ASEE Prism On-line, February 2000
teaching toolbox
A Juggling Act

Striking the right balance between work and family is especially tough in academia, particularly for those trying to keep pace with the frantic ticking of the tenure clock.

By J.J. Thompson

"What it all boils down to is that the only person in the entire world who really needs you is your child," says Melissa Tooley, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Arkansas—and mother of a 10-year old. Of course, as does any working parent, "I have to constantly remind myself of that. Your employer, your students, your clients all believe they need you, and it is real easy to buy into that."

Illustration by D. B. JohnsonEspecially if you are an associate or assistant professor on the tenure track. Although the responsibilities for new professors vary from institution to institution, as well as from department to department, no one who is climbing the academic ladder will deny that the time demands are steep indeed.

Consider, for instance, the job description for a new engineering faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. "The new professor will be required to teach a 12-hour first semester load, and to do university service, such as being on committees and working with student groups or for the division or department they are in," says Jerry Samples, director of the university's engineering technology division.

Though research is not a main focus for the engineering faculty at Johnstown, professional development and scholarly work are. Faculty members are expected to churn out articles for peer-reviewed journals and to deliver sterling presentations to peers as well. The teaching alone can soak up a lot of time, Samples says, especially if they have to prepare for more than one subject.

"My faculty usually teach three preparations, three different courses," Samples explains. "They are teaching 12 credit hours, and the preparation for a class is, at an absolute minimum, three hours for every hour in class. So you're looking at 36 hours preparation plus 12 hours teaching—that's a full load right there. And then they have to do the other things."

No doubt, however, many faculty members agree with the respondents in numerous surveys who say they truly worry about maintaining some sense of balance between job and family. A recent survey by Rutgers University and the University of Connecticut, in fact, showed that employees ranked the ability to balance work and family higher than anything else, putting this concern above even those of job security and work environment.

A new ASEE survey of women in engineering academia found that not only do two thirds consider balancing work and family "difficult," but one third of the respondents feel that family responsibilities have negatively affected their career advancement. What's more, 35 percent have either delayed or are delaying having a family in order to meet the responsibilities required to advance in their teaching and research careers.

New faculty members are prime candidates to worry about such things. Oftentimes just out of graduate school, many of these teachers are not just starting their careers, but beginning or nurturing young families as well. Samples says that more than once he's had to tell new faculty members they should take the weekend off, spend it with their spouse, their children, or in doing something for themselves. It's important that he suggest it, he says, "so they know it won't be considered goofing off if they go home and spend a weekend with family. They put a lot of pressure on themselves."

Performing a successful balancing act between family, community and volunteer activities, as well as one's own interests requires lots of forethought. Tooley and her husband, Michael, now 37 and 38 respectively, started the process years ago, first by setting their priorities—the top one being raising their daughter, Kathryn—and then deciding on a strategy to support those values. Their plan involved Melissa obtaining her Ph.D. and Michael, who works with Lucent Technologies, landing a job as a marketing executive that would allow him to telecommute from home, wherever that home might be.

Though that strategy is now in place, it naturally has to be revised every now and then to stay in line with their goal of maintaining a happy balance between professional and home lives. For instance, upon graduating with her Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas in 1997, Tooley took a job teaching at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The opportunity seemed wonderful because "Florida was an institution with a huge program, but our families were very far away. So when we got the opportunity to come back to Arkansas, we thought we could balance better in a smaller institution."

That's turned out to be true, Tooley says, though the juggling act continues. Just last May she was named director of the university's rural transportation research center. While relieving some stress by allowing her to stop the tenure clock and therefore go up for tenure whenever she wants and is able, the directorship adds hefty administrative duties to her teaching, research, and service load, totaling an average of five to 10 extra hours a week in traveling and meetings. "We've had the inevitable days when Kathryn calls from school sick and Michael has a conference call and I have to teach a class and we have to decide who's going to drop everything and go get her," Tooley says. They have learned that they can't get into "My meeting's more important than your meeting" arguments so they try to divide the responsibilities based on fairness unless one of them really does have something more important going on.

Another tack they've learned to take is to meet every week for lunch, she with her paper organizer and he with his Palm Pilot, to go over each other's schedules and divvy up tasks—who will call the air conditioner repair person and who will shuttle Kathryn to dance, for example. "We approach it kind of like a job, because, well, it is," Melissa Tooley says. "A happy, well- coordinated household doesn't just happen."

And the sign of their success is that daughter Kathryn seems to be flourishing, Tooley says, a condition Mom continually checks. Tooley, like most working mothers, worries about her success at balancing everything so that no one—neither her family, students, nor co-workers—is slighted. And her goals are high. For instance, raised in what she calls a "milk and cookies household," she struggles to provide her daughter with the same sense of happiness and security that she remembers from her own childhood..

Kirk Schulz, 36, an assistant professor and chair of the chemical engineering department at Michigan Technical University, can relate. Not only is he swimming deep in the pools of academia himself, but his 33-year-old wife, Noel Schulz, is an assistant professor up for tenure in Tech's electrical and computer engineering department.

"Like most working mothers," Schulz says, "she wants to be able to do it all— volunteer at school, in the PTA, and excel in her career." A family calendar, joint scheduling sessions, and a slew of sports, scouting, and church activities with their two sons help keep the family side of the equation balanced, he says, though the doubts often nag, especially "if we're both out of town at the same time. She feels real bad about that." She's not alone. A new survey of 600 parents by Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York City, found that only 34 percent of working mothers felt they did a really good job of giving their children enough of their time and attention. The good news is that Galinsky also surveyed more than 1,000 children, the overwhelming majority of whom thought their mothers did a terrific job of balancing responsibilities, and were proud of her jobs as well.

Tooley's daughter has been heard to "speak of us with pride and [of] what we do. Plus, she gets to reap some benefits," Tooley says. "We do all our travel to conferences in the summer, and we go as a family. She has her own frequent flyer number, and she can get through airports pretty easily."

Balancing life's various realms may be most difficult when children are involved, but Samples maintains that a delicate balancing act must be developed by everyone in academia, regardless of age. A woman he recently hired has spent the last 20 years in an industrial setting. She, too, is finding it a challenge to squeeze in time with her spouse and resolve the inevitable work-family conflicts.

"Your kids are in college, and you have to take them to school and it's always at the worst time. Or you have to go to a conference and it's your anniversary," Samples offers as examples.

The successful academic, he says, learns how to manage all aspects of life and necessarily must stay busy. "You don't go for six years and get tenure and then say, 'I'm done.' Really successful people work like this throughout." Therefore, he says, "you have to manage all of them—personal life, business life, health. All that has to go together, or it collapses."


J.J. Thompson is a freelance writer in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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