October 7, 2006


Why do academic careers tend to run in families? Usha Rodrigues asks over at Conglomerate.
1) Are professors creating their own academic class and becoming increasingly out of touch with “regular folks”? 2) A variant of the old nature/nurture debate: Did my parents pass on some sort of “academic” (“bookish”? “nerdy”?) gene? Or was it because I spent so much of my childhood on Georgetown’s campus that I developed such an affinity for old stone buildings and grassy quads? 3) Is this no big deal? Children tend to follow their parents’ career paths (look at all the second and third generation doctors, lawyers, and military men and women out there), and academia is just the family business.
And check out the comments, which are full of lawprofs. Orin Kerr shows up with the portmanteau word "proffspring." Ann Bartow narrates her personal story, which provokes the indomitable Kate Litvak to deliver a hearty smackdown: "I knew Ann Bartow had a tendency to see sexism in every human interaction; apparently, she also sees classism in every human interaction." (Go read the exchange.)

I didn't grow up around academics myself, and I'm sure this made some things harder. There was never a feeling of naturalness. But it must have helped in some ways too: the work seemed immensely glamorous and an outsider mentality lets you look at things in new ways. I can't say how good it feels to be one of those people who end up as professors by what feels to them like a natural path. How useful is it to have the feeling of emulating a parent? How satisfying is it to find yourself in social interactions that are like the ones you observed in the adults in your childhood home?

ADDED: I have to add that when I -- toward the end of law school -- told my father I wanted to be a law professor, he blurted "That's a cop out." He saw it as a candyass thing to do with a legal education. It was actually quite weird, because he'd never pushed me to achieve anything before. He never informed me that I was a fool to go to art school, for example. He never even gave me the idea, back when I was growing up, that I could try to become a lawyer (or any other sort of highly trained professional). If he'd held his tongue for so long, why did he suddenly burst out that one time with the revelation of what he thought of my choice? I have to think that he really hated the academic class -- though he never said why. An awful lot of people think academia is not the real world, is not a sound place where sane people ought to hole up.


Anonymous said...

Beats workin'

altoids1306 said...

True in my case. Dad's a prof, parents met in grad school. Just as a pastor's son becomes a pastor, I'll probably become a professor.

Beat workin', absolutely.

Anonymous said...

This isn't unique. Musicians tend to come from musician families; engineers tend to come from engineer families. And so on.

There are any number of reasons that this should be so. The kid probably inherits whatever characteristics of body or mind may predispose to the particular area. Parents in the field may convey certain advantages.

But I think most important might be lifestyle issues. The life of a college professor comes as no shock to someone who grew up in the family of same.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

From the previous post: "Really, these are intelligent college students. Why do they feel a special immunity from being observed in a public place?"


"...students who are passionate about the cause of helping the poorest people are also passionate about their own privileges as affluent college students feeling immune in their Facebook realm."

My observation is that many feel the above quote applies to the sort who give academia a bad name in America. The types who become well-known college professors (Foner, Chomsky, Fish, Sunstein, etc.) merely embody the above quotes to an nth degree.

This stands in contrast, of course, with the many fair and comitted educators that I encountered in college and whom no doubt constitute the majority of the academic world. But it only takes a few bad apples with an adoring media class to spoil the whole barrel!

Doug said...

My father is a CPA, and unfortunately, so am I. My dream job was to be an econ professor, but I wasn't really strong in advanced math and didn't want to spend the time to get a Phd, so I figured I would try my hand in the family business.

reader_iam said...

Hm. Interesting.

Anyone who's a regular here probably knows that I am a university brat, born and bred. I think it's likely that those people have noticed me make some rather tart remarks over time about some aspects of that sort of environment and upbringing.

Still, I'm deeply grateful for the experience.

First, I truly do not get the "beats workin'" thing, though I've heard to many, many times over the years. Maybe that was just my experience. My parents worked all of the time, my father the professor and my mother, also a professional musician, who had many ties with the universities in question (private teaching, coaching, performing, music copyist, reed-maker and teacher, blah blah blah). Days, nights, weekends, holidays.

And my observation of non-arts prof families didn't differ a whole lot, by and large, except for the holidays part, and, I suppose, fewer nights.

Second, in the other post, mention is made of having to "take off" five years to get a PhD. This is something else I hear all of the time and which I really don't get. What is that about?

In my father's generation, at least, that didn't seem to be the norm, at least among the people we knew.

More typical, at least it seems, anecdotally, to me, was the experience of my parents. I was born while my mother was still in college and my father was starting his masters. My brother was born two years later, by which time they'd both finished those parts of their academic preparation. (And yes, OF COURSE, they worked, my father full-time as a teacher, plus performing, and my mom heavy part-time--little mouths to feed, and tuition to pay, and all of that.) When I was in early elementary school, and my father had commenced on his college prof careers, my mom got her masters and my dad started his PhD.

I tell this story not so much to talk about my parents, but, again, because I don't recall their experience as being unique, for the time (except that maybe it was more challenging because my mother, as well as my father, was pursuing an advanced degree etc. with small children in the house and economic pressures).

No offense, but what are all those people spending their time on that it's a such a formidable struggle to get a PhD, if that's their true, one goal, of top priority?

Now that I think about it, in context of the original post's question and Ann's post, maybe I've inadvertently hit upon something. Maybe it is a bigger deal for second/third generation academics. Maybe they are expecting the experience to afford them time for other things (which my parents would have associated as benefits of university life but only YEARS into it, due to time constraints), such as leisure, social connections, causes etc. etc. etc.

My parents didn't expect the "University Experience" life right out of the gate, perhaps because they were both "first generation" for college degrees, period, much less advanced degrees. (They are still alone among their siblings in the latter department.) My mom was a small-farmer's daughter; my dad was the son of an immigrant dad and a mom who, though brilliant, was forced to drop out of school by 8th grade in NYC and go to work in factories to support her younger siblings. I suppose my parents transferred a working class ethic to their professional endeavours, though if you met them on the street you'd probably never guess that they didn't themselves come from the academic class.

Third, your outsider, "glamorous" remark resonates, Ann.

Fourth, my generation: My brother dropped out of college early and never went back. I was expected to go on to get advanced degrees, but never did--though, sheesh, I'm not exactly dead yet. I am, however, widely considered within my extended family to be the best and most widely read and the most curious of all. That's not bragging, that's just saying, only because in my own way I did indeed emulate and replicate the environment in which I was raised, which is on point to this discussion, I think. Also, if you were to walk into my house, you would probably find it to be close to the stereotypical "academic" home, given its contents etc. and how it's arranged. The first time a visitor said that to me, I was taken aback, even bothered by it, but now I think it's sort of funny. I guess some people do have a tendency to recreate their original nests!

Which, when it comes down to it, may be exactly why academic careers--and other careers--tend to run in families.

Tom T. said...

It seems to me that when their children reach late adolescence, academics should offer them "proffspringa", a period in which they can run wild, work retail, trade stocks, etc., before deciding as an adult whether to join academia.

reader_iam said...

Coincidentally, today's outing involves going south about 50 miles to show my son the college campus where his granddad starting out as professor.

It occurs to me that the university where my father started his PhD is located about 60 miles north of where we live (we are right on the way in between the two institutions).

Heckuva commute my dad had, on top of everything else, as he pursued his academic education. Time-consuming, and all of that.

AmPowerBlog said...

Another interesting post and thread! Lump me in with the "nature/nurture" cohort! Both my parents were teachers -- college and high school in my Mom's case, while Dad (an NYU grad) did some college administration before going into part-time lecturing in semi-retirement. Our home growing up was artsy and literate, so I can relate to Reader _iam's comments. I too am perplexed by the "it's not a real job" mentality, which applies to the teaching profession generally ("those who can't...") as well as those who go into the learned professions. Grad school is a grind itself, and aspiring Ph.D.'s usually support families some how, through off-campus jobs, fellowships, TA-ships, or what have you. I mostly teach and am now into my seventh year. I've turned down teaching the political science electives and have cut back on curriculum development -- thus I'm just now starting to feel less constrained by the heavy workload grind that is the academic (and teaching) profession.

Glad you became a law prof, Ann, by the way -- I'm sure you've made your folks proud!

Burkean Reflections

Anonymous said...

As business schools hire more adjuncts, an interesting split is devloping. Business schools, unlike most other academic institutions, don't hire PhDs without jobs as adjuncts, but people with real business experience (business schools also pay adjuncts better). The split is between tenured business PhDs, most of whom have never held a job other than an academic like their liberal arts counterparts, and the adjuncts, who have business experience.

I'll give you three guesses which the business students respect more, and it's not the tenured faculty.

Hey said...

reader i am et al:

why don't people consider academia working? Sokal. Critical anything theory. Post modernism. String Theory.

There are far too many examples where there is no connection to objective reality, a denial of objective reality, and a purely masturbatory exchange of theoretical postures rather than any sort of research that adds to the sum of human knowledge or which enriches the outside community. Far too many academics want the university to be a yeshiva, where nothing of use is produced, except for prayer (or whatever the heck liberal arts profs supposedly do).

Look at an engineering Phd. In private sector you need to produce something fairly quickly, while conserving your resources, or else produce useful consulting reports for your clients. As a prof you can do whatever research you want, for as long as you want, and the supply of funding is much more reliant on your skills as a grant writer and the budget of granting organisations tahn on any sort of progress in your research. As a lawyer you're working 100 hours + compared to the normal hours of a prof. You also don't get to choose your hours or location, which a prof does.

As it has been said, it beats working!

reader_iam said...


Well, I'm quite sympathetic to part of your argument (see earlier comment referring to "tart remarks" of mine over time). But as you, I think, imply, universities are big places and there are all sorts of disciplines.

And--heh!--you might be amused to note that I married a (second-generation) engineer.

reader_iam said...

(and serious gigging musician)

Ron said...

Most people can't relate to a job without a boss hovering around monitoring your work constantly!

If an academic's "boss" were to do that, people would be up in arms!

MadisonMan said...

I don't understand the beats workin' meme either, as the son of a former Department Head. And Dad was the son of an Assoc. Dean of the Grad School and a department Head. They both worked incredibly hard. My brother's a professor, and I work for the UW and for MATC. But I have two siblings who work for private industry (and who make more money).

Only one of the professors in the department I work for has professor parents. None of my undergrad profs had professor parents.

A possibility is that University hiring has seen strong growth in the past 30 years -- especially for researchers. Proffspring (I still like faculty brat) are accustomed to a University workplace and fit right in.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

George: Funny!

Whatever their name, I bet they park their vehicle in the carportmanteau. They put their awards on the portmantle. And they wear slippers when walking at night to prevent stubbing their portmantoes.

Anonymous said...

I remember my uncle telling me the story about going out to George's Bank in the fall on his lobsterboat, puking his guts out in the slow rollers of the early winter, three days from land, and a rogue wave capsized his boat. His crew and he sat shivering on the upturned hull, waiting for either the Coast Guard to come, or another wave to arrive first and drown them all.

The Coast Guard came first. My Uncle wanted them to help him right his boat so he could keep working. They wouldn't because they were afraid of being sued over any damage, or loss of life if the boat sank after. They were all half dead of exposure anyway, and all their gear was at the bottom of the ocean. They took him back to Harwich, while someone else that heard his distress call came and flipped his boat and claimed it as abandoned.

My Uncle used to drive past his own boat, now owned by another man without paying. He had gone back to carrying hods of bricks up his mason's scaffolding. It was hard, as his heart was rotting in his chest, and the motorcyclist that eventually gave him his hadn't crashed yet.

He turned to me once, as we stood in the snow and mud, a thirty five pound concrete block in each hand, and told me I should get a job using my brains instead of my back.

"Beats workin'," he smiled.

delagar said...

As we frequently say in the academy, it's not mining coal, what we do, and it's not the sheer grinding physical labor sippicancottage's uncle endured. I wouldn't even swap with the old folks doing 35 hours a week for $7 an hour at Wal-Mart. That sort of work is far worse on the spine and heart than the 60-some hours a week I put in every week teaching English to the kids of factory employees.

This does not mean that what we're doing at the university isn't work. I'm always working. When I'm in the classroom I'm working. When I'm on a blog I'm working. When I'm home writing I'm working. When I'm in the library hunting down sources that's work. I'm even working when I'm watching Battlestar, sometimes anyway. Because no boss is yapping at my heels telling me what to do next doesn't mean it's not work. Because it doesn't get sold (like little plastic forks at Wal-Mart) doesn't mean it's not work. Because not everyone can grasp exactly what it means (deconstruction? What's that?) doesn't mean it's not work. Not everyone got democracy right away either. Or a whole pile of other ideas that actually turned out to be sort of interesting after we had kicked them around for a bit.

Maxine Weiss said...

"....told my father I wanted to be a law professor, he blurted "That's a cop out.""---Althouse


Wonder what he'd of said if you'd told him you wanted to be a writer/novelist??

Or, maybe you wanted to be a poet/poetess???

Peace, Maxine

J said...

Were you really surprised by your father's reaction?

I doubt he hated any academic "class". There are just a lot of us who think really talented, smart people simply are wasting their skill in that line of work (at any level). I know that isn't always true, but I also had a lot of professors, particularly in the humanities realm, that definitely fit that mold. Also, I know brilliant, highly talented people who I'm sure would make horrible teachers.

One other thing stands out in your post - the idea that being a professor is glamorous is so different from my worldview I have difficulty even imaging such a thing - when did you begin to feel that way, and was there any specific reason why?

Kurt said...

As someone who started down the academic path and got a long way down it before finally leaving the classroom to take another career path, I suspect that it is easier for those from academic families to perservere, mainly because once they've chosen that path, they can't imagine doing anything else. I, on the other hand, initially chose the academic path because I thought it would be fun and rewarding, but I never stopped noticing all of the interesting things that my undergraduate classmates had gone on to do with their lives. At some point, I became fed up with the hoops one is required to jump through to stay on the academic path, and I figured that there was no reason I couldn't find my own way to something else, either.

But Proffspring are more likely to stay in the field because that's what others in their families have done. It also helps that they've already observed their parents playing the academic game, and so it's not so much something they must figure out as it is something they already implicitly understand.

Ken Stalter said...

Cedarford, what studies have you seen about Athletic families? I'm curious about that. I always see on television these large, muscular male pro-athletes marrying scrawny little women who are or at least look like models. So I imagine a few of the offspring get dad's muscles, but it seems like a lot of them would be more average.

JorgXMcKie said...

Hmmmmmm. I come from a long line of hog-farming, 'shine-making Hillbillies. My grandfather also worked from age 10 as a 'musseler' -- one who put a long jonboat into a deep river, threw in large iron bars set with hooks and tethered to a chain and dragged out the attached 'mussels'. He (and an older brother) then boiled the mussels in a big cauldron, cooked out the meat, then sold the resulting empty shells to Mother-of-Pearl button makers. (He met my grandmother in a town named Pearl which had two large button factories.)

I was the second person in my family to attend college (an older cousin was first) and the fourth to gain a BS/BA (got beat by a younger cousin and a younger brother). I'm the only one to get an advanced degree. Neither of my offspring has any college degree (both seem content without them).

I spent more than 20 years working at various jobs then 'retired' to grad school. I didn't even intend to become a prof, I just enjoyed going to college again.

What I find funny is how upset profs get those rare times they get told 'no' by someone who can make it stick. I made my living off and on for some years by being a salesman. Trust me, even the best salesman get told 'no' a lot. A whole lot. Even more than that.

I figured a couple of years ago (after my wife complained about me having the summers 'off') that I work about 2200 hours while teaching (five courses per semester), advising, and researching/other during the eight months of class. That's a full year's 40hr weeks plus some overtime (that I don't get paid for). However, I do that because I like it. I could slide by with fewer hours by far. Plus, there is absolutely NO heavy lifting. After spending too many years on hog farms that's a good deal.

sippicancottage is right. "Beats workin'"

( ;->=