Thursday, September 13, 2012

Breast-Feeding Brouhaha

Among the pieces I want to write over the next couple of weeks are several nominations for the 2012 Curmie Award for educator most embarrassing to the profession. But one thing I’ve noticed is that relatively few nominees are people like me, i.e. college faculty. There are teachers, but they tend to work at the elementary or secondary level; there are people who work at universities, but they tend to be administrators. Whether this phenomenon is a function of college faculty actually being less profoundly stupid than others in the education field, or of less media coverage of their transgressions, or of my own biases, I cannot state with confidence.

What I can say is that we now have a nominee who is indeed a faculty member: Adrienne Pine (right), an assistant professor of anthropology at American University. She is now at the center of a minor kerfuffle after breastfeeding her daughter in front of her Sex, Gender and Culture class… no, not as a subject for discussion, but rather as a matter of course, or at least of exigency. Contacted by a writer for the student newspaper, she first responded to an e-mail inquiry, then got snotty in a face-to-face interview. She first asked the school paper not to publish the article. The editor offered her anonymity, at least, saying the editorial board hadn’t yet decided whether to proceed with publication. She asked him to “hide [her] name”… and then proceeded to identify herself in an article on the Counterpunch website.

Her piece was subsequently described by a supporter as “pedantic and needlessly defensive,” with “garbled and unconvincing arguments about why she breast-feeds.” I’d be a little more blunt. Her often incoherent screed is even more pompous than it is illogical, and that’s a pretty high threshold. She can trot out commentary about “a slippery slope of biological determinism” or “gendered essentialism” or similar jargon-laden gibberish, but she seems incapable of either saying “no comment” or understanding the way any journalistic operation works. She’s all about liberal principles, but don’t dare call her “Ms.” instead of “Dr.”: that’s a gendered derogation, apparently, even coming from another woman. I’m not exactly sure what it means, then, when my students call me “Mr.” (For those who don’t know me personally, I’m a professor with a PhD.)

I found about about this incident from Lela Davidson’s piece on the Today Moms page on the NBC News site. Knowing I wasn’t going to have time to write up my commentary immediately, I forwarded the link to Jack Marshall of Ethics Alarms, suspecting (with reason, as it turns out) that 1). he’d be interested, 2). he’d get to it before I would, and 3). his take would be very similar to mine.

I yield to both these writers on a number of matters. Here’s Davidson on one of the central considerations:
This is not about breast-feeding. It’s a matter of professionalism. And, yes, sometimes we all have to make very difficult choices between our families and our jobs. The truth is Pine’s daughter could have waited until after class to eat. Had she not been ill, she would have been in childcare during class, presumably either being bottle-fed or not eating.
Oh, yeah. But I’d suggest that this story both is and is not about breast-feeding. The real transgression was bringing a sick child to class at all. The daughter is too sick to go to day-care, but it’s OK to drag her into class, where her presence is at best a distraction, and where she is likely to infect students? (Note: Pine herself said she “caught and improved upon [her] baby’s cold.” Translation: the girl was contagious.) And don’t give me the “no other choice” nonsense. Of course there were other choices. If the TA can’t handle syllabus-distribution day, get another TA. There are friends and colleagues who can look after the kid for less than an hour. Or hire a student to keep her out of trouble: after all, a student had to alert Pine that the girl had a paper clip in her mouth, meaning that the attempt to parent and teach simultaneously wasn’t exactly going so well. Were I of a snarky disposition (perish the thought!), I might note that years of intensive study have shown exactly what processes lead to the whole baby-having thing, and that doing so is a choice.

In virtually any other profession, this situation would simply not happen. Imagine an ill infant trotted along by a Walmart cashier, a bank teller, a defense attorney… a high school teacher, for that matter. Babies do not belong in the workplace, period. I should note that it is fine to have the child in your office when you’re preparing the next day’s lecture or whatever, but in the actual public performance of your professional duties, I expect you to devote yourself to the task at hand: teach or be a mom, but you can’t do both at once. I’d also note that if you’re really afraid that missing the first day of class because of a sick child will imperil your tenure chances, you need to find a new employer ASAP: you’re either looking for an excuse for your imminent failure, or you’re going to be a lot better off working for people who aren’t schmucks.

But I do think that the breast-feeding angle does matter, too. If Dr. Pine is really so cloistered that it is inconceivable to her that someone in the class would be made uncomfortable by her “giving her baby her boob,” to use Andrea Marcotte’s expression, or that someone on a college newspaper would think the incident worthy of a short blurb on the feature page, then maybe some of those stereotypes about ivory-tower academics aren’t so silly, after all. It sure as hell would raise an eyebrow or two on my campus, whether it should or not. If you want to argue that breast-feeding in public, or even on the job, ought to be unremarkable, go right ahead. But if you don’t understand that there’s a difference between reality and utopia, I really do pity your students.

And the self-righteous riff on how other cultures aren’t subject to the same Puritanical self-repression as Americans doesn’t change the fact that the chances of encountering someone who thinks that breast-feeding your kid while you’re supposed to be teaching is a bit outré are pretty damned close to 100%, even in a “feminist anthropology” course at one of the nation’s artsy-fartsiest universities. But Dr. Pine aspires to professional victimhood: everything that goes the slightest bit wrong in her world is attributable to “anti-woman implications” or some such twaddle. She crows in her ultimately hubristic article about how she was rude to the (female) student reporter, whom she identifies by name, whose questions she derides as “biased and sophomoric,” and who is accused of “passing the buck” about whether the article will be published to the editor whose job it is to make those decisions. Forgive me if my irony meter just lurched past “extreme.” Way to stand in solidarity, there, Professor.

Really, this should and could have been a non-issue. But Dr. Pine, and no one else, chose to make it otherwise. What could have been a blip, easily defused by a simple recognition that not everyone thinks the same way Pine does and a pro forma apology for unspecified distractions of the first day, metastasized into a public internet harangue that manages to be simultaneously vicious and paranoid, and ought, in a just universe, to be the last nail in her tenure coffin.

One thing that student artists share with journalists (and with athletes) is that their work, unlike that of, say, anthropologists, is public. Or, rather, it is when the work is done. If you come to opening night of my upcoming production and immediately take to the Net to criticize my female lead, I’ll do nothing to stop you. But if you do so based on a rehearsal, I’ll rip you a new one before you can say “Countess Aurelia.” That student reporter is, after all, a student reporter. The article apparently still isn’t published—and at this point, why should it be? But you’re going to eviscerate her for what she might have been thinking about saying?

Bringing your sick kid to class is unprofessional; breast-feeding her during class aggravates the situation. But getting sufficiently exorcised about an unpublished article that you’d publicly defame the student whose perfectly reasonable questions rendered you “shocked and annoyed”: that’s way over the line. We can be grateful for the breast-feeding incident, at least. It, or at least its aftermath, revealed Dr. Pine’s true colors.

And earned her a Curmie nomination.

1 comment:

cc conn said...

I would like to respond in support of these comments. First, I will note that I am a professor, a single mom and I breastfed my child for the first 2 years. Although I was not teaching at that time, I was working and, therefore, making all necessary arrangements to take breaks at work and find appropriate places for using a breast pump.
I am a strong advocate of breastfeeding and I truly understand the difficulties of juggling a sick child, a job, and being concerned for my tenure. But I would never have chosen to take an infant into a class and certainly would not have breastfed in front of a class. Not because I feel it is in any way unnatural to breast feed in public or that I condone others for being critical of that. But, more directly, if I am giving my child his needed and valued attention as a caregiver and mother, I am not being the professor that my students or my employer is expecting to have in that classroom. And if I am teaching to the best of my ability and at the level expected by my students and by the high expectations outlined in the tenure policies, I am not able to care for my baby to the degree that he deserves to be cared for.
Finding someone to handle your sick baby while you are in class a far better option that short changing everyone in that room including the baby.