Professors Balance Work and Parenting, College Grants Extensions for Faculty Applying for Tenure


Madison Olsen

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the College is offering more flexible policies for junior faculty who are pursuing tenure.

Oberlin professors face greater challenges in balancing academic and parenting responsibilities this semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With so many children attending school on Zoom, parents everywhere have had to take on new teaching and supervising roles at home. Some are concerned that these challenges are falling disproportionately on the shoulders of women and single parents, and the College hopes to mitigate this inequity by establishing more flexibility for junior faculty. 

Data reported by Inside Higher Ed show that in the first few months of the pandemic, submissions to academic journals have increased among all genders, but women have not increased their submissions at the same rate as men. When a candidate is evaluated for tenure and promotion, their publication numbers are taken into account. Current submission trends have the potential to exacerbate existing gender disparities in many fields of academia. 

“We have some friends that are also faculty members and … to a certain degree, it’s like they actually have more time now,” said Jenny Garcia, assistant professor of Politics and Comparative American Studies and the mother of a year-and-a-half old baby. “They have more time to do their research, and so one of the things that I fear is that there’s going to actually be a growing disparity between the records in publications and in all sorts of aspects [for] women, people of color, people with young children that require more attention. And that’s going to be something that I think the academic fields have to really reconcile with, because it’s already a problem and this is really going to kind of further exacerbate it.”

In response to these fears, faculty — especially junior faculty working to demonstrate their scholarship through research and service to the school —  have raised concerns about the pandemic and extra personal burdens that interfere with their ability to prepare for a promotion. This conversation began last spring. 

“While students were agitating for pass/no entry options, and so on, many of us were advocating for faculty not to be evaluated in the same way for tenure this year,” said Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Comparative American Studies Meredith Gadsby, who is a mother of three. “Journals [and] presses have adjusted their expectations because everyone’s slow. So why not give ourselves the space to do that as well?”

The administration has responded with several changes to support faculty. Department chairs have also worked individually with faculty members to address these challenges.

Due to the disruption of the pandemic on faculty professional and personal lives, the College Faculty Council decided to allow faculty on the tenure track to extend their track by up to two additional semesters,” wrote Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences David Kamitsuka in an email to the Review. “Given the abrupt transition from in-person to remote instruction last Spring semester, faculty have been given the option to include or not include their student evaluations of teaching for that semester as part of their dossier for personnel review.”

These changes will grant professors more time to complete research that may have been interrupted by the pandemic or to deal with competing responsibilities. 

“It really does help alleviate some of the most immediate pressure,” Garcia said. “So in that sense, I’m not feeling too stressed about [completing research]. I mean, I’m feeling pretty good [about] the situation that I’m in. It adds a little stress because you think, ‘Oh my gosh, there was all this work I was going to get done, and now I’m not able to get it done.’ But in the back of my head, I know if I need to take that extra year, I can take it.”

These changes proved critical for professors whose work was disrupted by COVID-19. The shift to the three-semester plan has also given professors more flexibility. 

“I just took a little bit of an extension on getting my materials in because I was supposed to have a show last spring that was evaluated, and it had to be canceled,” said Alysia Ramos, assistant professor of Dance and mother of a twelve-year-old. “I made a film, but it just took longer, but I’ve been able to finish my work. I mean, my department’s pretty supportive. I’m only teaching two courses this semester. Sometimes I teach three, but I was able to put those into the summer.” 

The administration has also made changes to ensure that women, single parents, and faculty of color are not negatively impacted by the pandemic. 

“This is indeed a challenging society-wide concern,” Kamitsuka wrote. “Part of our response has been to minimize committee work and Winter Term responsibilities as much as possible for faculty. … We have also been flexible with hours when people need to be on campus and also when faculty teach.”

Women of color are often expected to take on invisible labor within their departments, such as serving on committees. Gadsby explains that the current health and political climates make these unequal demands especially problematic. 

So in this moment of all of the activism around the Black Lives Matter movement, the constant barrage of murdering of Black folks that we’re seeing — that’s not new, but we’re seeing it in different ways,” Gadsby said. “I don’t know that we’ve seen it in this way in such concentration since the 1960s. Everybody’s emotional capacity is on [low] right now. … We are all really struggling, and we are struggling to be on these committees and in meetings and trying to stay present, talking about issues that don’t matter as much to us as they might have if none of this was happening.”

Additionally, balancing parenting and academic responsibilities can be challenging — especially for women who often take on a greater load of childcare responsibilities in heterosexual partnerships. Garcia is currently on leave but explains that the inability to rely on outside childcare has created challenges. 

“It’s been kind of tricky,” Garcia said. “[My son] wants us to play with him, and so it’s been tricky to try to figure out what is going to be a schedule that allows us to take care of him, but also try to get some work done — try to make sure that we just don’t completely lose this whole entire leave, make sure that we’re able to do something.”

Gadsby speaks of a similar experience. Although she is already a tenured professor, balancing research, teaching, and parenting has been exhausting.  

“It’s meant having to really reorganize my workday so that I can only do work while [my daughter’s] on Zoom,” Gadsby said. “That allows me to keep one ear open to hear what’s happening because I have to — if the internet drops … if there’s a big problem, I need to be able to help with that. … There’s no separation between my work, her work, and home at all. And that is really challenging and it makes it almost impossible to do your scholarship in any meaningful way.”

Some professors feel that the College could go farther to support parents, not just during the pandemic, but also in more typical times. 

“The pandemic has made it clear that the expense to stay on track if you don’t have family support or something is pretty considerable, and I don’t know that that’s really taken into account anywhere,” Ramos said. “With something short-term, like a pandemic, giving more time makes sense. But in a long-term career trajectory, that really just sets women and single parents [behind], if the solution is to just allow for more time rather than offer some sort of resource.”

Despite the enormous challenges that College faculty and parents everywhere face right now, new research has shown that there are reasons to be hopeful. A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that with many men at home right now, there may be a breakdown of household gender norms as men take on more responsibilities with housework and childcare. 

Although it is still too early to see the long-term effects of the pandemic on academia, Oberlin’s administration hopes that the changes it has made will help minimize these disparities.