Second Response to Philipsen: Balancing Academic Work-And Clerical Work-And Personal Life
Laird, Susan, Vitae Scholasticae
"Balancing Personal and Professional Lives" is so good and so important I instantly wanted permission to photocopy it and pass it out to everyone in my college, including administration, faculty, staff, and students. Maike Ingrid Philipsen's own autobiographical contribution to her study is profoundly moving. It could stand alone as a short piece by itself, but her extensive research underscores her own story's broader significance and illuminates other serious difficulties academic women experience as well. Her article makes clear that the challenge of balance in higher education is gendered, complicated, and huge. I regard such social research on academic women's lives as one politically necessary genre of educational biography, a kind of collective biography, beyond the individual biography that we usually think of as biography, a way of knowing and telling the truths about academic women's lives-truths otherwise seemingly invisible and inaudible, lost to public consciousness.
Philipsen's study of women faculty's life struggles has made me think of graduate-student mothers who have organized recently an Oklahoma Mothers and Educators Collaborative (see OMEC on facebook) to address their own balancing struggles both creatively and collectively, issue by issue: to pursue family-friendly campus reforms that consider challenges facing women students no less than those facing women faculty. Philipsen's study demonstrates that, without doubt, these students can expect their struggles to continue long past completion of their graduate degrees. Clearly, too, her study shows the immense value that activism like theirs may have for both women faculty and women students.
With kudos to Philipsen for taking women faculty's lives seriously in a way that cannot fail to resonate thus with women graduate students' lives, I cannot resist responding to this article myself-by citing another complicating concern in the sexual politics of higher education's challenges to women's lives. In view of this study's apt observation of universities being organized around men with wives, I am surprised that one particular recent historical development in patriarchal academe did not surface in Philipsen's oral data, a relevant issue that may merit separate future investigation. This concern is the status of clerical support in higher education and its consequences for women's lives.
Clerical support for higher education remains predominantly female-a semiotic feature of higher education and its class structure that backgrounds the struggles of women faculty whose stories Philipsen has cited. Like the office workers in Dolly Parton's hilariously thought-provoking film Nine To Five, women providing clerical support for higher education face balance issues too, which their employers (including women faculty) have seldom acknowledged as worthy of family-friendly attention. At the same time, clerical support for faculty has diminished markedly since women began to join the professoriate in significant numbers. Even though numbers of faculty and students have grown, often numbers of clerical workers have not, for new technologies have displaced much of their former work to faculty. Sometimes I wonder what changes in higher education might be possible to relieve balance issues if academic women began to study our own challenges in light of related diverse challenges and possibilities for women of all ranks and social classes in colleges and universities. Philipsen's own study would have been rendered unwieldy by such expansion, but I think it might well spark a collective research program of such broad scope not possible in this lone study.
Perhaps I notice this issue because, following my graduation from college, I began my self-reliant working life as a full-time secretary in a college. I felt myself lucky to get my secretarial job with just a baccalaureate degree because in that college and university town countless campus secretaries were women who had completed the Ph.D.! My secretarial job did not impress my family, but it was meaningful and valuable to me. Although I had no financial support from my family while I was paying off my student loan and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I was young, healthy, childless, and single; so the meager wages did not necessitate my moonlighting as a waitress or supermarket cashier, as office workers in higher education sometimes must do just to pay their household bills. Moonlighting only a little as a typist-translator-editor for international graduate students whom I met through my job, I was able to save a little money to travel to Spain entirely on my own for my brief vacation, and I relished my total economic and social independence, such as my own college-educated mother had never known. I was lucky also in that I worked for several (mostly African American) women educators and thus encountered neither demeaning sexist humor nor sexual harassment from my bosses such as office workers in higher education do still suffer, often in helpless and desperate silence. Not only did I get to take a course for free each semester, I also became involved in meaningful voluntary community service for social justice through encouragement from the people I served. Because the women I worked for were dedicated and inspiring educators, smart self-made women who cared about young people, I had access also to mentoring such as I had never expected, and learned something enormously valuable both about various possible working lives in colleges and about how colleges work. Because I admired my bosses and took actual pride in doing my secretarial work well, I learned something also about my own novitiate capacities for public service, efficiency, organization, and human relations--as well as my own deep hunger to do much more. Clerical work in higher education need neither be meaningless nor dead-end work and academic women can take the lead to ensure that it is meaningful and educative for the many women and few men who get paid to do it. The mentoring and learning that I experienced through secretarial service to those educating women gave me confidence and a sense of purpose that my Seven-Sisters honors degree in English and Art had somehow not given me in the early 1970s-to go to graduate school, finally, and get access to work as a professional educator, something like the work of the people I served as secretary in that college.
But now, three decades later, I find that a surprisingly, though largely taken-for-granted, large portion of my job as a full professor in a leading public research university is not professional academic work, but clerical work--work of a kind and in a volume such as I used to get paid for doing fulltime as a secretary. Only now it is not my primary job, and should not be, nor is it even explicitly acknowledged as part of my job, though of course it should be, because the primary parts of my job that are acknowledged require implicitly that I do it. This circumstance, common to most if not all universities is perhaps especially significant, both historically and pragmatically, in the face of balance issues like those Philipsen has narrated. The work side of the life balancing act is itself a juggling act between increased clerical labors and the in-itself sufficiently challenging academic juggle of research, teaching, and service.
In my first year as a faculty member--in the B.E.C.P. era (Before Email and Cell Phones)--twenty-some years ago, each clerical worker in the college at the public comprehensive university where I then worked was assigned to support five faculty members. These staff members answered the phone and fielded messages for us, typed and made copies for us, handled correspondence for us, processed bureaucratic forms for us, managed our professional travel arrangements, maintained many of our files, kept our calendars, reminded us of deadlines, renewed our library books, monitored all sorts of demands from students, colleagues, et al., and made our responses to them all efficient and manageable. I wonder what such an arrangement might do to improve the lives of the women whom Philipsen interviewed.
Now, like most faculty everywhere, I have comparatively little clerical support. Only college and department administrators can expect support of the sort and to the extent I enjoyed as I began my academic career. I know academic women who hire clerical support for themselves out of their own pockets, and I understand why. With my self-financed cell phone I am on call 24/7, it seems, by email, text, and phone--fielding a huge volume of junk messages without missing important ones, while trying to prioritize multiple meaningful contacts, as well as the time-consuming and frustrating challenges of coordinating meeting schedules with numerous others in small groups, somehow without falling into the familiar double-booking trap. With my laptop wirelessly connected to a printer in my department's office, I am my own typist and have many electronic files to manage. Without anyone to help do my paper filing, I work out of accordion files (one for each class, committee, project, etc.) that I carry everywhere and park in a basket by the front door of my house for easy grabbing on the go and dropping as I drag myself home. I don't have time to manage file cabinets as I used to manage them when I was a secretary. And then add to all these clerical responsibilities, which used to make up the substance of my job as a secretary in a college, the fact that faculty are expected also to manage our programs' websites, while a growing culture of educational accountability is generating countless new clerical demands for documents, reports, files, and forms to an extent that I scarcely imagined thirty years ago. And, oh yes: also teach and mentor, do research and scholarship, and serve and lead! And then there's the personal-life piece of the puzzle that Philipsen has so eloquently narrated.
It's as if, as soon as a critical mass of women entered the professoriate in certain sectors, our culture wanted us still to be secretaries but do all the academic labor too, with no one to protect our time or care for our efficiency except ourselves. Having been a conscientious college secretary, I know what kind of difference such work well done can make. But secretaries in higher education have become administrative assistants and managers. I love my faculty work in research, teaching, and service; so right now I cannot imagine becoming a university administrator, but sometimes I contemplate such a move in a furious fit of fantasizing what it might be like to have access again to efficient, caring clerical support like that which administrative assistants and managers do give to higher education's administrators. Comparative research on faculty men and women in relation to higher education's clerical labors could be illuminating. Having been a very good secretary, I know that I am not very good at juggling clerical work against my academic work, and that efficiency would be much better served if others could be paid to help with it--and also meaningfully rewarded for their competent clerical labors in the same sorts of educative ways that I was rewarded for mine thirty years ago. Packing all my secretarial labors into my job also full of research, teaching, and service, I find the work that I have to balance against my life full of family health crises is something like a hamster wheel that never stops, except that it's not my body that this particular hamster wheel is exercising! Like women Philipsen interviewed, though, I do find physical exercise perhaps the most indispensable coping strategy in my own struggle for balance.
Another related problem is most universities' failure to study systematically any questions about their own taken-for-granted inefficiencies, which add substantial stress to women's already stressful struggle for balance in higher education. Something accomplished at work always seems to mean something else not accomplished, whether at work or at home, too often simply because of campus calendar chaos that disrupts the plans by which we try to make our juggling act possible. I would amend the list of reforms Philipsen has suggested with serious, systematic efforts at rationally organized scheduling of those standard elements of most professors' work that too often unnecessarily and annoyingly conflict. Such efforts might make the balancing act much less unpredictable and stressful, especially for those also juggling child-care or elder-care, dual-career or long-distance partnerships. With computer technologies and highly developed efficiency sciences now available, campus calendar mayhem that causes imbalances should be remediable and not be taking the huge chunks out of our lives that it does.
Such innovations in higher education are not likely to happen, however, until higher education values both the clerical work upon which it depends and the women who do it, whether those women are faculty or administrative assistants. That major shift in governing values is unlikely unless academic women can begin to acknowledge that, as in Nine to Five, most office staff are still women with work-life balance issues too-perhaps not entirely different from those issues which Philipsen has documented in academic women's lives. Socioeconomic class can obscure important shared issues among women in higher education. Academic women's recognition of that fact could initiate much-needed consciousness-raising across class lines, about the gendered semiotics of clerical labors. Perhaps by encouraging office workers' voices and by challenging the continuing feminized character of clerical work with some new educational ways of thinking about it, we can learn much more about aspects of work in higher education that need not and should not threaten its balance with women's personal lives to the oppressive extent that it does. Philipsen's autobiographically grounded, informative, and sensitive study of academic women's lives has the power, if we will claim it and use it, to open a historically and ethically significant conversation vital for all women in higher education.
The University of Oklahoma…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Second Response to Philipsen: Balancing Academic Work-And Clerical Work-And Personal Life. Contributors: Laird, Susan - Author. Journal title: Vitae Scholasticae. Volume: 27. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2010. Page number: 34+. © 2006 Caddo Gap Press. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.