When American University Professor of Anthropology Adrienne Pine woke up with a sick toddler on the first day of her class “Sex, Gender and Culture” (foreshadowing irony here), she had to choose between punting syllabus-talk and the course’s first lecture to her teaching assistant or bringing the kid with her to class.
She chose the latter, packed up her stuff and headed out. Before she went into the lecture hall, Pine told her TA that she was not expected to watch the kid, though the TA voluntarily offered to rock the child a couple of times while Pine spoke. Most students smiled and ignored the feverish-but-active girl for the most part. Pine was making the best of a well-known situation — sick kid + work.
Well into the class, Pine’s toddler became fussy. So the professor, with little fanfare, nursed the child, who promptly fell asleep.
The class went off without incident. Or so Pine and most of the rest of the others thought, until Pine got an email from Heather Mongilio, editor of the campus newspaper, The Eagle.
Mongilio asked if she’d be willing to speak on the record about the matter, which Mongilio describes as “delicate” and possibly uncomfortable. The reporter was referring to Pine breastfeeding her kid in class.
Pine responded with her “side of the story,” explaining it would have been unfair to dump first-day stuff on the TA. She starts with this, “I really wish this weren’t considered ‘newsworthy,’ but I suppose that’s why a feminist anthropology course is necessary at AU.” Pine laid out her choices and reiterated the route she chose. “End of story.”
But it wasn’t the end for the cubby reporter.
In a piece written for Counterpunch, where Pine tells the whole story, the professor explains that she’s always tried to distance herself from lactivists, whom she sees as bourgeois. She also explains why she breastfeeds, acknowledges other breasts went before her ensuring her right to do so and in public and so on.
Next day, her daughter was still sick. So she hired a sitter — $140 for the day plus the $75 she was paying the daycare that couldn’t take the feverish kid. After class, “Scoop” Mongilio was waiting.
Here’s the conversation, from Pine’s point of view, in Counterpunch:
“When the incident occurred…” she began.
“I didn’t think of it as an incident’,” I responded, with what I’d hoped would be visible annoyance. “But obviously one of my students told you, so I guess you think it was.”
She continued, “When the incident occurred, were you worried about what your students would think? Did they seem uncomfortable, did they say anything?”
I slapped my palm on my forehead in frustration. What I wanted to say was “Who cares? Do university students really need to be so mollycoddled that they should not see something I do on public transportation nearly every day?” But I believe my answer was more along the lines of “I’m the professor. I’m in a position of authority in the classroom. How likely is it that they will out themselves as being afraid of a partially-exposed breast on the first day of a course on feminist anthropology?”
Heather then tried to catch me on cultural insensitivity. “AU prides itself on its diversity and on having a large number of foreign students among its student body. Were you worried about what they’d think?” Exasperated, I skirted the issue of AU’s lack of class and racial diversity (in Washington DC, of all places) and tried to explain that in most other societies, people don’t have the kind of ridiculous Puritanical hangups that would turn a working woman breastfeeding into a newsworthy “incident.”
“Since it’s natural, after all, right?” She chipped in, nodding as if she got it.
I held my hands up and rolled my eyes.
Immediately afterward, Pine regretted speaking to Mongilio, emailed and asked her not to run the story. The reporter punted to her editors. Long story short, the department got dragged into it and, in the end, the newspaper decided to run the story.
I’m torn. I think breastfeeding is a non-story. But I think, perhaps, breastfeeding in class IS a story — well, not breastfeeding, but the fact that Pine brought her kid to class with her. The reason for doing that is the story — how she comforted or fed the child really isn’t (that’s just the attention grabber).
There’s having it all and not having it all and then there’s being a mother in academia. You’d THINK women in academia would have it easier — relatively flexible schedules, ability to work from home, likely decent benefits, that kind of thing. But women in academia face difficult challenges like many working moms. They have to time families around tenure clocks, don’t make enough for more flexible childcare options, etc. Assuming Mongilio is a traditional student, she might have had questions about what her university’s policies are regarding maternity leave for tenured and non-tenured employees, whether the janitor gets the same benefits, if the university underwrites or has any kind of childcare on-site for its faculty, staff and students, and whether the rates are adjusted based on salaries. She might have asked Pine why her husband didn’t stay home, whether male teachers have ever brought kids to class and fed them snacks. She might have asked a whole lot of actually interesting questions, not lazy ones about whether Pine was worried a nip-slip would offend the imagined diverse student population.
She might have asked university officials whether they have a policy — or a statement. (They issued one and it’s completely in support of professors making their own and best decisions.)
It’s too bad neither the reporter nor her editors thought to redirect the conversation to something less salacious and uninformative toward something the student population at American University probably doesn’t even know yet that they would want to read about.
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