Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mothers in the Academy: How to Do It All*

Heather Cox Richardson

Well, first you need a good household staff.


OK, now that we’ve got the hilarity out of the way, how really can mothers take on teaching, research and writing, and children—three incredibly labor-intensive jobs—at the same time?

Let’s start with teaching. Here are a few things I picked up along the way, largely by the seat of my pants as I jumped into a job when my first child (of three) was just shy of three months old. Nothing I learned was intentional, but some of it has stood me in good stead.

The key concept for enabling mothers to survive in the academy is efficiency. And here are some things that helped me to achieve it:

Teach big courses with a wide scope. That sounds counterintuitive, I know. Most people think it takes less energy for junior scholars—and most people with small children will be junior scholars—to teach smaller classes in their specialty. The problem with such specific classes is that they tend to be under enrolled, which means you will constantly have to come up with new courses to keep your numbers up. Repeatedly writing courses from scratch is a huge time-sink.

The initial time investment for writing a survey course is undoubtedly large, but it’s a one-time thing. From there, if you need to, you can pivot that material into a number of other classes. (My History of the American West stands alone, but has also spawned Race, Riots, and Rodeos, as well as The Plains Indians.) But the chances are good you won’t need to. Surveys tend to fill every semester. So do other sweeping courses that cover large periods, major events, important themes, and so on. Yearly tweaking will be enough to keep the courses up-to-date and interesting until you have the time to invest in creating new ones.

Another way to teach efficiently is to use grading rubrics. Instead of writing line-by-line comments on essays and exams—which takes forever—develop your own set of categories that you will evaluate. I grade essays with six categories: thesis, argument, style, evidence, grammar, errors, and overall. Under those categories, I write anything from a line to a paragraph about what worked and what didn’t.

You could, of course, break down your rubrics even further.

This takes about a third as long as my old style of line-by-line comments, and students love it. I started it not to save time, but because I read an education study showing that students were overwhelmed by unorganized comments and learned very little from them. So I gritted my teeth and tried a rubric. The first time I did it, grading took so much less time than usual I felt like I was cheating, but that year I got the best student reviews I’d ever gotten for my essay comments. In this case, it appears that less really is more.

I did both of these things for reasons that had nothing to do with mothering, but they ended up being very helpful ways to organize my teaching time most efficiently. They also were great for my own research, but that will be a different post.

*I’m writing another post on the theoretical argument behind this series of posts. Until then, once again, I am defining “mothers” as a different mindset, not as a biological identification.


Chris Beneke said...

I'm totally with you on the efficiency part of this. But I do wonder whether there's not some danger in this strategy (which will surely maximize individual faculty scholarship and family time) of turning our teaching into something that can be replicated and sold cheaply by MOOC vendors? I realize that we provide accountability and the broader student experience. Still, I worry.

hcr said...

Oooo, MOOCs! Yes, Chris, there is that to contend with. I'd like to make this a bigger debate. My observations suggest that there is a huge disconnect about MOOCs between younger scholars and established ones that I think needs exploration (I've aggregated a ton of good pieces about them-- can we maybe put them on our FB page?)

On the one hand, we cannot make technology and new methods go away. On the other hand, the current MOOC model simply appalls me. So how can good historians direct this swell in a way that does not destroy our profession?

But back to your point: I don't think junior scholars do themselves any favors by isolating their teaching in a tiny field, because it's too easy for an administrator to argue that the school doesn't really need a historian of some obscure topic. That does not, though, mean that your scholarship can't have a laser focus.

Lots of cool stuff here to fuss over, and I find it exciting that we finally, finally, ARE!

Susan said...

Thanks so much for doing this series! This is great advice. Broad classes with larger enrollments can, if you are at a university, also come with TAs, who can of course ease the grading burden even as they up the administrative costs of the large class. Still, I'd take the latter anyday.
As a recently tenured associate prof, I'd also love to see some discussion about the mid-career motherhood slump. I'm feeling that as my second child is just 1 year old and I'm starting a new multi-archival research project from scratch. Having my one baby pre-tenure when I had a rough draft of my first book (that is, my dissertation) already done when I arrived at my job seems like a breeze in comparison. Plus I was protected from heavy service.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Again, thank you for casing your comments in the context of people who are mother-minded, rather than biological mothers. This includes parents of both genders as well as care givers of all kinds. So thankful. I'm learning that my surveys not only save time, but are really appreciated by students. Sometimes what is good for me is also good for them. This is especially true when someone is in a position like mine where the teaching load is 4-4.

Rubrics are great--I find students just want to know what area they lost the points in rather than engaging deeply with all the specifics of where they went wrong. Those who want to be good writers will come talk with me more about it. Our department has been reluctant to do this, but over time, we've all found/modified rubrics that work.

Can we have a set of conversations on MOOCs? I want to talk about this more, but this doesn't seem the spot....

hcr said...

Hi Susan! Yes, on mid-career motherhood slump. although I think that has far less to do with motherhood than with the profession. But yes. And Lisa, yes, I'm busy writing a theoretical discussion of this series that emphasizes it is not primarily about babiesFl, but about a different approach to knowledge and American society. And finally, yes, let's absolutely talk about MOOCs. Maybe both here and on FB page.