How well does the University of Pittsburgh pay non-tenure-track faculty?

tl;dr: Not well. The best information we have puts non-tenure-track faculty salaries significantly below those of all our peer institutions.

I teach at Pitt, where as of this year I have tenure. I have also been active since 2014 in the campaign to organize all the faculty at Pitt—across ranks, schools, and campuses—into a union affiliated with the United Steelworkers. Since 2015 I have been a member of Pitt’s Senate Budget Committee (BPC), which receives reports about faculty salaries and other budget-related issues. For the last two years I’ve been the secretary of that committee.

This post is an effort to lay out what I know about my non-tenure-stream colleagues’ salaries as accurately and honestly and comprehensively as I can. I’ll try to link directly to reports, policies, and other data everywhere I can, and to flag if I make any claims without linking directly to supporting information.

A few notes to start: Pitt uses “tenure-stream” and “non-tenure-stream” (T/TS, NTS) rather than the more common “tenure-track”/”non-tenure-track” (T/TT, NTS), and I’ll follow Pitt’s usage here. This post will only discuss full-time NTS faculty, since that is what we have access to decent salary information about. Part-time NTS faculty (colloquially, “adjuncts”) also have urgent salary concerns, and I’m sorry I can’t speak more directly to those. This post will also focus only on full-time NTS faculty at the Pittsburgh campus, and not at Pitt’s regional campuses in Johnstown, Greensburg, Bradford, and Titusville. I think the numbers we have access to for the regional campuses are less reliable, given the smaller total number of faculty at the four regional campuses, the significantly larger and more diverse benchmarking group Pitt uses to evaluate those salaries, and the significant differences in the regional labor markets where the four regional campuses are located. For those reasons I don’t feel as confident making strong and accurate claims about those salaries, and my goal in this post is to try to be a clear and accurate as possible.

The question “How well does the University of Pittsburgh pay non-tenure-track faculty?” takes on a specific institutional form within the university. Of course we can accept or reject the validity of the university’s framing, but it is a place to start. Pitt’s longstanding official policy for evaluating faculty salaries at the Pittsburgh campus reads:

To assure competitiveness in attracting and retaining qualified and productive faculty, the University has set a goal of ensuring that average faculty salaries at the Pittsburgh campus are at or above the median (for each rank) of AAU universities

The Association of American Universities (AAU) is an organization of 62 universities in the United States and Canada whose members define themselves as “leading research-intensive universities.” Although Pitt’s written policy identifies all 62 AAU members as the comparison group, in practice there is an informal agreement among all participants (to my knowledge) that the more appropriate benchmarking group is the 34 AAU institutions who are also public universities in the United States. Public universities generally pay less than privates, so excluding privates from the comparison group improves the relative standing of Pitt’s salaries. Private research universities compete for faculty with public research universities like Pitt, and given that the policy is written to prioritize market considerations (“attracting and retaining” faculty), it would be equally reasonable to use the full AAU comparison group. But I agree that the AAU publics are an appropriate comparison group, and that’s what I’ll refer to here. Pitt provides reports using both comparison groups, but in practice everyone involved treats the AAU publics as the relevant benchmark. So the salary target that Pitt officially holds itself to in practice is that average faculty salaries at the Pittsburgh campus should be at or above the median (for each rank) of AAU public universities.

To evaluate whether salaries are meeting this goal, every year the university produces a report comparing salaries of Pitt faculty by rank with the salaries of the benchmarking group. To produce this report Pitt’s Office of Institutional Research uses data about faculty salaries at the AAU member institutions published in the AAUP’s Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession. (Inside Higher Ed makes the AAUP data available as a user-friendly searchable database here.) The most recent report is available as a PDF from the University Times here and is based on 2017–18 faculty salaries. In general we get information about salaries from the previous year.

The primary function of these reports is to assess whether the university is meeting its official salary target. The university produces other salary reports for other purposes. For example as part of their reporting requirements to the state they produce a report of mean and median salaries for faculty and staff by rank and unit. They also produce reports analyzing salary increases for staff and faculty cohorts over 15 years. There is also a report on faculty salaries adjusted for cost-of-living. The point of the peer group salary report is to determine if our salaries are meeting our goals according to the standards that are set out in written policies and widely agreed upon through a longstanding iterative shared governance process. Which is to say, in the context of shared governance at Pitt, if you are asking “how well are faculty paid?” this is the report that answers that question using agreed upon standards and data.

The peer analysis report organizes its results by rank: full professor, associate professor, assistant professor, lecturer, and instructor. For 2017-18 the report found that full professors’ salaries at Pitt were 16th of 34, or just above the median of the comparison group of public AAU institutions, which meets the policy target. (I’m posting screen grab images of the tables, but these are all taken from a machine readable PDF here.)

Associate professors’ salaries were 23rd of 34, below the median:

Assistant professors’ salaries were 27th of 34, well below the median:

Instructor salaries are 17th of only 20 institutions that report data for this category:

And lecturer salaries are at the bottom of the comparison group (28th of 29 AAU publics who report information for this rank):

If we’re reading this report to learn about NTS salaries, I think our best bet is to focus on lecturers. Like the other categories lecturer is not a perfectly defined title, but at most of these institutions it is a teaching-oriented position that is not eligible for tenure, which is what it is in almost all cases at Pitt as well. The report defines lecturer as:

the unduplicated combined total of “Primarily Instructional” and “Instructional/Research/Public Service,” excluding clinical or basic science faculty, medical faculty in schools of medicine, and military faculty, regardless of whether they are formally designated as“faculty” who have titles such as “lecturer” or “visiting lecturer.”

All of the other categories include both tenured/tenure-stream and non-tenure-stream faculty at Pitt, though we don’t have a breakdown of how many T/TS and NTS faculty are in each. I would expect that of the “professor” ranks, assistant professor would include the largest proportion of NTS faculty, because Pitt employs many people as research assistant professors, clinical assistant professors, and in similar untenurable assistant professor positions. Pitt has only recently begun to implement promotion tracks for NTS faculty, but until very recently many or most NTS assistant professors had no path to promotion, so people would remain in that title for a long time. NTS full and associate professor positions are less common, though they are not wholly uncommon especially in the health sciences schools, and their numbers may increase in the future as NTS assistant professors move through new promotion tracks. (From the 2018 Fact Book, I think it is possible to determine that about 45 percent of “professor” ranks outside the School of Medicine are NTS. Subtracting non-SoM instructors and lecturers on p84 from the total number of non-SoM NTS on 87 leaves you with 795 NTS professors, associate professors, and assistant professors, of 1778 total. I don’t think we can tell how those are distributed among the professor ranks.) Whether the presence of large numbers of NTS assistant professors increases average assistant professor salaries because the group includes many people with several years in rank, or decreases the average number because NTS salaries are usually lower than T/TS salaries is something we don’t have any data to evaluate.

Instructor is a complicated and unreliable category. My understanding is that at Pitt it is a title primarily used for faculty without terminal degrees in teaching-oriented positions (though faculty with other titles may also not have terminal degrees). It is also sometimes considered a tenure-stream rank, and according to a comment in the minutes of this Budget Policies Committee meeting, “most of the time, instructors at Pitt are tenure stream hires who have not yet finished their dissertation.” (I think this is unlikely—in 2016-17 humanities instructors averaged $38,138, which doesn’t look like a starting TS salary.) My understanding is that in general instructor is a poorly defined title across US higher ed. Adding to these challenges, last year the AAUP changed how it defines the instructor category and now asks institutions to report all faculty with “visiting” titles as part of this group (except visiting lecturers, who remain in the lecturer category). That includes visiting professor, visiting associate professor, and visiting assistant professor. The average salaries for instructors increased by 23% from 2016-2017, which is clearly the outcome of packing in all of these visiting positions. (This is reflected in table 8 of the peer analysis report, which shows that the average individual increase for people in the instructor category was only 3.9 percent, nowhere near 23 percent.) Lumping visiting professors in with instructors does seem to make this category a pretty useless catchall, and it is too bad that the AAUP decided to change their survey instructions this year.

So, how well does Pitt pay NTS faculty?

Well, the most secure answer is that last year the group that is most clearly composed of NTS faculty was paid worse than all but one of our peer institutions. Which is to say, very poorly.

And this has not changed in six years: 

In 2016-17 lecturer salaries were also 28th out of 29. (PDF from me)

In 2015-16 they were 27th out of 28. (PDF from me)

In 2014-15 they were 28th out of 29. (PDF via archive.org)

In 2013-14 they were 27th out of 27. (PDF from me)

In 2012-13 they were 29th out of 29. (PDF via archive.org)

Those links go to University Times stories, which originally linked to the reports themselves, but those links are broken. A couple are available via archive.org. I have posted the PDFs for the others to my pitt.edu filespace. I don’t believe there is any issue there, since they were originally shared publicly through the University Times, which is how I got them.

I believe Pitt only started reporting on salaries for lecturers and instructors in that 2012-13 report. The University Times write-up of the 2011-12 salary benchmarking report does not mention lecturers or instructors. 

The other two categories that include substantial numbers of NTS faculty, assistant professors and instructors, are also very poorly paid relative to the comparison group. I think we can assume that the majority of instructors are NTS and that the majority of assistant professors are probably probationary tenure-stream faculty. But the latter assumption is pretty uncertain—there really are very many people at Pitt in untenurable ranks like research assistant professor or clinical assistant professor, and to my knowledge there is no information available that would help us sort out how many of these different groups there are. It seems at least relevant to the question of NTS salaries that assistant professors’ salaries are also ranked so low. (That said, while assistant professors are low ranked, the salaries of peer institutions above them are pretty closely bunched. So Pitt assistant salaries are just under 95 percent of the median salaries of the comparison group, while lecturers are a little over 80 percent of the median in their group.) 

It might be more clear just to say that Pitt pays faculty at lower ranks poorly across the board. Lecturer, instructor, and assistant professor salaries are all consistently very low in their comparison groups, while associate professor salaries are consistently moderately better, and full professor salaries are the only group to actually meet the university’s own targets. But I framed this question in terms of NTS salaries (and I’m mostly writing this out of pique at being accused of dishonesty about NTS salaries), so I’m trying to sort this specifically out as clearly as possible.

It has been suggested to me that there are other ways to interpret these data that might give a more optimistic picture, and that focusing on these numbers is wrong somehow. I think that is wrongheaded, especially since there is longstanding institutionalized agreement about what it means to ask this question, which only allows one interpretation (you either meet the goal or you don’t, and by how much). But I’ll explore some other approaches to these questions in what follows.

Cost of living

The university also produces a report analyzing faculty salaries adjusted for cost of living variations by region. Pittsburgh’s cost of living is right at the median of the cities where AAU publics are located. That means our salaries are worth more than if we lived in very high cost areas (Seattle, the Bay Area), but less than if we lived in lower cost areas (Indiana). Really the distribution is less smooth than that, and the bottom two-thirds are all very close, while the top ten regions are significantly more expensive.

Screen Shot 2019-04-01 at 8.33.43 PM.png Pitt faculty salaries do improve relative to other AAU publics when adjusted for cost of living.

Full professors improve from 16th to 12th.

Associate professors improve from 23rd to 15th.

Assistant professors improve from 27th to 15th.

And lecturers and instructors (treated as a single group in this report) improve from 30th to 26th.

I’m not sure why this report groups lecturers and instructors together, or how it gets lecturer and instructor salary data for all 34 AAU publics when only 29 AAU publics report lecturer salaries and only 20 report instructor salaries in the regular peer analysis report.

Somehow despite dramatic gains from cost-of-living adjustment for other ranks, lecturers and instructors remain in the bottom quarter of salaries even after these adjustments. The big improvement for assistant professors may be because their salaries are more bunched up, while lecturer salaries are significantly lower, so cost of living adjustments have more distance to overcome.

It is fair to say that Pittsburgh’s reasonable cost of living improves the value of faculty salaries relative to our peers in high cost regions. It is also clear that salaries for NTS faculty remain low even when adjusted. For Pitt shared governance purposes it is important that the official policy remains the unadjusted numbers, and this is publicly reiterated frequently by administrators (eg).

Gender

Lecturers and instructors are 58% women. Full professors are 26% women. We’ve already established that full professors are paid well, or at least adequately, while lecturers and instructors are paid poorly using the university’s own criteria. This is a significant issue for gender equity among faculty at Pitt. That linked story reports that women’s salaries are within a few percentage of the salaries of men at the same rank. What it doesn’t say, but is included in the underlying report, is that among all faculty the ratio of women’s salaries to men’s salaries is 79%. (I’m not posting the report because to my knowledge the complete reports have never been published in their entirety.)

So the gender equity problem at Pitt, from a financial perspective, is less that individual women are being systematically discriminated against compared to their same-rank male peers, than that the university as a whole is employing disproportionate numbers of women in low-paid mostly untenurable positions that have significantly less job security, lower status within the university, and no path to move into ranks that might allow them to be paid better.

This seems crushingly unjust and intolerable to me and I don’t understand why people think it is enough that the handful of women full professors make close to what male full professors make.

Other progress?

It has been suggested to me that it is dishonest to describe this situation without also acknowledging other progress that has been made in NTS faculty salaries. This is confusing to me because, as I think I just demonstrated at length, there has not been any progress in NTS faculty salaries since 2012-13, using criteria set by the university. But are there other ways we could evaluate NTS faculty salaries that would show more progress?

One colleague on twitter says “faculty at the lower end of the pay scale have receive higher raises in recent years.” I think this is correct. In 2015-16 and 2016-17 the annual salary pools included special funds targeted at faculty and staff with the lowest salaries. Specifically, the salary pool for 2016-17 included “an additional 0.5 percent for employees with satisfactory performance who make $45,000 or less,” which repeated a program from the year before. Many non-tenure-stream faculty would be included among those making less than $45,000. (For example the 2016-17 mean and median salaries report says the median salary for humanities lecturers was $47,643, while the average salary was  $46,278, which suggests quite a few people below $45,000 pulling the average down.)

The University Times interpreted this as a small increase for individual faculty and staff members:

That extra 0.5 percent provides up to an additional $225 per year for employees at the lower end of the salary scale. At the $45,000 threshold, a 1 percent increase equals $450 per year.

This would clearly be inadequate, but I think the University Times reporter is off base here, and the individual increases would have actually been higher than this. As I understand it the whole salary pool is increased by half a percent, and that increase is then used for people below the salary cutoff, which according to the CFO at the time was about 40 percent of workers. That allows much higher increases for people in the targeted group. At least that is how the percentage increases for all the other targeted pools are calculated, and it would be a significant divergence from standard practice if that’s not what they meant here. [Update August 30, 2019: I’ve since learned that my guess here is not correct. When Pitt implements programs like this, the increase applies only to the pool of salaries below $45,000. So the University Times calculation is correct.]

I can’t find the actual dollar numbers for these increases, which don’t apply to staff covered by union contracts or to faculty and staff in the School of Medicine (and possibly others). In 2016-17 Pitt budgeted $949 million for salaries and wages, but that number is for everyone, including the med school, unionized staff, and anyone else not included in the salary pool. So the .5 percent increase targeted to low-paid workers would apply to a smaller total pool than that, and I don’t know where to find the size of that pool to evaluate what the total size of the increase would be, and I don’t know where to find the total number of faculty and staff who made less than $45,000 in those years to determine what their average increases might have been.

We do get information about the size of salary increases for individual faculty and staff, so while we can’t see how much of an impact those targeted salary pools would have made, we may be able to see evidence of it in this report. (Unfortunately I can’t find a report for 2016-17 that covers the second year of targeted increases. I have the reports for 2015-16 and 2017-18. The 2017-18 report was delivered to the Budget Policies Committee in March 2018, and the 2015-16 report was delivered the year before in December 2016, which I think means that there must not have been a continuing faculty salary increases report prepared for 2016-17.)

The 2015-16 report includes the first year of targeted salary pool increases for low-paid faculty and staff. I have a paper copy of this report, which on page 28 shows the pay increases that year for full-time continuing faculty across the university, excluding the School of Medicine:

If faculty below $45,000 received a targeted pay raise this year, it really doesn’t jump out here.

I can’t find a publicly available copy of the most recent 2017-18 report, so I’m posting my copy here, because previous such reports have been made available through the University Times, and I think they just happened not to write about it last year. Page 28 again shows the pay increases from the year before for full-time continuing faculty across the university, excluding the School of Medicine:

Salary increases for the lowest paid faculty do not stand out as especially high here. The $45,001–$50,000 group is doing better than most—about the same as people making $100,001–$120,000.

So I’m not sure that these reports bear out claims of higher raises for lower-paid faculty.

Another approach is to ask whether faculty salaries have actually increased meaningfully over their careers. According to a cohort analysis of faculty who were employed here in both 2002-03 and 2017-18 (either continuously or having left and returned), 67 people were instructors or lecturers in both 2002-03 and 2017-18. Among those, the salaries of 97% exceeded the annual salary pool “maintenance” components. The salaries of 93% increased more than inflation (CPI). The salaries of 90% exceeded the total salary pools (maintenance plus mer it/market/equity). 82% exceeded the total salary pool plus academic initiatives funding. (I can’t find an online version of this report, and I don’t think is normally distributed publicly so I won’t post it here.) That is an improvement over the cohort analysis of faculty employed in 1999-2000 and 2014-15. I’m not totally sure what we can say about this, but it seems fair to say that more NTS faculty employed in 2003 and again in 2018 had salaries that kept up with or exceeded various indexes than those employed in 2000 and again in 2015.

You can also see how much faculty at each rank in each unit make, if you want to evaluate whether those salaries are good according to your own standards, using the Mean and Median Salaries of Full-Time Employees report.

Personally, I would feel dishonest if I were to evaluate all of this and say that NTS faculty salaries have made meaningful progress.

Non-financial progress

Pitt has made other changes in the working conditions of NTS faculty in recent years. They are now eligible to participate in the Faculty Assembly and other shared governance institutions. Most schools have begun to implement promotion tracks for NTS faculty who previously could have been stuck in positions with the same title and no possibility of promotion for decades. (Lecturers can be promoted to lecturer II and then to senior lecturer. Each of those ranks, to be clear, is grouped together within the lecturer category in salary reports.) In my department within the last decade large numbers of people who had been working as “visiting” lecturers for years, sometimes decades, were converted to regular, renewable, “permanent” lecturer positions, with (I believe) higher pay, new possibilities for promotion within the lecturer track, and added service responsibilities. There are also efforts being made to combine multiple part-time positions into regular full-time NTS positions. For example my department has been approved to hire several new lecturers this year. I think there were also resources directed toward improving part-time faculty salaries in the last few years after the Budget Policies Committee convinced the administration to begin collecting data on their pay. (This is not an exhaustive list. Some of these are the initiatives mentioned by senior administrators when asked about shortcomings in the salary targets, eg here and here. Pitt is pretty decentralized, and there is a lot of variation in policies around NTS faculty in different schools and departments, and good things are certainly being done in different ways around the university.)

I think everything in this list is basically good. I can feel a bit jaundiced sometimes, and I think the details do and will matter a lot. Regularizing NTS faculty can add more to their workload than their salaries or status. New promotion tracks with “transparent” criteria can in practice impose onerous requirements and risky oversight for little financial benefit. Participation in shared governance can be a way of amplifying normally unheard voices, but the reality of contingent contracts can mean that NTS faculty may feel at risk sharing their honest perspectives in meetings with administrators or senior colleagues, and may end up being forced to sign off on and give “NTS” credibility to decisions they privately disagree with. Replacing part-time positions with full-time positions, if not done with care and attention, can force long-term part-time professors out of their jobs, or force them to accept full-time work and service obligations just to keep working with students who depend on them. Given what we know about the pay and gender composition of NTS faculty currently, it seems valid to be concerned that efforts to address the problem of exploitation of part-time faculty are working to further entrench a a permanent second-tier of low-paid women with no job security who will be first to be laid off in a financial emergency. It also does not seem unduly cynical to worry that focusing on refining policies and procedures can be a way of shifting attention away from financial concerns. And given the lack of progress made on the financial concerns of NTS faculty, even as a lot of time and effort has gone into refining policies and procedures around NTS faculty the last several years, it seems reasonable and honest to prioritize these financial issues in our rhetoric and actions.

One more very important, unqualified success of shared governance at Pitt related to NTS faculty salaries is the simple fact that we have all of this information in the first place, as imperfect as it is. I respect and appreciate the hard work of the people involved in those committees (especially my predecessors on the BPC) for persistently requesting this data, and I respect the administrators who were willing to greenlight these reports that show persistent shortcomings in a sensitive area. It reflects a real commitment to shared governance and collegiality that is admirable.

The question now is whether having this data will motivate successful efforts to change the facts they reveal, and so far there has been no progress toward meeting the salary target for lecturers. Whatever my colleagues in the senate leadership may say, hopefully it is clear to everyone reading this that this claim is plainly true, accurate, and honest.

What would it take to pay NTS faculty well?

This is not really a hard question. The University of Pittsburgh defines “well” as “at or above the median of AAU publics for that rank.” In 2017-18, the median salary for lecturers at AAU publics was between $66,000 and $67,100 (the average reported salaries for lecturers at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the 15th and 14th ranked universities of 29 reporting). The average salary for lecturers at Pitt was $53,400. Last year we would have needed to be paying lecturers $12,600 more on average to catch up with the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. For 230 lecturers identified in this report, that would have cost about $2.9 million. In 2017-18 Pitt’s operating budget was $2.2 billion, and Pitt budgeted just over $1 billion for salaries and wages.

So last year an increase of a little more than one tenth of one percent of the overall budget, or about three tenths of one percent of total salaries and wages, would have brought lecturers salaries up to the target. I don’t want to be glib here: of course $3 million is not just laying around, even in a $2 billion budget. And we’d also need to catch up to salary targets for assistant professors and instructors. That would be about $1.5 million for lecturers and $2.5 million for assistant professors, so another $4 million total (that is, taking the difference between the Pitt salary and the median salary and multiplying it by the reported number of workers at that rank). Which means $7 million would have gotten us to the target for all three categories in 2017-18. That’s .7 percent of total salaries and wages, or .3 percent of the overall operating budget. Increasing total salaries and wages by one percent would be more than enough to have brought all instructors, lecturers, and assistant professors up to the target in 2017-18. It would cost more to do it this year, and more again next year, as peer institutions increase their salaries too, but this gives a sense of the scale. Again, $10 million isn’t just laying around, and other workers have reasonable demands as well, but this gives a pretty clear sense of what it means to say Pitt is underpaying NTS faculty, and of the scale that Pitt would have to be directing new resources if the administration were really committed to meeting their goals.

Sherry Turkle’s reproductive futurism

I know Sherry Turkle has plenty of critics, so maybe this is piling on. But I want to make a particular point from the perspective of childhood studies, to note how so much of Turkle’s expressed concerns are focused on parents and childrearing. Especially in her public presentations about the book, the central emotional concern she seems to expect her audience to take away is that children are being harmed. (Others do a better job than I can critiquing Turkle’s “digital dualism” problem, like when she describes “bailing out from the physical world” in the TEDx talk below, as though that were something that might be possible.)

So, for instance, in this TEDxUIUC talk from a year ago, Turkle’s examples are of parents pushing kids on the swing while texting, kids sleeping with their phones, or, in what I think is a really telling example of her style, she says (at 3:13):

Children describe that moment at school pickup, they’ll never tell you that they care, but they describe that moment where they come out of school looking for that moment of eye contact, and instead of that moment of eye contact with a parent, who after all, has shown up at school pickup, that parent is looking at the iPhone, looking at the smartphone, and is reading mail. So from the moment this generation of children met technology, it was the competition.

There’s this affective resonance here, for an audience who’s caught up in a series of stories about how the minute, everyday aspects of our lives are actually full of emotional power, and that emotional power depends heavily on the preexisting intensity of the trope of concern for children. That is, once we start talking about children, we allow ourselves — we enjoy, even — this immersion in sentiment that seems wholly commendable (how can concern for children be something to question?)

But I think Turkle use of this rhetorical approach really asks her audience to suspend their critical faculties as she goes through this list of concerning moments. Because, really? A parent reading while waiting to pick their kid up after school is creating some sort of notable emotional distance or disappointment? What if you substituted a paperback novel for the iPhone in this story? Turkle’s concern is explicitly about attention, and in situations like this a book would clearly be creating precisely the same interactional dynamic as an iPhone — i.e., preventing the parent from giving 100% attention to the possibility of their child’s appearance at the school door.

And thinking about books, I think it makes sense, here, to draw a connection to Janice Radway’s classic article about women and romance novels. In that piece, Radway talks about housewives using romance novels as a form of escape from their domestic lives. Radway describes immersive reading as being very much about transcending the physical space within the walls of a family home to enjoy a fantasy life, really, a way to “bail out from physical reality.” So if one of the 1970s midwestern stay at home mothers in Radway’s study were to drive to pick her kids up at school, and sat with her book while she waited, at least from Radway’s account, she wouldn’t just be managing boredon, she’d be actively avoiding her duties as a parent — duties which in very many cases are not, it can’t be stressed enough, always fulfilling or happy.

But in that situation, we’d never think to blame the technology of the book for preventing women from being good mothers. (On second thought this is probably only true for a narrow sense of “we,” but I expect Turkle would be part of that “we.) Instead, we have feminist tools for criticizing the situation that puts mothers in a position of needing to escape an oppressive and unfulfilling family life, and we have additional theoretical tools for thinking about how even such private, escapist reading might be a tool for building connections and community that really do counterbalance the failures of family life (Warner’s chapter on “Public and Private,” especially the discussion of the Beechers, really resonates with Radway, I think). And if someone were to argue that the problem is those darn mass market paperbacks, well, it would be hard to see that as anything other than a cynical attempt to change the subject, and to comfort the comfortable.

So, since we already have a good understanding of how exactly this dynamic of media-vs-parental-attention has played out in another context, it’s really on Turkle to argue that the issues are different (that they’re not about gender roles, about ideologies of parenting and the family, about time and money and work, etc.). Why, for instance, doesn’t Turkle ever cite Arlie Hochschild, who actually has a substantive political and sociological story about how the attention of family members is increasingly directed away from one another? And Hochschild’s story accounts for the same issues but goes back decades, so where’s Turkle get the idea that phones are too blame?

Another favorite example, from an interview Turkle did for the American Psychological Association:

One gender element that did become apparent is that mothers are now breastfeeding and bottle-feeding their babies as they text. Of course, in feeding an infant, so much more is going on than giving nutrition to a baby. There is the emotional exchange on the most primitive level, the feeling of gratifying someone and being gratified in return. A mother made tense by text messages is going to be experienced as tense by the child. And that child is vulnerable to interpreting that tension as coming from within the relationship with the mother. This is something that needs to be watched very closely. It reminds me of something that has occurred to me often as I have done this research: Technology can make us forget important things we know about life.

So again, in remarks for a popular, educated audience, Turkle turns to concerns about failures of intimacy in families. A while back Kieth Humphreys at the blog Reality Based Community posted [updated below] a link to this interview, with the quick aside that “some moms are texting while breastfeeding instead of focusing on their infant (which many mothers tell me was one of the most intimate experiences of their lives).” I and one other commenter noted that breastfeeding, while certainly intimate, can be a very tedious and time-consuming experience as well. Humphreys’s response (link doesn’t go to a comment because this whole exchange was deleted; see update) to me was “As a parent I like to know about research findings that are relevant to children’s well being, if you don’t that’s up to you of course, but this is the reality-based community … we discuss scientific findings here whether they make people feel good about themselves or not (the climate is changing too, BTW).” What’s notable is that Turkle’s comments don’t actually reflect “scientific findings” — in fact, breastfeeding doesn even appear in Alone Together, except in a discussion of robots. So, as with her TEDx talk, Turkle appeals to this concern and sense of emotional primitiveness that her audience is going to be primed for that exists around children and parenting, and she uses that to get educated audiences to suspend their critical thinking, and instead to project disapproval towards some other group of people (namely parents, which means, really, toward mothers). I single out Humphreys because I don’t want to overgeneralize about audiences, but his response is a clear example of my point: he compares my suggestion that these scholarly discourses might have an ill effect on mothers to climate denialism while using the word “science” to describe Turkle’s off-hand comments to an interviewer for a popular publication, always keeping “the well-being of children” at the forefront, as though we’re sure we know what that is and as though that trumps anyone else’s well-being.

It really seems like Turkle and Humphreys (himself a psychiatrist), seem to think that for every moment they are breastfeeding, mothers should be focusing all of their attention on this “primitive” emotional exchange, having some sort of transcendent euphoria for several hours of each day. What I find just impossible to understand is that Turkle doesn’t see right off that the expectation of having an emotionally primitive connection during every instance of breastfeeding would itself create the sort of “tension” that she worries receiving a text might create — especially because she simply worries that the tension elicited by a text message might be understood by the child as being about the child’s relationship with the mother, when the tension caused by excessive pressure not just to breastfeed (for possibly overstated health reasons), but also to have an emotional connection at the most primitive level with the child (who may just be hungry and not interested in cuddles or whatever) … that tension is bound to be interpreted as about the child, because it is about the child.

So, mothers are under extraordinary pressure to be perfect, and mothers of infants, especially, are given this impossible task of shifting happily from the particular and often exhausting work of pregnancy, to the particular and often exhausting and often alienating work of giving birth, to the particular and often exhausting and often incredibly isolating work of caring for their child. And now they’re not supposed to text their friends or family?? It’s a very similar issue with waiting for your kid at school: are parents really supposed to spend several minutes every afternoon staring at a school entrance just to make sure that the very moment their child appears there they will make eye contact and provide their child with that little nugget of emotional connection? How does Turkle’s example make sense if that’s not her prescription? From where does Turkle claim the authority to conscript what seems like the entirety of parents attention and internal lives to the emotional management of their children? Is Turkle’s goal for mothers of infants to be alone in the home with their child, cut off from the world? From her comments, the only situation that wouldn’t be concerning would seems to be a return to the world of bored housewives cut off from connection or fulfillment that Betty Friedan described. Of course she’d protest that characterization, but the direct implication of her arguments about technology distracting parents is that parents’ attention is the rightful claim of the family, regardless of the consequences for their own well-being (again, this means ipso facto that women’s lives are the rightful claim of the family). But for parents and their children, women using media (in the form of smartphones) to communicate with friends and family while they’re caring for their young children simply must be a better thing than women using media (in the form of romance novels) to escape the isolation that a particular social configuration of mothering forces on them.

At minimum, Turkle’s playing really fast and lose with childhood as a social figure that is uniquely available for affective moralizing. What this is is reproductive futurism, which in the end is a lot more about disciplining adults than it ever is about caring for dependents. The irony here is that Turkle’s earlier work held out the promise that computers might accommodate play and experimentation with non-traditional, non-normative identities and now, when she returns having changed her mind in light of new developments, her objection is not that such promise is unfulfilled, but rather that computers are disrupting traditional, heteronormative sexual and gender identities, by giving parents (mothers) connections to a world beyond the home and childcare. And that’s the problem with making arguments about technology instead of making arguments about people.

Update: Looks like a little while after this post went live the comments containing my exchange with Humphreys were all deleted, along with comments of third parties weighing in, as though to pretend the exchange never took place. That’s really unfortunate, in my view, but most of the exchange is up here and here. These comments are out of the Google Cache already, but as evidence that my comments are actually being deleted, here’s a screenshot of a more recent comment that is also missing.