academics and families

For the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about this post from my buddy Rod Dreher’s blog, quoting an essay claiming that academic life is a bad choice for someone who wants a family. There’s general agreement on that point in the comments. I think we need some distinctions here.

Being a contingent faculty member — an adjunct, working at multiple institutions for what amounts to less than minimum wage — is terrible for anyone who has to do it, but it takes an especially great toll on people with families. That is certain. I would also say that academic life, even in high-status and stable jobs, can interfere with family life if you’re a person who’s not good at disciplining your time: academic work is gaseous, in the sense that it inevitably expands to fill the available volume, and those who aren’t good at keeping it in reasonable-sized containers can find that it takes over their lives. I know academics who spend way too many nights and weekends away from their families, in their offices, prepping for class or working on conference papers.

But I would argue that this is not a problem intrinsic to academic life: it’s a problem for people who are lousy at time management. I decided long ago that the one absolutely key commitment one must make in order to survive as an academic is: During work time, work; during play time, play. It’s far too easy for academics — and most other knowledge workers as well — to allow work and play to blur together, so that, yeah, you’re writing that conference paper, but you’re also stopping every five minutes to check your email, tweet, IM with other friends who are similarly procrastinating, follow a rabbit-trail of links on the internet. It’s the habit of succumbing to these temptations that leads to evenings at the office when you ought to be having a glass of wine with your spouse or reading to your children.

But if you can be a good discipliner of your time, a tenure-track academic job (that increasingly rare thing) is great for family life, because you have so much freedom to structure your time. Even during term, there are only a few hours a week when you absolutely have to be in a given place, which means that you get to decide when and where to do your work. When our son Wesley was born, my wife Teri cut back from full-time work at World Relief, where she was the public information manager, to 25 hours a week. I asked my department chair if it would be possible for me to have all of my classes and office hours before 1pm, so I could get home in time for Teri to go to work, and he agreed. That was our schedule for several years, which means that from my son’s birth until he started school, I got to spend almost every afternoon with him. (Once a week or so I had to come in for meetings.) I put him down for his nap, I woke him up and watched Thomas the Tank engine videos with him as he sat on my lap, I took him and our dog Zoe to the park. On days when I had no classes we could take the train into Chicago and visit museums or hang out at the lakefront. I wouldn’t trade those days for anything in the universe. And it was made possible by the flexibility of an academic schedule — and, to some extent, by my own determination to discipline my time so that when I was with Wes I could be fully present and not have half my mind on work.

I have been blessed with an unusually good academic job that has had some unusual perks: we have an outstanding dining hall on Wheaton’s campus and the college subsidizes faculty meals, so we can eat cheaply and very, very well there when we want; the college has also made it possible for my family to come with me on several summer study tours of England. These opportunities have allowed Wes to hang out with cool college students all his life, and to see parts of the world that we would never have been able to visit on our own. As I say, that’s not the norm. But the greatest rewards have come from my having a job that has allowed me to put a priority on time with my family. That’s something that many academics have, and that more could have, if they were to be more intentional about how they use their time.