘obnoxious persons’ is the same word, it is not fair game to transfer it thus & make out as if I cared whether you were obnoxious are not. Or do you think that ‘myth’ was a reference to things that might possible be factually ‘right’?

No, I don’t think there is a linear relationship, but if you insist on taking your examples close to ZERO time to enforce I point you apparently want to make about LOADS of it -I gladly admit that the time/effect curve passes through the (0,0) point and slopes up & does so to reach saturation and an amount of time that is much less than the amount of time socially put as a standard to reach any specific effect.

It is well known in sports that marathon-runners should be wary about over-training & so should we about over-working ;-)

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WMA 02.06.09 at 1:32 pm

I doubt that any of you have ever actually worked in an academic institution that places primary emphasis on quality teaching. I do, and I can tell you that my work hours would go down a lot if all I had to worry about was publishing the next great book in my field (they were much lower when I was working on the two books I published with major university presses in 2006 and before I took this job).

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Barry 02.06.09 at 2:16 pm

‘getting up their arse’ is something I interpret as ‘kissing *ss’.

This applies to Ingrid’s comments, where she took it to mean attacking somebody.

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harry b 02.06.09 at 2:35 pm

“Lucky for me then that I have no problems with being obnoxious per se. I’d far rather be right and obnoxious or wrong and obnoxious than never venture an opinion for fear of saying something that someone somewhere might possibly regard as obnoxious.”

But note that these are rarely the only options on offer, and we’d all do well to remember that.

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lisa 02.06.09 at 4:56 pm

“Why I find this worrisome is that this is not the first time that I get quite attacked on CT for posting something in which people read things that I had not the intention of writing, hence views that I do not endorse; so either my English really isn’t good enough, or else I am not able to write clearly enough (both should be enough reason to fire me, I fear), or else I should let a post rest for a day before I hit the ‘publish’ button, or else we have too many readers who dislike me/my posts and hence are predisposed to read the most uncharitable interpretation of what I write. Whatever. This is not the first time I think I am having a problem here with coming across like I’d like to be interpreted. Material for another post, I fear…”

I think what you said about imaginatively occupying the other position is very interesting. I hope you will write a post on that! This can be enormously helpful in understanding arguments. It might be indispensable for issues like this. It’s something people have difficulty with (to the great detriment of the quality of public and private discourse on many questions) but they may be even less able to do it on the internet. It might have something to do with the strange fact that we are replying directly to someone we think of as ‘someone’ but we are unable to pick up on any non-verbal cues and so we project imaginary traits on them?

Another feature of these discussions is that I think we group views into camps. If anyone tries to cut through the gordian knot or enter in with new assumptions, they are often relegated to certain argumentative spaces the reader already assumes exist. Another way of putting this is that people don’t read carefully–especially not on the internet.

This happens even with academic papers, says the woman with more than one paper rejected because the reader didn’t like some entirely different view they thought my view resembled. To avoid this you sometimes have to say: My view is NOT VIEW A, B AND C even though a careful reader would already get your view..

The former is just speculation because in feminist threads (not academic ones) I’ve raised questions/issues and those replying to me angrily used masculine pronouns, sort of assuming only a man would raise such issues. (I wasn’t making anti-feminist arguments and I don’t know why that happened.)

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lemuel pitkin 02.06.09 at 6:53 pm

Ingrid,

Thanks for the replies, and sorry again for personalizing my criticism. (Which would be wrong even if weren’t so off-base factually.)

I don’t think the reason this kind of dynamic develops has anything to do with defects in your English, which is fine. I think it’s more a tendency shared by most of us (where “us” is participants in blog threads, or educated English speakers circa 2009, or human beings in general, or maybe especially the male subsets of the above) to treat discussion as a kind of combat and look for opportunities to win points rather than for mutual understanding. In face to face conversation this tendency is usually restrained by all the nonverbal cues that allow you to identify or sympathize with your interlocutor, and misapprehensions can be corrected quickly before they snowball. But online it’s much easier to reduce someone to whatever abstract position you want to argue against — especially if, as here (for totally understandable reasons!) there’s no response from the other side.

So I wouldn’t take it at all personally. With perhaps one caveat — some of these dynamics get restrained by the various cues — jokes, familair references, etc. — that establish in online settings that the speaker is “one of us”. If you seem to get attacked more than other CT bloggers, I would guess it’s because you don’t really do the cool-TV-show/old-SF-writer/fun-music-video/odd-personal-experience posts thatmany of the otehr regualrs do, which help establish the sense of CT as a community. Which isn’t to say you should do such posts, just a guess about why this difference might exist.

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Tracy W 02.08.09 at 10:27 am

JoB – having eaten in the company of more than one trainee doctor, I believe that a person discussing an obnoxious concept is obnoxious for the duration of the discussion (although of course they can be very polite in other ways at the same time). I responded the way I did because in the past I am aware that people have tried to discourage the discussion of concepts by calling them obnoxious. My point was that even if you think the concept is obnoxious that’s not a reason to ignore it. You are free to care about whatever you want to care about.
I ignored your comment about myth of a hard-working meritocracy because I was trying to remain focused on the discussion. I think many areas of academic research and teaching are valuable in and of themselves, for example antibiotics have saved vast numbers of lives, and that’s true regardless of whether Alexander Fleming was a hard worker or a lazy SOB who spent all his time sucking up and claiming credit for other people’s work. (Of course not all academic work is useful, eg the theory of repression developed by Freud was a waste of time because it was not disprovable). And parenting work can be valuable even if you don’t boast about it to all your fellow parents.
As for the time trade-off, that’s an empirical question. I have a number of childhood memories of my uncles and aunts, so presumably I spent non-zero amounts of time with them, but I have far more memories of my parents, which I think can be attributed to spending a lot more time with them. I don’t think spending time with kids is similar to training for a marathon, after all you can spend time with kids in a lot of different ways. My memories of time spent with my parents include going fishing, watching Marx brother movies, “helping” hang wallpaper, learning to cook, running around at the beach, etc.

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