Academic journal article Composition Studies

Changing Tables and Changing Culture: Pregnancy, Parenting, and First-Year Writing

Academic journal article Composition Studies

Changing Tables and Changing Culture: Pregnancy, Parenting, and First-Year Writing

Article excerpt

Over the past seven years, the 59 full-time faculty of Duke University's first-year writing faculty have birthed, fathered, or adopted 22 babies, making our collective birth rate roughly equivalent to that of Guinea or The Gambia.1 Even as I write this, four more babies are expected during the 2008-09 academic year from what is currently our 28-person full-time writing program faculty. What makes this faculty birth rate so staggering is not only that it nearly triples the United States' national average, but also that it differentiates our program from so many other spaces in academia where births tend to be an occasion rather than a norm. Our birth rate is even more significant in that it persists in spite of what is a welcome but insufficient three-week paid parental leave for our program's full-time faculty members. Nevertheless, baby showers, photographs of children, family-friendly events, communal babysitting, and talk about pregnancy and parenting - all of this is deeply interwoven into our academic lives as teachers and scholars of first-year writing and informs our nationally and locally acclaimed work. We even have changing tables installed in the women's and men's restrooms of our building.

Such prolific fecundity raises significant questions about pregnancy and parenting in the context of first-year writing: Does faculty pregnancy and parenting pose any meaningful impact on the work of first-year writing? Does this impact differ from that experienced by faculty in the natural or social sciences, other humanities, or even rhetoric? Given that first-year writing is home to a largely contingent faculty, likely not to enjoy the parental-leave policy support offered to many tenure -track faculty, how might first-year writing faculty and writing program administrators (WPAs) create an academic, socio-cultural climate that embraces pregnancy and parenting? What might be the advantages of doing so? To pursue these questions, I will examine several constrictions uniquely facing first- year writing faculty, especially women, and will then illustrate a range of programmatic strategies that can help foster a more family- friendly, socio-cultural climate in first-year writing programs.

The First-Year Writing Context

Although a considerable amount has been written about parenting and pregnancy in the academy, much of it operates from two overarching perspectives: 1. a deliberately generalist approach and 2. an often dominant focus on policy. As this section will demonstrate, neither of these approaches fits well within the context of first-year writing because of its institutional position and the demographics of its faculty2 In comparison to other faculty, first-year writing faculty are more likely to be of child-bearing (or rearing) age, are more likely to face unique disincentives to having children since they are often in an aspirational stage of their careers, and they are more likely to be excluded from policy support.3 Moreover, I argue that although many policy advances have been made in the past two decades, and many of the challenges facing women in rhetoric and composition, richly documented by such scholars as Theresa Enos, Louise Wetherbee Phelps, and Janet Emig,4 may have been largely mitigated, these advances are mostly applicable to more established academics (i.e., tenure-stream faculty), and there still remain systemic, political, cultural, and institutionalized controls that continue to exert powerful influences and limitations on the child-bearing decisions of first-year writing faculty, particularly women.

First-Year Writing and Policy Limitations

Policies are crucial mechanisms for addressing the material realities of pregnancy and parenting, and they also go far in shaping and reflecting sociocultural climate. In recent years, many new and improved family-related policies have emerged in the academy, from better paid-leave options and job sharing to stopping the tenure clock. …

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