Missing the Big Picture

By Glenn Petersen

Faculty Fathers: Toward a New Ideal in the Research University by Margaret W. Sallee. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2014. 


It’s hardly usual for a book review to include e-mail correspondence between the reviewer and his daughter, I know, but the following exchange took place as I was writing this review and captures my own experience of being a faculty father as well as anything else I might say.

Me. I ordered a book to be sent to you, Sweetbitter. It’s reviewed in today’s Times and it just felt like something you’d enjoy.

Daughter [a few minutes later]. I just read that book review this morning on the bus ride into work! It’s almost like we’re related. . . .

Recommending books to students is one of the more satisfying aspects of my job. It requires an ability to size up students well enough in the course of a conversation to suggest books that will interest them and, above all, that they’ll be likely to read. I’ve never really reflected on how I learned to pick books that students will enjoy, but it’s not a trivial skill. At some level, it depends on connecting one’s own moral imagination (that is, the propensity to expand one’s ethical sense to appreciate and incorporate the new and the unfamiliar) with that of one’s students. When I do that successfully, I feel like I’m achieving something, getting somewhere with my students. This feeds the joy I find in teaching and means that I eagerly anticipate entering the classroom. And I developed this skill in the course of being a faculty father.

Literature on motherhood and faculty life appears with some regularity, but the scholarship on fatherhood and faculty life is less extensive. Given my sense, based both in my own subjective experience and in decades of conversations with colleagues, that nearly everything about our work as college professors has been substantially, if not radically, transformed by our experiences of fatherhood, I’ve been eager to see someone do empirical work on faculty fathers.

Margaret Sallee makes a start in that direction but then wanders astray. I picked up her book in hopes of gaining insight into what I do; instead, I was told that all that I’ve experienced hasn’t really happened. I like to think I’m more than willing to learn that I’ve been wrong, but in the end I found myself facing the classic Marx brothers question, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” Had she gone about her research a little differently, she might well have marshaled enough evidence to convince me that what I see is a mirage, but despite a lot of hard work, the author hasn’t done so.

Sallee’s approach is wedded to two theoretical constructs that hamper her imagination: the “ideal worker” (“an employee who is always available to work and has few outside demands”) and “hegemonic masculinity” (“the type of masculinity to which all men are expected to aspire”). Used with more finesse, these terms might have resonated, but she barely pauses to examine their applicability. The ideal worker and hegemonic masculinity are, as she repeatedly insists, “norms,” but I find myself asking, in a poor paraphrase of Shakespeare, “What’s in a norm?” Where do they actually reside, how are they modulated, and what happens to them when almost nobody acts in accordance with them? I ask these questions because my own complex and contradictory sense of masculinity, forged in a working-class upbringing and honed fighting in Southeast Asia, is indeed linked to my notion of an ideal worker: a big part of being a man is to do my job as well as I possibly can. But here’s the rub. Nurturing, compassion, and honesty lie near the core of what being a good professor means to me, and this set of traits runs entirely against the grain of what Sallee imagines masculinity to entail.

Much of the problem here lies in the sample that she uses—not in her sample as a whole but in the part of the whole on which she focuses. In her research at four public research universities, three of which are their states’ flagship campuses, in four different parts of the country, she conducted forty-five-minute interviews with a total of seventy faculty members: twenty-two assistant, twenty-eight associate, and twenty full professors, all either tenured or on the tenure track. Had she not spelled this out, however, I would have assumed that nearly everyone with whom she spoke was either a young, untenured assistant professor or a recently tenured associate. Overwhelmingly, her focus is on how difficult it is to achieve tenure while raising children. In many ways the central point of her book is that fathering takes men away from their jobs and that this directly conflicts with society’s notions of what men should be doing. Her concern, that is, is not with faculty fathers per se but with the difficulties of trying to manage two demanding tasks simultaneously during a relatively short part of one’s career. This is a worthwhile subject, to be sure, but it hardly gives a coherent view of what fathering means to professors (or at least that shrinking portion of them able to find and keep fulltime positions), who in fact spend most of their careers with tenure and with older and adult children (and in many cases, grandchildren).

We hear almost nothing about what these older professors have gained from their efforts or about how their experiences have shaped their work and careers. Sallee hints at these experiences, as in her observation that “several participants discussed how becoming fathers had changed their outlooks on their careers,” but she refers here to career paths, not the teaching and research that professors do. Because of this relentless focus on the hardships entailed, she misses the larger picture.

I don’t think the forty-five-minute interviews served her well. She obtained answers to her questions, all right, but she could not have had much time left to explore complexities and nuances. The book makes few observations about what it is actually like to be a father on campus today. Sallee takes the comments made during her interviews at face value, and she draws primarily on quotes from junior faculty. I’m not suggesting that the people she interviewed were being deliberately misleading or manipulative, but it’s impossible to understand the workings of an academic department or a university as a whole based only on what junior faculty have to say about how senior faculty think and behave. I recall my admonition to graduate students heading off to do ethnographic fieldwork for their dissertations: if you come back having done exactly what you set out to do, you weren’t paying close enough attention. Sallee encounters evidence that runs counter to her presuppositions, but she doesn’t seem to understand it, fails to explore it, and doesn’t rechart her course.

Sallee is ultimately interested in change and concerned with the development and implementation of new policies intended to create gender equity in child-rearing and promote friendlier institutional environments for faculty parents. This means that she needs to have a clear sense of what it was like to be a faculty father in the past as well as of who actually has the will, resources, and influence to effect the changes she would like to see. We’re talking here, inevitably, about senior faculty members and about administrators, many of whom were themselves junior faculty members not that long ago. I find Sallee’s description of past attitudes toward faculty fathers unrecognizable, and this failure to understand the past prevents her from seeing how some fathers from my generation have tried to improve the situation. Being a faculty father was tough in the past, but I have no sense that men in my boomer cohort were any less interested in raising our children than the Generation X folks whose praises she sings. I could be wrong about this, and Sallee might have data to refute me, but if she does she certainly didn’t use them.

We desperately need to know more about how parenthood shapes the lives of everyone, including male and female faculty members. Sallee provides us with a jumping-off point, but she misses the biggest element in faculty fatherhood—which is not, as she claims, the notion of the ideal worker but the role of the teacher-scholar whose work is informed by the experience of raising children.

About ten years ago, my daughter, home on break from college, came to one of my classes. She walked to the back of the room and took a seat. One of my students turned to her and said, “I haven’t seen you here before. You look sort of like Professor Petersen. Are you Gracie?” I’ve used examples from both her development and my own as a parent in my introductory anthropology courses—about what it means to be human—so often that my students feel like they know her. Now that’s faculty fathering in action.

Glenn Petersen is professor of anthropology and international affairs at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His e-mail address is Glenn .Petersen@baruch.cuny.edu.

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