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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Baby on (white)board

This dust-up over an anthropology professor at American University who nursed her infant during (ironically) a "Sex, Gender, Culture" class should resonate with recent Prawfs conversations over breastfeeding and bringing our kids to school/class. Not much I want to add, other than to highlight one comment in the Slate post: The irony of the student insisting that he was distracted by the professor breastfeeding, while he is posting messages to Twitter and Facebook.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 12, 2012 at 08:29 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


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My first reaction was to agree with the students that both bringing a baby (i.e., a child who needs constant care and supervision and cannot sit quietly in the back) and breastfeeding were inappropriate for the classroom. This was based on an idea that there is a distinction between what should be appropriate in public in general, and what is appropriate workplace behavior. In other words, I think that women should not be ashamed or prohibited from breastfeeding in public spaces, but this does not mean that anything goes while giving a lecture.

On second thought, however, I sympathize with her feelings about the reaction. Although I disagree with her about the propriety of bringing a baby to class, and the necessary breastfeeding that then occurred, I do think that this is not a *newsworthy* item.

In other words, if she had simply brought her baby to class, students might have been annoyed, and it might not have been right, but the chances that it would have been a news item are pretty small. On that level, I am troubled by the gendered response, and think we should be honest about what parts of the reaction are motivated by workplace propriety concerns, and what parts of the reaction are unjustifiable squeamishness about breastfeeding in public spaces.

Posted by: Robin Effron | Sep 12, 2012 10:05:05 PM

Am I right that this is a news item in large part because the professor herself published a long and heated response about the episode that is getting a ton of attention? I'd be curious to know how much attention this received before that response was published.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 13, 2012 1:09:31 AM

Hard to know. The timeline as I understand it is that she was interviewed by a student for the campus paper, then wrote a lengthy post about the whole incident, including what happened during and after that interview and about waiting to see if the paper would publish the piece. WaPo picked it up today, although I don't know if that was in response to the newspaper story, the blog post, or both.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 13, 2012 1:14:05 AM

A few thoughts:

1. I have to admit that I was relieved to discover in Pine's essay that she rejects the virulent lactivist and biological essentialist understanding of breast feeding as some sort of divine or pseudoscientific necessity - but her essay was also horribly patronizing to the AU students in question and while she seems to have a sophisticated feminist analysis of the politics of breastfeeding (one that I basically agree with), she then declares the article (which, for whatever its worth, was proposed by a female student who seems to have some sort of cultural feminist idea about it) "anti-woman" and "sexist" while making no adequate account for why this is the case. I realize of course that women can be misogynistic almost as much as men can, but there was no clear account of how Heather was actually being sexist. If anything I think her analysis of the politics of breastfeeding suggest that critiques of the propriety of breastfeeding in certain situations (like, say, lecturing) are not sexist in that they concern a strictly optional, non-essential part of being a mother which is likewise not her primary identity as a woman or person.

2. I think the idea that one's right to breastfeed in public is under threat is somewhat ridiculous in a context where everyone with any ounce of power (i.e. the faculty and administrators) supported Pine 100% and the culture around motherhood has more or less created a social mandate to breastfeed or else be labeled an unfit and abusive mother. If anything, as Marcotte implied in the article linked to, it socially far less acceptable to bottle feed in public with infant formula. Pine to her credit also rejects condemnation of formula milk but this undermines the case that breastfeeding in class is absolutely necessary.

3. I doubt this would have become a mainstream news story if not for Pine's essay which she posted on a very prominent blog...which is somewhat ironic given that she explained much of her objection to the article around the notion that her googleable identity would be forever tied to breastfeeding her baby...

4. I don't think accepting that mothers should be able to breastfeed in *public* without scorn at all requires or implies the proposition that its alright for mothers to breastfeed an infant at all times in all places while doing all activity. Pine says she thinks its ridiculous for students to take offense at her doing something she does while riding a train, but riding the train and lecturing aren't at all the same. If an attorney breastfed in court while while delivering oral argument, her client might be legitimately annoyed because the attorneys full attention, time, and public presentation should be on performing her professional duty to her client. Likewise if you're giving a lecture, your exclusive focus should be on the lecture, you shouldn't be checking your email, taking phone calls, eating, or doing any kind of personal maintenance routine that, despite being totally socially acceptable, does not cultivate a professional image (such as brushing your teeth or shaving while lecturing).

Posted by: Anon | Sep 13, 2012 7:01:33 AM

I am largely agnostic on the right answer, but a couple of thoughts:

I agree with Robin that at least some of this is squeamishness about breastfeeding more than the distraction (I think that's what really got to the guy mentioned in the story. As well as a bit of sophomoric salaciousness about boobies, which is both gendered and sexualized.

I agree with much of what Anon said, but I would push back on # 4. The thing with an attorney is that she might have some control over the timing of things. She could ask for (and most judges would grant, at least nowadays) a 15-minute recess so she could nurse, then get back to trial. (To the extent the judge would say no, that gets back to some of the point of Anne-Marie Slaughter's infamous essay). Professors don't control timing of an individual class (according to Pine, the whole issue was that she didn't want to cancel the first class of the semester).

Also, all of the "personal maintenance routines" you describe are fundamentally inconsistent with standing (or sitting) in front of a room and talking. I can't lecture with a tooth brush in my mouth. I'm not sure that feeding an infant is similarly inconsistent; a lot of parents who can feed while doing three other things at the same time. So if there's no distraction of the prof and no interference with the lecture, "professional image" becomes a loaded concept.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 13, 2012 7:50:57 AM

The entire episode seems designed to solicit attention and controversy (confirmed in part by Pine's later writing), and I too agree with Anon although I might put the last point a bit differently. Rightly or wrongly, prevailing social and professional norms would suggest that this is not the best exercise of discretion and I have a hard time believing she could not have breastfed the child just before or just after class, that it absolutely had to occur at _that_ point in time. Even babies are not routinely provided forms of absolute instant gratification (and I've yet to see evidence that this in any way harms them, indeed, one imagines quite the converse), however compelling their needs, desires, or wishes and despite our best intentions and sincere efforts to satisfy them.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 13, 2012 8:39:47 AM

One point: would anyone defend a male professor bringing a baby into class and (bottle-)feeding that baby during the middle of a lecture?

Posted by: Pre-tenured prof | Sep 13, 2012 9:08:35 AM

Since if the baby wasn't sick, it wouldn't have been breastfed during that hour anyway, it doesn't seem likely that it was actually necessary that she did so. Also, this was the first day of an undergraduate class, and it's not uncommon for that - correct me if things are different at American, but based on my own experience elsewhere - to take ten minutes for the professor to hand out the syllabus and then dismiss the class. I feel like the entire thing was engineered by the professor to make a point. Which is fine; it sounds like it was engineered to make a point that's entirely appropriate for the class. But leaving that point then to be made in the media (via heated screed) instead of actually discussing it in class seems counterproductive. It's not like undergraduates are masters of picking up nuance; it probably needed to be discussed explicitly, and if she had done so, I doubt it would ever have been mentioned in a newspaper.

Posted by: Katie | Sep 13, 2012 10:07:31 AM

Pre-Tenured: I would.

Katie: I never had a first class in college that was limited to 10 minutes of handing out the syllabus; every first class was a full first class. So I don't see any reason to believe she set this whole thing up. I agree she could have handled the response better, but I don't see any evidence this was her plan all along.

Also, while he would not have been breastfed during that hour but for being sick, he would have been fed. So the source seems irrelevant.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 13, 2012 10:24:00 AM

Frankly, I could totally see myself doing this (well in the abstract because I do have backup childcare lined up for when my daughter is sick). By "this" I mean bringing a sick baby to class and breastfeeding her if need be. Sometimes folks just get stuck without options and end up with a kid in class. Now, you gotta go based on your kid and whether you think you would be able to conduct class with them there. But I bet the breastfeeding would be the least disruptive time. At least then, you know your baby will be quiet and will likely fall asleep (and not crawling around putting paperclips in her mouth). I think the points about whether it was a normal time to feed the baby miss the mark a little. Babies that are fed on demand might end up eating anytime. A sick baby will want to nurse more. Nursing a fussy baby is the quickest way to lessen distraction.

Where I disagree with Pine was in choosing to publish an expose on her blog criticizing the student reporter before that reporter even published a story. I agree that this should not have been a newsworthy event, but it seems like she made it one while lamenting the fact that it was becoming one.

Posted by: Jessie Owley | Sep 13, 2012 10:56:43 AM

I presided over an administrative hearing during which a baby was breast fed (not by an attorney, as far as I know). Although I could have excluded the woman and child under the Office rule precluding food in the hearing room I did not do so. I was aware that I was showing a gender (or other) bias becuase I routinely do exclude people with food.

Posted by: anon 2 | Sep 13, 2012 12:33:10 PM

Howard, you're right - I shouldn't have assumed it was a set-up. I do think that making it an explicit point of discussion would make more sense in an undergraduate medical anthropology class than would assuming students would pick up on the implications sensitively.

Anon 2 - out of curiosity, would you exclude someone from eating in the hearing room if they told you they had a medical condition (perhaps blood sugar related) that might require them to eat in the hearing room? That seems somewhat equivalent to me.

Posted by: Katie | Sep 13, 2012 1:53:39 PM

Yes I would, but if necessary I would take a break to allow them to eat outside the hearing room.

Posted by: anon 2 | Sep 13, 2012 3:05:17 PM

Do we have a new twist on "no vehicles in the park"? "No food in the hearing room." Now we have to figure out how that applies to a lactating woman who is, in some sense, always carrying food with her (whether it is being eaten at the moment is another issue).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 13, 2012 3:49:18 PM

"Do we have a new twist on 'no vehicles in the park'? ‘No food in the hearing room.'"

I am surprised to see this as an issue: I know of no court that allows food in the courtrooms. Granted, an administrative hearing is generally a less formal proceeding, but to me the rule is common sense and common courtesy. Do you law professors allow people to eat in your classrooms?

As to eaten v. carried: if you carry the food in a brief case or backpack, it would not be a problem; however if, for example, you have your lunch or breakfast on a tray or a bag from a fast-food place, I'll tell you to remove it from the hearing room. (As to lactating women, I don’t’ see them as unique because we all “carry” food in our bodies.)

Posted by: anon 2 | Sep 14, 2012 12:06:49 PM

I am a law prof with two small kids. I can tell you exactly what I would have done in that case. First, I would have (I did have!) always had two backup plans for exactly that situation. Nothing is unusual about a kid spiking a fever -- why is she presenting it as some sort of true emergency? Child fever is not any more of an emergency than rain.

Second, if all my backups failed, I would have called every friend, colleague, staff member etc at school, begging to watch my kid in my office for 75 min while I am in class. Third, if that failed, I would have blasted an email to all students with whom I've ever had a one-on-one conversation asking to watch my kid in my office, for a nice fee of course. If that failed, I would have profusely apologized to students and cancelled the class. Under no circumstances would I have ever even considered bringing my baby to class, much less breastfeed in front of students.

Professional provocateurs like this anthropology professor are so caught up in their politics that they've forgotten simple rules of peaceful human co-existence: your comfort and convenience are not the most important things on earth. You have professional responsibilities. You must fulfill them. You cannot cheat your students to simplify your personal life. You cannot berate your students for being offended by your attempts to simplify your personal life at their expense. You must respect your students and, during your limited time in class, you must dedicate all your attention to them, not to your nursing/crawling/babbling baby. Keep your personal affairs, like having kid problems and not having a partner who is willing to step up, to yourself. Tone down your obsessive egocentricity. The world does not revolve around you. It's not. All. About. You.

Posted by: anonprof | Sep 15, 2012 4:29:29 PM

P.S. Pine is asking why it's ok for her to breastfeed on the train, but not in class. Gee, on the train, she can also sleep, read newspapers, gossip with friends, polish her nails, and watch cartoons on her iPad. I sure hope she doesn't think she is entitled to any of the above in class.

Posted by: anonprof | Sep 15, 2012 4:41:59 PM

Anonprof at 4:29:29

In my breastfeeding days, I probably would have done the same thing as you -- exerting all of the power and sway of my position in order to prevent myself from having to call attention to my very femaleness in front of my class.

Now I wonder if I served any of my students well -- male or female -- by turning a normal modest biological act into more than it was.

The world over, women breastfeed while performing all kinds of work. This is not an option. It is an imperative.

Surely, evolution has not proceeded at such a pace in North America alone, that American women could not learn to do the same?

Posted by: Ann Marie Marciarille | Sep 16, 2012 3:12:39 PM

Ann Marie: "the word over" women have no choice, and you do not know whether breastfeeding at work damages their productivity and their ability to advance their lot. I can tell you that breastfeeding absolutely distracted me from doing my work. Heck, merely having a crawling baby in a room absolutely distracted me from work! Absolutely our ability to teach suffers from the presence of our babies in lecture halls. Of course it does. And, unlike those struggling people "the word over", law profs in the US have a choice. They can afford help. They have pumps and bottles. They are only in class a few hours a week. They should stop putting their personal conveniences ahead of their professional duties. Dear Ms. Pine should get a sitter and pump before class, instead of acting like a self-absorbed hypocrite.

Posted by: anonprof | Sep 16, 2012 11:42:17 PM

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