Language is important

The language that we use is important especially the words and what they imply.  We know this and we can cite many different examples.  I will offer only one perspective that resulted from my readings about faculty in higher education recently.  Not surprisingly, I regularly read the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education and other similar venues about higher education.  My comments which follow are not a criticism of these publications but should be viewed as a commentary about how we in the academy continue to use familiar words and phrases that while accurately portraying a current situation do therefore perpetuate these notions as if they are “fact” and can’t be changed in the future. Two examples follow.

The first of two phrases that I read and hear colleagues use is the “two body problem”.  These words are commonly used to describe the situation in which two individuals (e.g., spouses or partners), or at least one of these individuals, seek faculty positions in higher education.  Since the 1980s, words like spousal hire, partner accommodation, and more recently dual career hires have been used.  An underlying assumption was that this was a “challenge” or “problem”.  I agree (and have argued favorably on numerous occasions) that indeed higher education needed to become aware of and proactively address the fact that increasingly so couples desire career opportunities for each individual and therefore, often two faculty positions. This phenomenon has increased over time and has become a reality facing higher education.  And thus rather than call it “the two body problem” which immediately casts the situation negatively as a problem, perhaps we could use language that reflects a positive attitude and encourages action.  The message sent and received is very different if we change “problem” to “opportunity”.  Inside Higher Education has made positive strides forward in this arena through the featuring “dual career” couples (reflecting via photos a full range of diversity) and their opportunities to seek dual careers as evident on their website.  This sends a message that two careers are possible rather than a problem.

The second phrase and one that is relatively new is “the baby penalty“.  Dr. Mason (former Graduate Dean at UC Berkeley and current faculty member) and her colleagues have studied and authored a recent book in an attempt to answer the question of whether or not babies matter.  Their research shows that babies do matter and make a difference in the lives of female academics.  Honestly, I don’t find this surprising because I think intuitively we know that having babies and raising children does impact one’s lives and more so for females than the males.   While the data do support a “negative” impact upon the female faculty member in a traditional sense of academy, the data are also a reflection of the way higher education is currently structured and not the way that it could be.  Families and babies should not be referred to as a “penalty”.  In the Chronicle of Higher Education article, Mason stated that it is time to “… demand family policies that will at least give them a fighting chance to have both a successful career and babies.”  University leaders could use the data to insist that higher education actually make structural changes and more fully embrace families and work-life balance in our colleges and universities.  This truly is an opportunity and perhaps a mandate for change.  Let’s begin by modifying our words because language is important.