by Portia Quiroz Seddon
At the end of the first week of the Spring semester, I prepared to complete my first assignments for the week ahead. Happy to be back at school after a long maternity leave, I felt that I was just getting the hang of balancing schoolwork, teaching, and childcare, although I was admittedly nervous about the daunting semester I had before me. As I sat down to begin some work, my fourteen-month-old son awoke from his afternoon nap and began copiously vomiting.
The rest of the night was a terrifying blur of more vomiting and listlessness, and a trip to urgent care. Thankfully, the on-call pediatrician confirmed that my toddler had caught a common stomach virus, but was otherwise well.
Sudden health scares like this are not an uncommon occurrence for parents to experience, and most parents have, at some point, had to find a way to recuperate the time lost in their work or school schedules. Yet this unexpected stressor at the beginning of the semester put in sharp relief for me the multitude of pressures that childcare would present while I attempt to work and study at the same time.
For many CUNY students, the complicated gender, racial, and class dynamics that student-parents might experience in and outside of the classroom structure their ability to study and work effectively. As a white woman, I have not faced racial oppression and felt the painful forms of discrimination that many of my students and colleagues at CUNY have felt. My own gendered and class experience, however, informs my perspective on how these forms of social inequality might intersect with the complex challenge of parenting, studying, and teaching simultaneously.
University teaching has, for a long time, assumed that students have lives without responsibilities — i.e., the life of a middle-class white man with a wife to perform household duties — and have structured learning and assignments in a way that reflects this. As CUNY student-teachers, we are in a unique position to respond to the exceptional and complicated circumstances of our own students by structuring courses with flexibility and creativity instead. On a practical level, this post seeks to outline how educators might work toward supporting student-parents, particularly those who are marginalized in society.
The most important elements to help student-parents take place in terms of work outside of the classroom. In my own experience, having time, and the necessary money to buy that time through childcare, has been the biggest challenge in my ability to focus on my graduate student and teaching duties. Since, as a society, we are far from free extended childcare that could assist working and student-parents in immediate material ways, the most important thing that professors can do is to be mindful of the demands and pressures that we exert upon students in assignments outside of the classroom. This entails providing reasonable flexibility and accommodations with these assignments, and to consider that student-parents’ needs may change in the moment.
I am not proposing to “dumb down” assignments, or to let student-parents “off the hook” with required coursework, but rather that we think about making that work more accessible and accomodating to the demands of life outside the classroom that many of our students face. This includes providing reasonable accommodations that benefit all of our students — not just those with children — as the reality of our job as CUNY professors entails that we are educating a very busy, time-constrained population of working-class students.
From a multimedia standpoint, this could mean assigning videos, podcasts, or other auditory and visual elements to watch and listen to, which can help students who have limited quiet time for reading at home with children in the background. Although this might not solve the problem of helping student-parents to focus on coursework, it is one possible consideration to include when planning to incorporate multimedia course materials.
For students who have multiple time constraints, and who cannot afford childcare for the time during which they are at home with their children, professors can incorporate simple techniques into their pedagogical toolkit to help prepare students for difficult reading and writing assignments, enabling them to maximize the time that they do have while their children are asleep. One strategy is to give students a “sneak peek” at the upcoming class readings, rather than sending them in unaware. Not only does this create some interest for the material they will encounter, but by giving them a preview of what questions and themes to look for in their readings, this allows them to maximize their time at the task and help them to become more effective readers.
Incorporating more student-led pedagogy in course planning can be another helpful strategy for student-parents to be engaged with and invested in coursework and assignments that they have some control over. For example, polling students on the topics that interest them the most, and then having them create a lesson plan or lead the class discussion for a day can be a way to involve them in the pedagogical process without always assigning a time- and labor-intensive paper.
For a final or capstone project, this could take the form of designing a syllabus. For cases in which a traditional written paper assignment cannot be replaced, it could be beneficial for students to have a day in class to workshop their papers. Having an established time (and relatively quiet place) outside of home to do their work is invaluable to completing an assignment. Of course, the key is for students to have access to this time regularly, which we as professors cannot guarantee. But setting aside at least one hour of class time during the semester to collectively work quietly on a course assignment can make a significant difference in a student’s ability to progress with an assignment.
By including some simple pedagogical techniques such as these, professors can help to relieve students of some of the pressure of traditional assignments, and enable students to engage with course material and assignments in a more flexible way.
Portia Quiroz Seddon is a Ph.D. student in the Ethnomusicology program and teaches courses in music and gender studies at Hunter College.