Ask the grumpies: Recommendations for post-maternity leave

Slightly Anonymous asks:

My department is writing a policy for what they do to support new parents post-parental leave.  I’m on the committee that is supposed to come up with this.  I think this is great:  if somebody misses a year or a semester with a new baby, then it makes sense that they might need some time or extra support to come back up to speed.  But what should our committee recommend?

I’m wondering if you or any of your readers have ideas?

I’m at a UK university, which means that academic staff at my university are either on short-term temporary contracts — think postdoc — or have permanent positions.  In most UK universities “lecturer” is the equivalent of “assistant professor with tenure.”  At my university there is a 1 year probationary period before your job is officially permanent, but passing probation is pretty much a formality.  There is still stress about being promoted, but much less than what comes with trying to get tenure in a US university.

Being in the US and not having been at coastal or ultra-prestigious schools, our own experience is pretty pathetic.  That whole “missing a year or a semester with a new baby” thing … not something we’re used to.  In my department we’re still trying to get something consistent in place that doesn’t involve begging other people in the department to cover your classes for a couple of weeks after the baby is born.

Off the top of my head, all I can think of is adding a year to the tenure clock for those without tenure, but that is mostly irrelevant in the UK context.  Surely someone out there has a better idea of what best practices are?  #2 has only seen terrible practices.  My poor poor colleagues.

Grumpy Nation, please weigh in with your suggestions!

Ask the grumpies: Dissertation Student from Hades

Stacie asks:

I have this student. She is a PhD student and she gets under my skin! Several months ago I could tell things were not right between us as she was very combative and defensive in class. I tried various ways to figure this issue out in class to no avail. I finally asked for a meeting and honestly felt blind-sided and rail-roaded by her response. When I tried to discuss her behavior, she was quick to retort how she wasn’t the problem, it was me and began to recount my failings [update:  failings were that Stacie is “cold and distant”]. It honestly caught me off guard and I didn’t know how to respond. I ultimately tried to diffuse the situation and talk about how we would work together in the future. I did find out that other students definitely see problems in her behavior in various classes, but have yet to find another professor who will vouch for this. I’ve asked and they say they have no problems with her, but then I hear other students talk about how much this student is being difficult in their classes… (this also drives me crazy!) I talked to my Chair whose overall response to most things seems to be “oh well” so that didn’t really help.

I am really having a hard time keeping my cool around this student who continues to be defensive in class. I am definitely having trouble “teaching others how to treat me” – probably because I don’t like conflict, try to be “nice”, and don’t have great one-liners at the ready to respond to student behaviors.

Yes, I am the newest faculty member, one of the only young females in a mostly senior, male faculty, and have been told I’m the most “human” of any professor we have. (I used to think this was a good thing, but now am not so sure.)

I was wondering if you could help me with how to think about this issue or some phrases I could use regularly with this kind of thing with students or other things I can do to survive this kind of issue. I have a feeling this won’t be my last student who challenges me like this, but I don’t want to always worry or over-think these things. I honestly have some great students, but this one student is the only one I can think about! It drives me crazy!

Well, we don’t have any great advice on this particular student.  Avoiding her completely would be awesome, but it sounds like that might not be an option. Mostly, it sounds like you need a mentor who has handled PhD students at your school for a while and has tenure. They can give you suggestions for the circumstances.  It also sounds like you’ve tried in vain to find such a mentor, and that really sucks.  We’re sorry you’re not getting more support on this.  :(

However, you can also look outside of your department.  Seek out the following resources: 1) talk to the head of the teaching development center at your school, whatever that’s called. (Or teaching & learning, or teaching & Faculty development, etc.) They exist for things like this! 2) talk to your faculty ombudsperson, as they may know more resources and probably have seen similar situations in the past. 3) attempt to get mentoring informally from senior colleagues — if not in your own department then in other departments. You could talk to other people who supervise PhD students, members of the student’s dissertation committee, the Director of Graduate Studies for your department, or the Dean of the Graduate School (or someone in their office). Take them to coffee and ask for advice. It’s good for the future to be friendly with these sorts of people anyway. 4) Outlast the student. Unfortunately this also takes time.

In terms of how to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future with other students, Teach like a champion is an invaluable resource with tactics that really do work. It isn’t quite as much help for what to do after a problem has started, but it’s great for setting up a professional environment where problems won’t start. We have some posts on teaching tactics from it that you might find helpful if you want to get a taste while waiting to get it from the library.  Maintain control of the classroom, and very strong personal boundaries. Don’t let the turkeys get you down.

Update:  That is an incredibly gendered complaint.  Professors are allowed to be cold and distant and setting boundaries and having a personal bubble helps immensely when you’re a young woman professor.  If you didn’t have such a bubble, students would be complaining about something else because they would perceive you as unprofessional.  There’s no way to win.  Allowing space and distance is the way to go because it isn’t so time intensive or emotionally challenging, even if you get punished for it.

Getting grey hair is also good for reducing student challenges. And experience is great for not letting obnoxious students get to you so much. But those strategies take time.

In the mean time, hopefully the academic part of the Grumpy Nation will chime in with additional suggestions.  We’ll also try to get a signal boost from Historiann to get her always helpful readers.

A mother’s day rant

1.  If you’re a full-time daycare, don’t have “Muffins with Mom”.

2.  If you decide to have “Muffins with Mom” anyway, don’t put a sign-up sheet in the lobby where everyone can see which moms obviously don’t love their children enough to leave work to spent 30 min eating store-bought muffins with them at daycare.

3.  Also, the next day don’t ask the moms who weren’t there why they weren’t there and then tell them that they were the only mom who wasn’t there and little DC was so upset.  (Especially if the reason according to DC that ze was upset was because ze had to have grapes instead of muffins like all the other kids because ze’s allergic to wheat.  Or maybe especially if that’s not the reason.)

I wonder how many moms are going to show up in Dad’s place for Donuts with Dad, which I assume they’re also having.  Of course, little DC2 won’t have dad there either because he’s traveling for work that week.

I’m actually only slightly irritated, and mainly at the patriarchy.  And to be honest, I would have checked the no box even if I hadn’t had a P&T meeting scheduled a month and a half in advance at exactly that time.  I am willing to sacrifice DC a little bit so that other mothers can also feel free to check the “no” box if they need to or want to.  (And at the time I checked “No” there were two other “No”s, one with a written “I’m out of town” excuse.)  I suppose that makes me a terrible mother, but I don’t want hir to feel like this is a big deal, and based on conversations with hir the evening of the event, ze was indeed upset by the lack of muffin and not at all by the lack of mommy.  (And yes, a “better” set of parents would have brought gluten-free muffins, but DC2 has gf cookies provided specifically for these kinds of events, and I didn’t really realize that it was Thursday until I got to daycare and saw the ladies setting up for the party, because the end of the semester is busy.)

I have the solace that deep down I believe that these little upsets truly are character building and learning to weather having to eat grapes when the other kids have muffins so as to avoid getting a rash is just one of those things that makes a person stronger.  Obviously we shouldn’t try to create character building incidents because that’s sadistic, but it’s not such a big deal when they happen.  Especially when grapes are actually better than grocery store muffins.

or with music

Do you think there’s any point …

Occasionally we stumble upon mommy-blogs in which the author is extremely anxious about the cleanliness of her house or her lack of making beautiful baked goods or what she’s doing or not doing with her children or I don’t know, whatever it is that the NYTimes is telling women and mothers to be anxious about.  Sometimes her husband is a lazy asshole and she feels like she can never measure up to his wants and needs while still taking care of the children and house (and sometimes, though not always, her job).  And she’s worried about her (normal-range) weight to boot.

And sometimes I will “poo” in her comments section, questioning why she believes that magazine or blog article she read telling her that her life is worthless if her kitchen floor isn’t sparkly.  (I haven’t seen articles like that, but bloggers claim they exist.  Maybe they have subscriptions to Patriarchy Monthly:  Keeping women down since the beginning of time?)

This little scat packet of mine rarely goes over well.  I’m not the target demo.  The target demo is other women who also feel like their kitchen floor will never be clean enough who are supposed to commiserate.  *shudder.*

And I wonder… is there any point to saying, “Cleanliness is next to cleanser, not next to Godliness” and “Why are you making yourself miserable because you don’t measure up to some artificial standard created by the patriarchy?”  (Because the blogger is always miserable.  And she always blames herself and never the magazines.)  Not usually in those words, but it doesn’t actually matter how gently or politely the words are phrased.  Harsh comments and gentle comments get the same response.

If it weren’t for the patriarchy or those women’s magazines, would they find something else to be miserable about?  Is it really the patriarchy bringing them down, and would understanding it do any good?

Really what I ought to do is to completely leechblock such blogs so I don’t have to read them myself, because they depress me.  Reading about women who are upset when they don’t need to be depresses me.  I don’t like reading about people who stay with lazy husbands they don’t love and don’t communicate with who make them miserable (and say all relationships are like that, anyone who says differently is lying, so why change).  I don’t like reading about people feeling guilty and anxious and worthless because they’re buying the line that the patriarchy is selling them.  I don’t like reading about people being determined to stay miserable and anxious.

And no, I don’t blame these women, but it makes me feel sad and helpless to see the comments agreeing that that’s just the way life is and everybody feels like that and all women are worthless and not measuring up to arbitrary standards that they believe are important that don’t have to be important.  And voices of dissent get attacked– it’s self-policing.  Will it always stay that way?  And is one lone blogging voice saying no, don’t believe it, doing more harm than good?

What’s the point?

How to write a good book for girls

Step 1:  Make a good book for kids.

Step 2: Make sure there are girls in it, at least 50%, and not in like subservient roles and crap.

Step 3: Make sure those girls are people first, and girls second (or third or fourth or whatever they are defined by besides their presentation as female).

That is all.

Don’t punch down

Racists punch down.  Misogynists punch down.  Bullies punch down.

If you’re in the majority, if you’re protected by privilege, even if you’re not as protected as a tall, wealthy, Christian, white male would be… don’t punch down to the people worse off than  you.

Don’t blame an entire group for the failings of a few members if that group is lower than you on life’s difficulty setting.  It’s not their job to police everybody who shares the discriminated against characteristic.  (Whereas you might be able to make an argument that there is nobody else to police the wealthy tall white male “Christians” but wealthy tall white male “Christians” themselves.)

If you’re going to punch a group, then punch up.

If you find the action of a single person or small group of people to be despicable, then call out that action.  Call out those people.  Don’t blame the entire group.  Don’t do things that are racist just because a black guy killed a cop or because a small group of terrorists killed a group of comic strip writers.  Extend the same courtesy to less privileged groups that you do to the most privileged groups, because without doing that, the patriarchy will never be defeated.

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Another note on privilege

Have you ever noticed that nobody ever says “those racists got what’s coming to them” or “if they didn’t want to get killed they shouldn’t have been racist.”

But they do say, “if they didn’t want to get killed/raped/etc.” they shouldn’t have provoked/been someplace where they could be noticed by/etc. a person in power?

You don’t get blamed if you get hurt when you’re punching down.  Nobody expects people to shoot back.  When they do, you can’t be blamed for not expecting it.  But punching up?  You should have known better.  Don’t carry a gun if you’re not white.  Do everything the police office says, no matter how illegally he is treating you.  Don’t speak out against rapists or internet harassers.  If you do, you deserve to become a target (except that you never deserve that).

If you are in a group with less privilege it is always automatically your fault (by popular opinion, though not in truth, never in truth).  You are not innocent specifically because you are not a Christian (or atheist– only the super-privileged are allowed to admit to atheism) white male.  It’s like your original sin– not being born with privilege.

Because you’re not privileged, then you should *know* that the world is a dangerous and scary place and you have to stay in your home, wearing a burqa, surrounded by robot body-guards.  If you’re privileged then you don’t have to do that because the world simply *isn’t* a dangerous and scary place for you.  You have to actively seek a career like drug-trafficking before people start going, “hey, you should have done something to prevent yourself from becoming a victim.”  It’s simply unthinkable that it could ever be a Christian white guy’s fault.

Wouldn’t it be nice if nobody ever thought to victim blame?  If everybody were extended the same grace that white guys in power are given?  That we could focus on the people causing the crimes rather than the people victimized by them?

But that’s patriarchy for you.  Culture is against you, therefore you’re in double-jeopardy.  You’re damned from the start.  And doubly so if you try to fight it, if you try to do what those white Christian (and atheist) guys take for granted every moment of every day.

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