April
17th 2009
Just “Ask Amy”: you’re an idiot, pal.

Posted under: Bodily modification, Gender, jobs, students, weirdness

Speaking of bodies that are marked categories, here’s an interesting letter to “Ask Amy” in the Denver Post this morning:

Dear Amy,

I am a student in a Ph.D. program.

I have a female professor who is pregnant. At first she was hiding it, but now she’s wearing maternity clothes, and it’s pretty obvious.

However, it’s really starting to frustrate me that no one will talk about the fact that she’s pregnant except behind her back — she is the white elephant in the room.

I want to congratulate her and ask her when she’s due, but I don’t want to be the first one to acknowledge it. Others estimate that she’s about six months along.

Any ideas? — Want to Say Congrats

Here’s Amy’s extremely sensible reply: 

Dear Congrats,

Any woman starts to feel like public property late in her pregnancy, but your professor’s pregnancy truly is none of your business — any more than it would be if she and her husband were going through the process of adopting a child, or if she were a male professor whose wife was pregnant. 

Referring to your professor as “the white elephant in the room” is regrettable.

If you can’t concentrate on your studies because of your professor’s condition, approach her after class. Ask her all the questions you want to ask. She will handle your query the best way she knows how and then most likely write me a letter expressing her frustration.

(I might add:  If you approach your professor with your deep and abiding concerns that she hasn’t discussed her pregnancy with you, she will almost undoubtedly think that you’re either an idiot, or a deeply strange person–or both!– for being so obsessed with her body and her personal life.)  Why does pregnancy drive normally sensible people nuts?  Did you catch that, “at first she was hiding it” comment in the letter from “Congrats?”  Like it’s her responsibility to make an announcement to each and every one of her students and colleagues the minute she leaves the bathroom waving around an at-home pregnancy test?  What’s with the “no one will talk about the fact that she’s pregnant except behind her back” comment, too?  (Presumably, people gossip about the non-pregnant people too, right?)

What’s going on here?  Is this a grad flake with an inflated sense of hir role in this professor’s life and career?  Let me know what your experiences were if you were ever pregnant while working in academia, or what you’ve observed about pregnancy in the academic workplace if you’ve never been pregnant.

24 Comments »

24 Responses to “Just “Ask Amy”: you’re an idiot, pal.”

  1. fludge on 17 Apr 2009 at 10:42 am #

    This grad student is totally clueless… Of course, perhaps that’s why s/he wrote to an advice columnist. Not everyone has all the answers.

  2. Janice on 17 Apr 2009 at 11:22 am #

    To the student, I’d say, “Just say congratulations and let it get on by unless the prof is your supervisor or on your committee, in which case you might be worried about the effect of a mat leave on your own life. Then talk to the graduate program coordinator about that.”

    I had both of my girls while on the t-t but I never tried to hide it. I doubt this prof has been hiding it in any way, either! I just didn’t bring it up until it was bleeding obvious (though I took great pleasure in teaching the women’s history survey the same term I went from 4 to 9 months pregnant). But if anyone wanted to comment nicely about my pregnancies, they were more than welcome to do so. Many did!

  3. Indyanna on 17 Apr 2009 at 11:38 am #

    This is sort of the way the whole (suburban) world looked back when I was growing up back in the, uh, back in the, uh, back in the, uh… wunna those times. I actually read (past tense) the query somewhat more sympathetically toward the questioner than it looks in Historiann’s afterword and the first couple of comments, but I can’t really say why. I take the point of of the latter, but I got the sense that the questioner was implicitly criticizing hir classmates more than making presumptions about the responsibility of the instructor. “Six months along…” language so very reminiscent of the, uh, uh, uh, fifties! That’s it, the fifties!! I can almost see the pastel swirl of all the loose-fitting tops. That was what my neighborhood looked like, all year, every year, year after year. For the record, then, I’ve never been pregnant.

    Did anyone see the piece about the guy, and it was a guy, who rigged a device that would Twitter the news from his wife’s abdomen every time she had a kick? Almost makes the f’f’fifties seem civilized.

  4. Ruth on 17 Apr 2009 at 12:44 pm #

    I once gave a job talk when 7 1/2 months pregnant. I had no dressy, roomy clothes suitable to the season and had to borrow a dress–the only time in my adult life when I have worn pink ruffles. The department was very, very careful not to comment on the obvious!

    On the one hand it’s none of the students’ business, unless the instructor’s absence will affect the class. On the other hand, I think it’s important to model for students that it’s normal to be a professional woman and be pregnant. You know, that old “I have a brain and a uterus, and I use both of them” thing. So in a way it’s a teachable moment.

  5. Historiann on 17 Apr 2009 at 1:27 pm #

    Janice’s and Ruth’s advice is good. Everyone has their own style, though, and I think it’s also OK for people not to want to talk all the time about having a pregnant body. (That is, I think the “teachable moment” may be ignoring it and just going on about your teaching and research as usual, as this woman appears to be doing.)

    I just find it extremely strange that this student is so overwrought about a professor’s pregnancy that ze had to write Amy Dickinson! I can see a student being concerned about a prof. whose physical appearance suddenly indicated a major health problem–for example, the weight loss and hair loss associated with cancer and chemo, etc. But–pregnancy? Is it really such a big deal?

    A pink ruffled maternity dress, though–that’s roughing it, Ruth!

  6. Historiann on 17 Apr 2009 at 1:33 pm #

    Also, this is strange:

    “I have a female professor who is pregnant.” As opposed to all of those male professors who are pregnant?

    Why not just “I have a professor who is pregnant” or “I have a pregnant professor.” This student seems hung up on the femaleness of the professor, not just the pregnancy.

  7. Dr. Crazy on 17 Apr 2009 at 4:00 pm #

    I’m going to try to put myself in the head of the grad student on this one, though I’ll say first that I really don’t get ze’s angst over this.

    Maybe what we’re witnessing here is the weirdness that comes with being in grad school, where you’re not quite sure how to interact with professors. You’re not “just a student” like an undergrad, but you’re also not quite a colleague. It may be that this person is trying to navigate what is professionally appropriate here. If this were someone in ze’s cohort, for example, ze might have already just said congrats and have been done with it. Or if the department culture were different, an announcement might have gone out – something along the lines of a baby shower invite or something, or an announcement about the prof taking maternity leave for Fall ’10 or something. If something like that had happened, again, it wouldn’t seem “weird” to tell the prof congratulations. In this instance, it’s entirely possible that the student is worrying that he/she is being rude by not congratulating the prof (or something), but then is also worrying that if ze mentions the pregnancy that this would also be in some way rude. It seems a silly thing to freak out over, but when I think about the silly things I freaked out over in grad school…. Yeah, I can imagine focusing on something like this rather than on “real” things that might need my attention.

    Ok, that’s as far as I can go with the whole putting myself in the student’s position. I seriously can’t imagine that I’d be so torn up over this that I’d write in to a newspaper advice columnist about it. And yes, I do think the student is for whatever reason hung up on the prof’s femaleness. Weird.

  8. af on 17 Apr 2009 at 4:57 pm #

    Funny, I read this totally differently. If I were the grad student, I’d put it this way:

    “Everyone I’ve ever known who was pregnant, and who I had some social contact with, has, around the three or four month mark, said, ‘Hey, I’m pregnant!’ and people said, ‘Congratulations!’ If I didn’t know them well, someone who knew them better (here, their own students, other professors/staff they’re friends with, etc.) would have heard and passed it along. By the six month point, certainly people wouldn’t be ‘gossiping’ about a pregnancy: what is this, the 50s, when women are embarrassed to be pregnant?!

    What kind of freak show is academia where this woman doesn’t feel comfortable announcing her pregnancy when she’s six months along?”

    Now, of course this woman may have a difficult pregnancy or some other reason for not bringing it up. And certainly if the student would be unaffected by her maternity leave, it isn’t any of his/her business. But the idea that a visible pregnancy is “private” and that everyone should pretend they don’t notice it seems very 50s to me.

  9. Erica on 17 Apr 2009 at 5:18 pm #

    Honestly, the window for congratulations on the pregnancy may have passed. The best approach now would be to wait until delivery, and then congratulate the professor on her new son/daughter when she’s back on campus (or even a brief email right after the event). If you’re not a close enough colleague/friend to have a pregnancy announced to you, then you probably shouldn’t be initiating the conversation.

    I don’t think this is necessarily something which should be limited to academia — treating a pregnant colleague as unusual, odd, a curiosity, and so on is inappropriate in any context. The worst problem I had while a pregnant engineer in industry was the factory workers not telling me when something broke because they didn’t want me to have to walk down from my desk, a “consideration” I gave them quite an earful over when I found out. They wouldn’t even let me pick up more than one piece of paper at a time (contrasted with a fair number of white-collar colleagues who were happy to sit on their butts while I did things like change the water bottle on the office cooler). Oh yeah, and there was this one older engineer who liked claiming it was his kid. (HA HA HA so funny… thankfully, none of my colleagues laughed any time he’d say that.)

  10. Historiann on 17 Apr 2009 at 5:30 pm #

    af–why do you think that students are entitled to formal announcements and conversations about professors’ pregnancies? I think Erica has it right: “If you’re not a close enough colleague/friend to have a pregnancy announced to you, then you probably shouldn’t be initiating the conversation.” (Although I think a brief but friendly “congratulations and good luck” is OK.) For me, the issue is that the student (who doesn’t say that this prof. is hir advisor or anyone terribly involved in hir graduate education) thinks it’s strange that the woman isn’t constantly talking about being pregnant. After telling people initially, it’s just not that interesting.

    Because a woman doesn’t talk about her pregancy doesn’t mean that she’s “repressed”–it might in fact mean that when she’s at work, she’s *working*, and so is consequently thinking about work issues.

    I think this is what Amy meant when she wrote that “any woman starts to feel like public property late in her pregnancy.” It’s really not this student’s business to opine about how she’s handling her pregnancy and to feel all weird about it. Honestly, it’s really not about that student.

  11. notyettenured on 17 Apr 2009 at 8:28 pm #

    Can I be contrarian and add my voice to AF? Having gone through two pregnancies in academia, I don’t quite get the public/private spilt implicit in the “don’t speak of pregnancy” rule. There is nothing at odds between pregnancy and intellectual endeavor, and it seems to reinforce separate spheres sensibility to impose silence on commenting on the obvious. Perhaps I am a totally inappropriate person, but I tend to comment (only positively) on people’s haircuts, new outfits, broken limbs, new glasses (women and men), and other obvious physical changes without feeling like I am crossing into “private” territory. I wouldn’t mind congratulations from students on a pregnancy, provided no one implied I should get my pregnant self out of the classroom.

    Of course, I have often suffered from foot-in-mouth disease….

  12. Beth on 17 Apr 2009 at 9:48 pm #

    Wull, jeez …in life outside academe, I think people avoid mentioning it because they’re afraid that the person isn’t really pregnant but, gasp, fat! Which is why I want to market T-shirts that say, “I’m Not Fat, I’m Pregnant,” and “I’m Not Pregnant, I’m Fat.”

    But at work? It’s actually not relevant, so why mention it any more than I would mention a haircut or a root canal.

  13. Historiann on 17 Apr 2009 at 10:33 pm #

    notyettenured–I think what you’re describing is perfectly fine. I too compliment people on things, and I don’t think it’s inappropriate to comment on a pregnancy (although Beth’s point should be kept in mind. Embarrassing for everyone concerned!)

    I guess I was reacting to the student’s opinion that it was somehow inappropriate that his or her prof didn’t talk about her pregnancy with him or her. My point was that it’s really up to the pregnant person to let people know and whether she wants to talk about it. There’s more than one right way to handle a pregnancy at work, but this student didn’t seem to appreciate this. (Plus–maybe the student was absent the day the professor made the “big announcement” of the bloody obvious? Maybe this student thinks she or he plays a bigger role in this professor’s life than she or he really does? Etc.)

    This also applies to the feminist politics: some women (like Ruth above) may see it as a “teaching moment,” but others might be uncomfortable with that. This is what I meant when I commented that pregnancy seems to make ordinarily sensible people lose their minds–this professor’s behavior is only an issue with this student because she is pregnant. Her body belongs to her and its business is hers–it doesn’t create a whole new set of obligations to people at work, or to anyone outside of her immediate family.

  14. Historiann on 17 Apr 2009 at 10:45 pm #

    My guess is that people will also gossip about and disapprove of a professor who runs down the hall waving her peed-on positive pregnancy test and screaming for joy about her 2-week-along pregnancy. There’s no pleasing some people!

  15. ej on 17 Apr 2009 at 10:58 pm #

    I have to say, I found being pregnant while standing in front of a classroom odd. I try very hard not to introduce my personal life into my classes, but this time, it was sort of unavoidable. I didn’t want to discuss it with them. They aren’t my friends or my colleagues. In part, this was because my first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, so I was very cautious about going public with the second. But also because I like to be in control of what information I share with my students, and once I was visibly pregnant, it was out of my control. Also, I really am not comfortable with the cheers that follow announcements of being pregnant. I was very happy to be in that state, but to me, you say congratulations after someone has accomplished something notable. Getting pregnant wasn’t an accomplishment. I had sex. Not nearly as difficult as writing and publishing my book.

  16. truffula on 18 Apr 2009 at 4:23 am #

    It seems to me that if your professor isn’t talking about her pregnancy, she’s giving you all the clues you need about how to interact with her about it.

    My department (a science department) goes in for social events so for most of us, this sort of stuff is out there unless you really don’t want it to be out there. That’s problematic in its own right, but there is room for individual preference. My own experience was that some of my colleagues’ reactions to my pregnancy were more complicated and less pleasant than students’ reactions. I was told by a childless colleague that my pregnancy caused her distress. I was asked by a male colleague if the “real father” was a researcher in our field at another institution. I reported the latter to my (male) department chair, who did nothing, I had to handle this situation myself (the same chair added a futon to our lounge so I could take naps while pregnant).

  17. Historiann on 18 Apr 2009 at 7:27 am #

    Good one, ej: “Getting pregnant wasn’t an accomplishment. I had sex. Not nearly as difficult as writing and publishing my book.” Yet somehow, I was never applauded by my students for that! Were you?

    truffula–great (if extremely annoying for you) examples of exactly what I’m talking about. Someone else’s pregnancy is just a pregnancy–it’s not about you, the pregnant person owes you nothing, and if you feel the need for some bizarre reason to “share” tacky jokes and your own unresolved feelings about reproduction with the pregnant person–PLEASE DON’T! It’s really not about you. I am sorry you were treated like such a freak, truffula. (Nice touch with the futon, though–I hope that went some way towards making it up to you.)

  18. Indyanna on 18 Apr 2009 at 10:21 am #

    I’m guessing that a huge number of students have as much difficulty–if not more–imaging the faculty having sex as almost everybody does, at some point or another, imagining their own parents doing so. Books, for all we know, they may envision as being ghost-written, or else produced on an “as told to” basis: _Washington’s Crossing, As Told to David Hackett Fischer_.

    An interesting story in the _Times_ today about publishers cruising around looking for blogs (albeit probably not serious ones like this one) to turn into insta-books. Then you get Oprah to twitter the thing, and who cares what the college salary committee decides?

  19. Historiann on 18 Apr 2009 at 12:34 pm #

    Ooooh–I can be SO MUCH more frivolous! Pick me! Pick me!

  20. Indyanna on 18 Apr 2009 at 1:04 pm #

    There seems to be a niche open for book-worthy blogs devoted to the intersections between gummy bears and some other subject, I can’t remember. Tracking down anonymous commeters for permissions is emerging as a problem here as well. I’m releasing all rights!

  21. D.A. on 19 Apr 2009 at 11:07 am #

    Women certainly shouldn’t feel obligated to offer the news of their pregnancy to others (especially if they are trying to avoid the socially-mandated gush of congrats and queries about the intimate details of the pregnancy). But a woman’s colleagues also shouldn’t feel like they are required to gush. I’ve felt extremely awkward when colleagues present the news of their pregnancy and expect and/or solicit a reaction – expecting and even desiring some engagement over relative nausea, hunger pangs, potential gender of child, etc. etc.

    I am more than happy to offer sincere and brief congratulations to new parents in any professional situation; but if pregnant women can (rightfully!) claim privacy, colleague-listeners should also be given that allowance.

    …I also applaud ej’s comments about valuing accomplishments!

  22. Fratguy on 19 Apr 2009 at 8:57 pm #

    White elephant in the room ? I believe the term is “800 pound gorilla” i.e. that which cannot be ignored. Then again a pregnant professor would much more expected and much more ignorable than the proverbial 800 pound gorilla, or white elephant for that matter, were one or the other or both sitting in and auditing a class. I mean ignorable for most people anyway.

  23. Jeremy Young on 19 Apr 2009 at 9:03 pm #

    The weird thing to me, and the thing that screams sexism, is that it’s a grad student. As an undergrad, I can totally understand thinking that something happening in a professor’s personal life is momentous and weird and an elephant in the room — because professors are strange and terrible creatures with huge power differentials, and knowing something about a prof’s personal life is a way of gaining some control over the relationship. At least, that’s what people think in undergrad. As a grad student? You’re a professional and should be over that othering of professors already. No excuse in this case.

  24. Raquel on 09 May 2009 at 9:06 am #

    I think the sensible thing to do would be to just congradulate the professor after class. Not too much thinking involved in that decision.

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