Posted in Rants on January 24th, 2011 by Ed

A hypothetical scenario for a college professor.

Bob is a graduate student. One semester he gets seriously depressed and misses several weeks of class. For reasons beyond anyone's comprehension, I, the professor, cannot simply talk to Bob and come to an agreement about how to handle the work he missed and his grade. The obvious choice would be to give him a grade of Incomplete and require him to make up the work later, but I determine that the course is just too important and he has fallen irredeemably behind his cohort – which means he should be withdrawn from the class and required to take it again. Instead I decide to email the entire cohort of graduate students to poll them on what should be done with Bob. I say, "One of your classmates has depression and missed a bunch of class. Should I give him an A, B, or C? Should he get the grade he had at the time he stopped attending? Should he be given zeroes for his missed grades and given a final grade accordingly? Help me out here!"

Look at that story. It's like a game: circle all of the things that are illegal, against university policy, or just plain inappropriate. I revealed personal information about one of the students to his classmates, information that is likely to embarrass him. Of course they all know who has been absent, so efforts to "anonymize" the situation are silly at best. I decided to poll students about a grading decision that I should make based on established university policy – after all, it is not likely that this is the first time as student has ever missed classes for personal reasons.

The only thing that could make this more inappropriate – with the potential exception of the phrase "One of your classmates has a burning chancre on his penis" – would be for the professor to discuss the details of this situation with the whole grad cohort in class. With Bob in the room.

While this is not the most realistic hypothetical, if you replace "depression" with "pregnant" and "Bob" with a female this is essentially what happened in a graduate program at UC-Davis. A pregnant female student had her personal situation and grade opened up for discussion by a male professor who, despite being fully tenured and with many years of experience, has apparently never had a pregnant woman in his class. Or perhaps even met one.

There are several problems here, not the least of which is an ancient, tenured asshole who probably longs for the days when a male professor could tell female students "This is a man's field. Go study anthropology" without consequences and with the unanimous approval of his colleagues. The bigger problem is the extent to which academics (and other people in highly competitive fields in the non-academic world) are not-so-subtly dissuaded from having any sort of life outside of academia. While I'm sure that many departments are good about the issue, female graduate students are usually informed in indirect but certain terms that having a baby in grad school – heck, any time before tenure! – is not a good idea. It is an inconvenience during grad school and a burden on the job market. After all, who wants to hire a woman who will constantly be taking breaks to breastfeed and leaving at 5:00 to spend time with her children? That's valuable research time! (Male academics who have children, on the other hand, are simply expected to ignore them. Mommy can take care of them. You can stay in the office.)

Academia expects us to have no life whatsoever outside of the campus, although professions like teaching, law, medicine, and nursing (to name a few) are similarly difficult on people during the typical marriage-and-kids years of one's life. That the professor's actions here were inappropriate and probably illegal goes without saying. That graduate programs and attitudes toward young faculty try to shame and punish people who dare to, you know, have a child before it's biologically too late is more disturbing. The message is clear: your job is the most important thing in your life and everything is secondary to the demands of your employer. You know this is wrong and that you should prioritize your family and life over your job. That said, the fact that employees in this country have no power whatsoever (especially in a lousy job market) has a strange tendency to subsume any holistic sense of self-interest and promote one that is defined solely as the need to do whatever is necessary to keep one's job.

Sure, universities could push back against these pressures in our society…but given that the upper tiers of the profession are composed of people who were educated in the 1960s Old Boys' Clubs there is little interest in doing so. Have fun working at Borders after we deny your tenure, Missy. Hope those kids were worth it!

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