Book Reviews: Laboring in the Vineyard — The Academic Life Examined

Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President, by William G. Bowen, $24.95, Princeton University Press, (November 2010), ISBN-10:9780691149622, ISBN-13: 978-0691149622, pp.168.

You can be sure that the former president of one of the world’s most prestigious universities has learned plenty about how to run an institution of higher learning. When he offers to share his knowledge with those who run colleges and universities, or other kinds of institutions, one would be wise to take advantage of the opportunity.

William G. Bowen was president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988, years of incredible tumult, growth and progress on campus, before going on to head the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which provides support for educational and cultural institutions. As the title promises, he outlines many of the lessons learned along the way. He does so in clear, simple prose, not impenetrable academese.

To introduce the lessons, he tells stories drawn not only from his life at Princeton but also from his experiences in other settings and from situations involving colleagues at other institutions.

Often it is a refreshingly candid story about an error he made. After hiring a reluctant candidate for a faculty job, for instance, he says he learned not to be overly persuasive but bear in mind that the hesitant recruit might know better whether he or she is suited to the task. Among other things, Bowen reports that he learned to surround himself with good people, to make time for the things that were important and to leave before he tired of the job or people tired of him.

He presents all this in a form that is not a memoir and not a handbook or textbook, but his book could provide valuable guidance to any administrator in education or manager in some field far removed from college life. Certainly, any new college president should devour this book, and keep it handy.

Papa, PhD: Essays on Fatherhood by  Men in the Academy, edited by Mary Ruth Marotte, Paige Reynolds and Ralph Savarese, $21.95, Rutgers University Press, (December 2010), ISBN-10: 0813548799, ISBN-13: 978-0813548791, pp. 240.

Four years ago, Rutgers University Press published Mama, Ph.D.: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life. “Everyone” knows that life for those who mother while working, whether in academia or elsewhere, is fraught with difficulties, guilt and conflicts. Most importantly, academic moms do battle daily over the suspicion that they might not be serious enough about their career if they also reproduce, nurture and rear children.

Yet, fatherhood has been undergoing radical changes, too, for academics as much as for men who labor outside ivy-covered walls. At the same time, being “too involved” with one’s children is becoming more of an occupational hazard for men. For this book, editors invited scholars to reflect on how fatherhood affected their work and vice versa. Some men, especially untenured faculty, declined to contribute, according to the editors, for fear of repercussions.

Those who took up the challenge offer an incredible window on how fatherhood, and parenting in general, is in transition. One essayist, for instance, ponders what to make of gender neutrality after his son announces that he is transgendered and demands unconditional acceptance. In this book, White fathers raising Black or Asian children, gay fathers, adoptive fathers, single fathers and reluctant fathers have a voice as men confront a new frontier.

Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia,

by Rachel Connelly and Kristen Ghodsee, $29.95, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, (July 2011), ISBN-10:1442208589, ISBN-13: 978-1442208582, pp.232.

This, of course, is not the first book to lament the challenges women experience when they combine motherhood and scholarship. However, it may well be the first to weigh the pitfalls against the pleasures and offer encouragement to those brave enough to forge ahead in spite of the obstacles.

The trouble with those other books, the authors say, is that a female graduate contemplating an academic career “cannot help but be left with the impression that being a Professorus momus is too difficult a task for any normal woman.”

With humor, candor and directness, the authors serve up facts and data as you would expect from the academics they are, then stir in the caring advice you would expect from a big sister. Both authors are mothers and professors at Bowdoin College. Too often, they conclude, women seeking advancement in academia opt for other careers, opt out of having children or miss their biological window to reproduce.

These sacrifices reflect the reality that for women, the fertile years coincide with the years of commitment required to earn advanced degrees, publish scholarly writing and secure tenure, while being good teachers.

This book provides a kind of “intervention” to assure women that they can combine a successful academic life with a home life that includes children — with or without a partner. The authors present options for when, where and how it can be done, if one understands the negatives, too. D

Angela P. Dodson is a longtime contributor to Diverse.