Of Higher Education, Barfing, and Feminism

I remember it vividly, that morning about six-and-a-bit years ago. It was near Christmas, way too early, because I had an 8:30 class in the city. I backed out of the garage, then had to pause to put the car in park, open the door, and puke briefly in the alley before I could close the door and continue to class.

I arrived on time. I would have been early except that there was no street parking anywhere. I dragged my big-ass preggo belly (not to mention my big ass) out of the car, up the street, into the building, up the elevator, and into class.  (That was my preggo concession; I took the elevator rather than the stairs.) I managed to focus, to pay attention, to not puke, and to say my requisite Two Intelligent Things near the beginning of the class session, my failsafe way to not get caught for having not prepared well enough. (If you say a couple of intelligent things early on, you can then sit quietly for the remainder of class, allowing the other students the opportunity to step up and answer things and magnanimously choosing not to monopolize the conversation, though clearly you could have spoken up, because you’d already demonstrated your preparedness and lucidity.  Shh. Don’t tell everyone about this one. I’m starting a new degree in 4 months and may need to rely on it a good bit over the next couple of years.)

Going to college/grad school/whatever while pregnant sucks. You are at the mercy of your body, while also being at the mercy of your professors, and if you’re really lucky and this is not your first child, at the mercy of your previous offspring as well.

So reading this post from The Feminist Breeder gave me all kinds of mixed reactions. I should say at the outset that I’m hesitant to even comment, because whatever else might be going on, the woman is 39+ weeks pregnant, clearly miserable, and probably facing life at a level of hormone-abetted emotional intensity pretty much unmatched by anything else that ever happens in a woman’s life.  So I don’t want to come off as attacking or trying to make her feel bad. Because she probably feels crappy enough.

But. This is what went down in her class this week:

“My Tuesday class is a reasonable half hour away, but my Wednesday class is 90 minutes away in traffic.  If I started hard, active labor at school, I have no idea what I would do.  Also – get this – I left class early last Tuesday because I was so sick I couldn’t see straight, and my professor actually had the balls to dock me 20 out of 25 possible Participation points just because I had to leave.  Clearly she’ll be docking me ALL 25 Participation points for each class I miss while I’m doing a silly little thing like trying to have a baby, so I cannot take off a single extra day other than what is absolutely necessary.  (And yes, I am SOOO writing a letter about that.)

And later, in the comments, she says:

The professors know we have lives outside of school and I made it perfectly clear on the first night of class that this pregnancy was going to mean that I’d be missing a class or two. She said that was perfectly fine, and never once mentioned that I’d never be able to get an A no matter what kind of work I turned in because she’d be docking points for every class I missed. Total. Bullshit.

She’s a brand new professor and totally does NOT get it. Everyone in this class complains about her grading system, so I’m sure the school won’t be shocked that their President’s Medallion winner this year has a problem with being docked points for being 9 mos pregnant and trying to take care of myself.”

She also talks later in the comments too about the “accommodations” the prof agreed to with her, and at least from what she describes, it sounds like the prof may be reneging a bit on a previously arranged conversation. (To tell the truth, it reads to me as though the professor has come to find her a pain in the ass, and is by now less inclined to be nice than she was on the first night of class, or feels like she’s being taken advantage of and is responding passive-aggressively. If that’s the case, it’s not to the professor’s credit in the least, but I’ve seen it happen before.)

What gets me, though, even more than her own absolute conviction that the professor should accommodate her illness (and while being pregnant is certainly no illness, it sounds like what sent her home from class that night was), are the other comments on the blog, by readers who can’t understand the professor’s reaction–comments issued before clarification of exactly what the arrangement with the prof had been. Here are some samples:

“I notice a pervasive lack of accommodation for people who have actual lives– commutes (mine’s an hour), full time jobs (I had two part timers this semester… ugh), rent/mortgages, pets, or children. So many students are kids with a full ride and no other responsibilities– of COURSE they have more time to spend on school! Of course they don’t have to ditch class a few times a semester to get to work on time! Or stay home because the kid is sick! Unfortunately, even if a person is as driven as you seem to be, you’re punished for who you are and your life station.

Kudos to women like us who kick ass, take names, and get all As.”

or this one:

“…it is freaking ridiculous your professor docked the majority of your participation points like that. Obviously you gave enough crap about the class to show up in the first place; most students would have skipped regardless.”

or my personal favorite:

“I think you should get points for showing up sick! I am a professor and I have students blow off my class for all sorts of reasons and then get mad at me when their grade suffers (90% instead of 100% participation grade). You don’t strike me as that student. And I think that is way too many points for one class!”

First of all, you have no idea how many total points there are and what actual portion of a final grade those 20 points represent. Secondly, if your students blow off your class and then get mad when you dock them participation points, that’s their problem, not yours, and hopefully they will learn something from the experience.

Third and most importantly, no one gets extra points for showing up sick. Not in the real world, the world that college is hopefully preparing us all to enter. The world I’ve lived in for a good many years. There are no cookies for sucking it up and getting the job done.  That is simply the expectation. No one is going to give you brownie points for not missing the mark as badly as “most” students would, or for having a good reason for not doing what’s expected of you. No one is going to say, “Oh, poor thing, she has kids, that’s why she’s not getting her job done, we just need to expect less of her.”  No effing way.

TFB, to her credit, is not asking for a free pass by any means–she’s ready, willing, and eager to do whatever extra work is required to meet the standards her profs set for her, baby or no baby. She’s highly determined, and God help anyone who gets in her way. Sounds to me like a little more humility and a little less drama might stand her better in the long run, but hell, she can get there any damn way she pleases. Still, those comments from her readers are very very disturbing to me.

I personally chose to take the “delivery semester” off, to birth and nurse and do all that other stuff that would have made studying pretty damn hard. I signed up for summer classes after my kid’s early May delivery, doubled my load the previous semester (the barfing one) and wound up spending the last two months of my pregnancy writing a paper for an incomplete I took because the barfing didn’t go away in the second trimester the way I expected it to, and my doubled-up fall semester was a fiasco. (And that was a very accommodating professor.) I absolutely do not understand choosing to take a course or courses I was pretty sure I could not complete because of a fairly predictable due date. But again, she can do whatever she damn well pleases, as long as her professors and she agree to the terms of her fulfilling the course requirements.

Which brings me to my feminist dilemma.

On the one hand–women are women, we are the ones who birth babies, and the workforce, and hence the educational system, would do well to accommodate the irregularities of our childbearing/nursing needs in order to benefit from what we have to offer.  Maternity leave, nursing breaks and spaces, flex-time, and of course the ever-popular equal-pay-for-equal-work (that we even have to question that one is absolutely obscene)–I’m all for this. And given how many women spend–or would like to spend–a goodly portion of their childbearing years in colleges and universities, this is something that will need to be addressed there. There should not be women dropping out of college because they are pregnant, can’t get health care from their university plan, can’t get cheap (or free!) university child care, and have No Other Alternative. That’s just so many kinds of wrong. And it happens all the time.

But on the other hand, while up to a point we should have our needs accommodated, and the world of the academic institution needs to be a little more flexible than just expecting us to fit lockstep into its set little program without any deviation, is it responsible for us to go into that system with an aura of entitlement, as though we assume that everyone will look out for us and make sure we have what we need? At what point do we accommodate our lives and our schedules to meet the expectations of the institution?

It’s a difficult dance.

I’m about to enter a new degree program, at a school filled with fairly affluent kids. I’m an “adult” student, and a doctoral student at that, the only woman in a male-dominated department. I will be the only student with children. I do not know how this is going to shake down. But I’m fairly sure that whining about “geez, they can’t expect me to do all this and never miss anything, I have a life, I have obligations, of course I’m going to have to ditch class, how dare they, it’s not like I’m one of those 23-year-olds with nothing but school to think about!” is not going to get me very far. I will have to meet the degree requirements. I will have to do what is expected of me. If I fail to do so, there will be ramifications. Period. That’s how it works.

Where is the balance between demanding fair and equitable treatment for women, and not demanding special concessions that create more work for others in order that I be able to be there?

(note: over on Clarissa’s Blog she weighs in from a professor’s perspective…check it out…)

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