• April 16, 2014

When and How to Use the Other "F" Word

Promotion and Tenure Illustration (REDO) - Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Case No. 1: You're an assistant professor, married with young children, at a small liberal-arts college. It's been a long year, and you're looking forward to the end of the semester. You have balanced the family budget just enough so that you won't need to teach in the summer and can take that long-neglected family vacation. Then your chair calls you into his office and announces that a senior colleague has unexpectedly retired: Can you cover her classes over the summer?

Case No. 2: You have been invited for an on-campus interview for a tenure-track position. At the get-acquainted dinner, the conversation focuses on elementary schools and the best place to hold an 8-year-old's birthday party. One of the committee members turns to you and asks, "So, do you have children?" In fact, you have two and are deeply interested in what you're hearing. But you wonder if too much kid talk at this stage will overshadow your attributes as a serious scholar and teacher.

The common element in both cases is one of the most nuanced and contentious in academe, that other "f" word: family. For most of us, but especially for probationary faculty members, family dynamics affect career success. Talking about those issues, however, is risky. Far beyond battles over politics and theory, family matters can incite testiness in the faculty lounge and glares at the coffee machine.

Let's begin with Case No. 2. Female faculty members are routinely advised to avoid mentioning their families in job interviews and limit such talk on the job. The rationale: A double standard exists, especially in the physical sciences. A senior male professor never worries about his scholarly reputation as he shows off pictures of his kids or grandkids; a junior female faculty member in the same department suspects, quite rightly, that lamenting her young son's sleep habits could brand her as a "mommy tracker."

The decision about mentioning family is not, however, binary (yes/no, on/off) in every situation. There are times when talking about kids or spouses (or the lack thereof) is appropriate, no matter your station or gender. And there are other times when even the department's top scholar should suppress chattering about diapers and family Scrabble marathons.

With that in mind, here are some protocols for when to bring up family matters and when to keep quiet.

Don't overplay the family card. Families are ready-made excuses to evade unwanted work or campus commitments. What academic parent isn't tempted to blow off a late-afternoon curriculum-committee meeting by saying, not necessarily in full candor, "Sorry, I have to pick up my kids from school"? But having children is not a "get out of work free" card. As a childless friend of mine once put it, perhaps too bluntly: "Is my time less valuable because I didn't breed?" Or, as another single professor dealing with two parents with Alzheimer's argued, most of us are caregivers of one kind or another these days. So yes, there will be instances when you must commit to your family over your students or colleagues, but you owe the latter a pledge to arrange your life to minimize those times. Furthermore, if people know that you rarely use family as an excuse to escape a work commitment, they will be more understanding when you do have to use that excuse.

Limit your cute-kid stories. I know of a language scholar—male and well published—who regularly updated his colleagues about his daughter's adorable antics and school achievements. E-mailed pictures and long digressions before, during, and after faculty meetings were apparently not enough for this proud papa: He dropped by people's offices to ensure no one lived in ignorance of the girl's many talents and wonders. Finally, his colleagues started avoiding him, even to collaborate on research. The price of co-authorship is too high when it involves listening to a third grader's poem of the day—every day.

Don't appear family phobic. You're not going to help your career, either, by being overly and overtly antifamily. I knew one assistant professor who loathed children, and his distaste for them brought him to the point of hate speech. In another instance, one tenure-track faculty member stated that nobody, including a teacher, should have a cellphone on during class. But, I asked, what about a family emergency? I noted that I kept my phone on vibrate and answered only if it was my wife, who knew my teaching schedule and would not call unless for a serious matter. My child-averse colleague sniffed, "Even then, you can wait until the break." All the parents in the room stiffened.

Seek out a good cultural fit. A friend who is a high-powered scholar told me about his job interview at an allegedly turbocharged department at a top research university that was heavily wooing him. As he put it, "One guy boasted about how he was neglecting a book project because he was occupied in fixing up his lake cabin's deck." Indeed, the two days of interviews revealed to him a corporate culture fixated on families, hobbies, and leisure. The department offered him a job, but he turned it down knowing that part of the meaning of "research support" is finding a research culture that matches your own character.

Overcome the culture divide ... if you can. Collegiality sometimes means putting up with topics of discussion that are not as interesting to us as they are to the speaker. Our patience, however, can be strained when we encounter ideas about work and family that are different from our own. A friend from an Asian culture that stresses a separation between work and family told me about a job interview in which he was taken to dinner by the department chair—and his wife and kids. My friend was nonplussed, especially when the tykes sought his opinion on such relevant-to-the-job topics as the children's television show Arthur and the fate of Harry Potter. To this day my friend believes he wasn't offered the job because the chair found him "child unfriendly." We both wondered at the propriety and legality of using one's kids to test out a job candidate. But he has now learned to fake interest in other people's families.

Err on the side of seeming devoted to work. You don't have to be antifamily, but at the end of the day, giving off signals that all you care about is your wood shop, your cat, and being a Boy Scout troop leader gains you less than it detracts. No need to say, "I never see my kids because I am in the lab all night and all day." But it's good to have a reputation as a hard and conscientious worker who understands that, especially during the tenure-track years, the personal must to some extent be sacrificed for the professional.

Which brings us back to the cases above. For the assistant professor looking for a summer off, it would be smarter to accept the summer teaching assignments without complaint. Helping the department out when it is in a bind is the right thing to do, and it provides a signature anecdote that the senior professors will remember when it comes time to vote on your tenure.

As for mentioning your family in a job interview, that's tricky. It's unethical for a search committee to ask if you have children. However, reporting violators to human resources is not the best way to convince an institution to hire you.

If the conversation seems to dwell too much on family issues, some honesty and redirection are called for. Briefly report on your family situation, then find a way to shift the conversation back to your teaching and research. A friend in the sciences described an especially deft job candidate who, upon being barraged with family-related questions by a clueless search-committee member, turned the situation to her benefit. She related how her children were fascinated by her research and how she had volunteered at their school to demonstrate science projects. The committee was duly impressed by her dedication to work but also her evangelization of their field.

I hope that some day soon, academic culture will evolve to the point where we won't worry that mentioning a rambunctious toddler or a sick mother will count against us at promotion and tenure time. Even then, however, balancing work and family does not mean that the scale will always be even. In these tough times, we should be grateful that we are in a profession that offers more family accommodations than most.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa.


1. amnirov - March 18, 2010 at 06:25 am

In the days of no cell phones, people did wait until break. Keep your cellphone off in class. It doesn't matter if you are a parent or not.

2. 11242283 - March 18, 2010 at 06:52 am

I am truly baffled by articles such as these. One would think that having children in the academy is the exception rather than the rule. And while I think there might be a higher percentage of academics who are single or without children than in other professions, the vast majority of the professoriate is married with kids --- so the continual representation of those with children (ahem -- we all have families of some sort!)as some kind of beleagured minority is just false. I do believe that the various complications of starting out as a parent and on the tenure track at the same time create pressures I know nothing about, but at some point those with kids constitute the majority in almost every dept.

These days in terms of acculuration in most depts the handicap is NOT having a child -- at least that has been my experience. Although I will not bore you all here, I have very good inside information that a couple of the jobs I did not get (one a lateral move in my field, one an administrative job) was because I was straight, unmarried and well, just wouldn't fit in to a place full of "settled" people with families. Not surprisingly, when I finally did move it was to a big urban campus where single people didn't stand out like sore thumbs and no one felt threatened by my status. The fact that I don't particularly like big cities and would rather live in small town surrounded by countryside was/is besides the point, I guess.

I appreciate some of the advice above -- including and especially the reminder to those with kids that you actually get paid to do a full-time job so that playing the family card for 18 years while your precious ones grow up might create some problems. And suggesting to someone that they bite the bullet and pitch in for the dept during the summer in an emergency is sound advice. But you know what really sucks when you are going up for tenure --- HAVING to teach summer school every summer as an assistant prof because you teach in a high cost part of the country and only have one, inadequate, income. Try convincing a tenure committee that you are serious about your work when you spend part of every summer teaching (even if it is to keep your head above water) rather than doing research. The days when married faculty had a stay at home spouse is over for the most part. At my campus, no matter how junior, ahyone who is married lives in a better part of town because you need 2 wages to buy a house here (even in this housing collapes) --- not to mention that there is still some more than subtle discrimination in salary-setting. Married people still get paid a (small) bit more here because they are supporting a family.

3. dperlmutter - March 18, 2010 at 08:21 am

Amnirov: Cell phones need not disturb anyone and are vital to have on for reasons you should well know these days.

1. Check your cell phone. It probably has a vibrate feature. You can also save a picture file to appear when a specific number calls you.

2. Many campus emergency notification systems use a texting feature. Teachers should be able to get such messages, even, or rather especially, while in class.

11242283: I have heard of an anti-non married bias in hires of top admins who are expected to have a spouse to help with the social part of the job. At some hinterland schools faculty may also assume that younger singles will get socially frustrated and leave. Was that what happened?

4. year2year - March 18, 2010 at 08:35 am

"especially during the tenure-track years, the personal must to some extent be sacrificed for the professional." That this perspective dominates is indicative of the general dehumanization of labor in academia and the U.S. in general. That a high-profile research department would allow time for hobbies and outside interests does not strike me as the kind of outrageous example it was apparently intended to be. Instead, that kind of balance suggests a department that gets it, that understands that overwork does not lead to more or better work. Productivity, quality publication, useful scholarship are more likely to come from happy, satisfied scholars with broad interests. Why does the professoriate continue to seek a workaholic/swing shift/self-exploited existence?

5. novain - March 18, 2010 at 08:54 am

It is not a smart move to accept summer teaching assignments. From the personal perspective, it is not worth sacrificing the family vacation. From the professional perspective, the teaching assignment will pull back the research productivity and it does not help when preparing for tenure. Chairs who assign summer teaching assignments to T/T faculty do not have the best professional interests of the junior faculty. But too many junior faculty fall into this trap.

6. 11242283 - March 18, 2010 at 09:14 am

Answer to #3 -- Oddly enough at my faculty interview (I was then in my mid-40s) at small liberal arts college in the heartland, spouses were invited to my job talk [note: this was not for a first TT job but for a job as a chair/tenured faculty member]. I was told this was because "especially when single females" were brought into the dept, spouses had a say (veto?). Couldn't they have just checked "rate my professor" and just exclude anyone applying for their job who had a chili pepper? Anyway -- and I say this with some embarrassment -- several of the wives thought I might be predatory and pretty much just blackballed me.

#5 -- I don't think untenured faculty (married or single) fall into the trap of summer teaching because they'd rather be teaching than doing research. In my own case it was literally to make ends meet. Many humanities disciplines had (maybe still do) very low starting salaries and skimpy research support, so that in order to pay the bills and afford to go to conferences, get to archive or library or field study site at some point, you've got to save some extra cash somehow or find a way of paying your credit card bills. I would imagine in this time of paycuts, furloughs and dried up researh support that many an untenured faculty member is pleading with her chair to teach this summer. And yes,it might be bad for tenure prospects, but the stress of having collection agencies call is bad for your immediate health.

7. tridaddy - March 18, 2010 at 09:32 am

I've always made it clear the priorities in my life when I was interviewed for a position (my family always has a priority over my job). Unlike some who may use that as an excuse not to work, I was never away from the job without taking personnel leave (I had a 12 month appt). Fortunately, those interviewing me were satisfied with my record of achievements and my honesty.

8. lynnewebb320 - March 18, 2010 at 10:24 am

Another great article, David. Keep them coming!

Year2year, Some scholars work nonstop because they love what they do. I know there are many professors who prefer a more balanced life. I'm not one of them and I'd thank you not to denigrate me for my lifestyle choice. I am living the work-nonstop lifestyle I enjoy. BTW productivity of the workaholic professors proves quite helpful to students as well as the reputation of their Departments.

9. cerebellum - March 18, 2010 at 11:03 am

Great piece. Well-written, well-balanced. Makes me proud to be a Chronicle subscriber/reader.

10. dperlmutter - March 18, 2010 at 11:23 am

Thanks for the comments. I think a key point is that all faculty have SOME outside-of-work obligations and those of us with kids should not hold our own to be on a higher moral plane than our colleagues who have other obligations. And we should always keep in mind that the tenure-track or tenured professor has it about as good as it gets for an American worker today.
Tridaddy: I assume your CV and work ethic showed people that you would perform well. But I’m sure you agree that whether work or family comes first is situational. If your child falls ill at school nobody begrudges you leaving office hours early to bring her home. But the conscientious prof will leave a sign on his door to inform students and make up the lost hours with extended office hours later. On the other hand, turning in student grades late at the end of the semester because "I promised the kids to take them to the Zoo" is not acceptable. Good people work out these things, as I bet you do.
On Summer teaching: At a SLAC, CC, or regional state, summer teaching may be required or essential. Even at an R1, a few summer gigs will not destroy your productivity—and showing you are good citizen can be worth a publication.
See my previous essay:
David D. Perlmutter. "Summer Schedules". The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 6, 2009.
--David D. Perlmutter

11. quasihumanist - March 18, 2010 at 11:28 am

amnirov: In the days before cell phones, people did not wait until the break. Rather, the department secretary got the telephone call, figured out where the faculty member was teaching, and summoned the faculty member out of the classroom assuming it was a genuine emergency.

12. terminalmfa - March 18, 2010 at 01:21 pm

I loathe the "in the days before" argument, where we somehow privilege what occurred in the past because we all learned to deal with it. Often, new technologies are invented because they make things easier. Cell phones make it easier for us to get in touch with each other. We all dealt with how we couldn't get in touch with each other "in the days before cell phones" because we had no other choice.

The logic in Amnirov's argument (and the anecdotal story in the article) is flawed and privileges the past as somehow more right or better simply because it is the past and that is how things used to be done. I could just as easily say, "This is the present, and this is how we do things now."

And I have kids, and I'll be darned if I'm going to turn my cell phone off and be unreachable in case of emergency.

13. hoppy - March 18, 2010 at 02:22 pm

Married, no kids. And my cell phone WAS off when I was teaching and the hospital called to tell me that my father had been admitted and was in intensive care. I rue those almost 3 hours he was there before I turned it on to check for messages.

14. douglashusca - March 18, 2010 at 03:54 pm

A well written article, but I think you might be working under a rather suspect assumption, one voiced in the article by a 'childless friend' of yours.

The faulty assumption is that having children is an option--on par with buying a hybrid car or going into 1 field over another field.

Sure, to some extent having children is a choice--but what would happen if none of us made that choice? To begin with, eventually all of us professors would be out of work, because there wouldn't be kids to teach.

In other words, faculty who have kids have made a personal choice--but this is a choice with more than personal implications.

15. ignoramus - March 18, 2010 at 05:10 pm

How sad that 'family' is an F word in academia.

I am not of the mind that there is only one kind of family, but I do wonder where these anti-family/children people came from.

Is something like a family -- whatever that might look like -- and children really so exceptional? It seems to be universally the rule not the exception.

The only people who should be allowed to dislike children are the ones who were not children themselves. In other words, no one.

Only academics could make the one of the most basic and universal human things tantamount to a curse-word.


16. ejb_123 - March 18, 2010 at 05:38 pm

This is not the first time that I have heard that higher education discourages families and/or family commitments (even discussing one's family) among professors. As a high school teacher, I cannot imagine any co-worker of mine being discouraged in these kinds of ways. Family is certainly not a dirty world in elementary, middle school, and high school institutions. It seems to me as if the post-secondary education world encourages professors to live quasi- or pseudo-monastic existences. Professors should not be treated as if they are monks and nuns living under religious vows.

17. davidlester - March 18, 2010 at 09:00 pm

I'm really pretty astonished at these scenarios. To the best of my knowledge, any attempt to determine the marital status of an applicant or questions about an applicant's spouse or dependents are patently illegal and could be subject to an EEOC investigation. I do not know of any exception to this for postsecondary institutions, but please correct me if I am mistaken. A Google search of "illegal interview questions" offers plenty of examples, along with appropriate, polite responses for interviewees. Personally, I would run away as fast as possible from any institution that inquired about anything beyond my professional qualifications. The "cultural fit" with colleagues and students is the difference between a meaningful, fulfilling position, and years of misery and dissonance.

18. leslie_cook - March 18, 2010 at 11:04 pm

As a single parent in a tenure track job, I am shocked that the author of this article thinks that work ends when a parent or caretaker leaves the office. I work at night after my daughter goes to bed, or often while she's awake and watching TV or on the computer. Being at the office does not equal work; as a matter of fact, it is sometimes more difficult to get work done at the office when there are people who have much more time to waste than I do are hanging around wanting to chat.
This article really does reflect a skewed vision of what life is about: The "F word" is family? Really? I'll be sure not to tell my daughter there are people who feel like that--yet.

19. texasguy - March 19, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Most of my colleagues where I work are married and most of them have children. I cannot comment about their problems but imagine they are not worse than those of people working in industry.

Things are of course thougher for assistant professors and I know at least one case of somebody who waited to get tenured to get pregnant. She managed to combine the off quarter she got and the two and half summer months to spend the first six months of her baby's life with her. This did not prevent her from having a very successful career in research and university administration.

20. fergbutt - March 19, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Leave your cell phone ON during class. And stop being a jerk when some hapless student's phone unexpectedly goes off. They are already embarrassed, so don't pile on with your scowling face. It's not like you're in the middle of surgery; it's just a class. Maybe it mattered ten years ago, but it's 2010 now, so try to act like it. Get over it.

21. physicsprof - March 19, 2010 at 06:23 pm

So, fergbutt, in 2010 students are so sensitive you can't embarrass them twice? Twice is OK. Get over it.

22. tcli5026 - March 20, 2010 at 01:34 am

Rule #1: Don't overplay the family card.

This rule seems to assume that professors use their family obligation as a *convenient* excuse when it suits them. If you have a child in daycare and that daycare closes at 5 or 6, then one is not playing the "family card" by saying, "I've gotta go now to pick up my daughter." That's simply reality.

If you are planning to spend time with your family in the summer--and have made sacrifices over several years to ensure that you could do this--it is not playing the family card to turn down a sudden request to teach. After all, there are other faculty in the department.

I guess I'm lucky. In my department, everyone understands that professional achievement and professional obligations are only part of our lives, and not necessarily the most important part. We all make adjustments for our various other obligations, and avoid judging others too harshly when obligations clash -- it helps, too, that no one abuses their situation.

I realize in some self-important departments and universities, what the author says probably rings much truer. But, then, professors in top-tier, publish or perish departments typically have a choice: they can take up positions in less prestigious, less stressful environments where they can openly talk about their families, their children, their hobbies, and so on. As the Nike ads say, "Just Do It."

23. dperlmutter - March 20, 2010 at 09:25 pm

Davidlester: Sorry, but you are kidding, right? Please talk to almost anyone who has been on the job market—I do, to lots. Please also scan job hunting forums. It's very common. Many times violations are not out of maliciousness, just bumbling or ignorance. Hence my recent essay advocating that we professionalize search and P&T committees by training them better and holding them accountable.

David D. Perlmutter. "Professionalize Promotion and Tenure. Chronicle of Higher Education, February 18, 2010.

Leslie__Cook: There have been many essays in CHE before, mostly by female faculty, who say they feel pressure to downplay "family." Many female faculty, especially in the sciences, really feel like they must suppress "the F word" on the job and in job talks. There is also real tension about family versus non-family obligations. I was making the point that "family" is almost as sensitive a topic as the other "F word." That's a reality; I think there are constructive ways to deal with the issue. Hence my essay.

Tch5026: I think you are reading an extreme position into a call for moderation and responsibility. Tenured professors almost everywhere are pretty lucky people. Most other workers envy our family-friendly freedoms. But that doesn't mean that it should be all about work, or all about family. Sometimes you have to sacrifice time for one for time on the other. But P&T demands keep rising and a duty of anyone to her or his family is not to be jobless. Again, reality must be taken into account.

24. boccialettig - March 21, 2010 at 01:57 pm

It seems like a "diversity 101" issue to me. I once sat at a faculty dinner for two hours listening to excruciating details about everyone's children. I was relatively new, didn't have children, smiled a lot and asked a few obligatory questions of clarification. Feigning engagement was exhausting and I took restroom breaks to get away from it. Two hours in, someone asked me how many children I had. "None." Barely skipping a beat, the table returned to "the children" conversation again. It was, tragically, a good indicator of their indifference towards difference. I left the school.

25. boardmad - March 25, 2010 at 08:58 pm

The comments about cell phone use are just completely out of this world. Let's all keep in mind that emergencies are for medical and safety pros, not academics. If your family has an accident, getting the call 20 minutes sooner will not change the outcome.
One of the reasons that serious intellectuals dislike too much talk of family is that it provides an excuse for otherwise smart people to act out of fear. The cellphone is much more helpful if YOU have an emergency - in which case your professor will certainly allow you to turn it on ;)

26. davidlester - April 01, 2010 at 06:37 am

David D. Perlmutter: I am in full support of your proposals to professionalize hiring, promotion, and tenure. But however pervasive the indiscretions may be, and however innocent their intent, they are still illegal. It doesn't take a rocket scientist -- not even a tenured one -- to understand that there are a small number of topics that are off limits during the hiring process. Just as faculty have other legal or ethical responsibilities in the course of their duties (FERPA, disability accommodation, and sexual harassment come to mind), they should be able to conduct candidate searches within the bounds of the law. Your advice in this column is prudent counsel to candidates, but perhaps it may serve as guidance to those participating in the selection process, especially those who may be left wondering why the crackerjack candidate they were wooing has stopped returning their calls.

27. naganigi - April 16, 2010 at 08:01 am

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