Having it all: my own story

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

Today marks a milestone for me professionally: 18 years after earning my doctorate in Comparative Literature, after a demanding year-long evaluation process, I have finally been granted a ten-year contract, the closest thing to tenure at my institution.

Why did it take me so long, despite the fact that I had all the requisite publishing and service work and teaching excellence?

Two reasons.

One, I stepped off the tenure track right out of grad school to prioritize the needs of my two sons, the first born two years before I finished my Ph.D., the second six years later.   I chose to work part-time in those early parenting years, not realizing how hard it would be to get back on the fulltime track.

Two, once it became apparent to me that simply moving from part-time to fulltime at my home institution would be difficult, I accepted a lucrative lecturer position at a nearby state university, and did both—two-thirds time at the small liberal arts college, half time at the university—for nine years, while also raising my sons, publishing two edited collections, and directing various major conferences.

Last year the state funding dried up so I lost my second job; and at the same time I finally got a green light to go for that ten-year contract at my primary institution.

It’s still officially only two-thirds time, a fact that may surprise many who work with me, as I have actually taught fulltime every semester for the past three years, and often in the years before that, in addition to carrying a more than full load of committee and service work of all kinds.

If I were a man, would things be different?

Yes, I think so. I would probably have let my kids’ mother make the professional sacrifices, allowing me to go full throttle towards a tenure track position right out of grad school.  As a man, I would probably have been a better negotiator, able to make a persuasive case for why I should be earning a fulltime salary for the important work I put in for my institution.  I might have spent less time cooking dinners and reading bedtime stories, and more time writing that Important Book.

I don’t want this to be true.  I want parents of both genders to be equally likely to intensively parent, write great books or play the cut-throat negotiator.

But in my own case, I know that my gender did matter.  I was raised by a mother who put her parenting role first, and a father who focused primarily on professional success.  Put together, they made for a stellar parenting team.  But I certainly did absorb the gendered messages from them: a mother’s first obligation is to her children, while fathers are out bringing home the bacon.

The problem is that I have needed to be both mother and father to my children, in the sense of parenting AND bringing home the bacon, and there are only so many hours in the day, only so much of me to go around.

I feel fortunate to have chosen a field that gave me enough flex-time to approach something like “having it all”: doing a good job at home as well as at work.  I do not take it for granted, and firmly believe that this precious scenario should be the norm rather than the exception–for the health of our kids, their parents and our society as a whole.

Who’s Afraid of Distance Learning?

It used to be that a smart, motivated young person could work hard, earn a doctorate, do a good job as a junior professor, and live happily ever after as a tenured professor.

It also used to be that a smart young person could work hard, get into a good college, and expect to be taught with passion and enthusiasm by a corps of dedicated professors.

Despite the ever-increasing cost of college tuition, neither of these expectations holds water any more.

Academia, as a profession and as a social landscape, is deeply troubled right now, in ways that are profoundly connected to wider social and economic problems in our society.

In today’s New York Times, pundit David Brooks suggests that colleges need to do more to ensure that their high sticker price is delivering measurable value. However, his solution—standardized exit testing of college seniors—shows how out of touch he is with the real issues and problems facing academia today.

At a recent high-level conference hosted by Lafayette College, ponderously titled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and its Leadership in Education Around the World,” “Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss laid out four major challenges facing liberal arts colleges — affordability, public skepticism about the value of a liberal arts degree and college in general, decline in the share of U.S population who fit the demographic patterns of students who traditionally attend liberal arts colleges, and questions about how to incorporate technology into the college and serve a generation of students that is increasingly networked.”

Smith College

At small liberal arts colleges like Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where I teach, we pride ourselves on a low student-faculty ratio. At Simon’s Rock the ratio is only 9 students to each professor.  But of course that’s a big part of why our tuition is so high, to pay for the one-on-one, intensive engagement with each student.

From the perspective of college presidents and administrators trying to make ends meet, this educational model may not be sustainable.

Certainly that was the case at the University at Albany, SUNY, where I taught for nine years in an interdisciplinary first-year seminar program designed to “give a small college experience in the big university.”  The program, which had just received an enthusiastic external review that trumpeted its successes in retention and learning outcomes for the roughly 800 students we served each year, was axed in 2011.

Now those 800 students are sitting in the big lecture halls with 500 others at a time—or, just as likely, not bothering to go to class at all.  It was a common complaint among my SUNY students that the professor wouldn’t know or care if you showed up or not—all it took to pass the course was cramming for the exam with the textbook.

Given this scenario, it’s not surprising that more and more of our large universities are shifting to distance learning.  Why go through the trouble of housing thousands of undergraduates, when you can deliver the lecture and the exam to them in their own bedrooms at home?

There is truth to this, and I have no doubt that networked, globalized distance learning is going to be the standard form of higher education delivery in the years to come.  It’s already happening incredibly fast, and even small liberal arts colleges need to be thinking about how to jump on that train before they miss it entirely.

As someone who teaches media studies, with a special interest in new media, I am in many ways delighted and intrigued by the potential of distance learning in higher education.  I have even been trying to persuade the administrators at my college to give it a try.

While it is never going to be the same as the old-fashioned model of nine students sitting around a seminar table with a professor, with current video capabilities it can come pretty close, as anyone who has tried a Google “hang-out” can attest.

And wouldn’t it be exciting to “hang out” in a seminar classroom with students from around the world?  We higher ed folks like to trumpet the value of diversity and international education—well, distance learning provides the platform to make the dream of a truly diverse and globalized classroom a reality.

However, there is a catch, and it is the same catch that has dogged other American industries as they have leaped on to the globalization bandwagon.

U.S. higher ed is already troubled from within by the shift from stable, tenured fulltime faculty to legions of roving part-time adjunct faculty.  With distance learning, the adjunct model gains even more steam, and goes global.

Why not outsource that first year Calculus course to a professor in India, who will teach 1,000 students for a fraction of what even an adjunct in the U.S. would earn?

Welcome to the knowledge sweatshop of the future.

According to the Inside Higher Ed article on the Lafayette conference, “Williams College President Adam F. Falk argued that the principal reason for adopting technological innovation should be for educational improvement, not just productivity gains. ‘College education isn’t simply about most efficient or innovative means of delivering content,’ he said, arguing that the engagement component of what colleges like his do was over all more important. ‘It’s hard for even the best students to learn on their own.’ Falk’s presentation was warmly received by the crowd.”

But Williams College is one of the richest liberal arts colleges in the nation, with an endowment of nearly $2 billion even after the economic downturn of 2008.

The social stratification that is affecting every aspect of American society is no less marked in higher education.

In the near future, we will be looking at an academic landscape where there will be a few highly paid tenured research professors and a vast majority of poorly paid adjunct professors all over the world, working mostly from their home offices via distance learning networks.  While there will always be a few lucky students who will be able to gain access to ivied classrooms through scholarships, those classrooms will increasingly be reserved for the children of the super-elites of the world.  Ordinary kids who have the motivation and discipline to go to college will do it from home, a financial decision their parents will have no choice but to support.

Distance learning is often lauded as a way to level the playing field, since it makes higher education accessible to kids who would not otherwise be able to go to college.

This may be so.  But it is also going to be yet another way to divide our society into Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons—in other words, to harden the de facto caste walls that are already making the old rags-to-riches, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American dream a quaint memory.

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