Professors are feeling isolated and exhausted, and are still without university-wide directives on what ‘flexible work’ actually means for them
After another long day of lecturing through Zoom and taking care of her kids at home, the only time Ryerson fashion professor Caron Phinney has left to do her work is when her children go to bed. With two new courses and over 200 students to prepare lectures for, she says it’s probably the busiest semester of her career.
Phinney is raising her 11-year-old daughter and five-year-old son at home with her husband while teaching as a limited term assistant professor at Ryerson’s school of fashion. While the province is in lockdown, Phinney says her average day ends at 2 a.m., after which she’s up again at eight the next morning to get her kids ready for school.
“I’m exhausted. Let’s be honest … this has not been easy,” she says. “The situation that we’re in right now has been almost impossible. I can’t say impossible, because I’m living through it. And we’re doing it every single day.”
Even when she’s teaching her own courses, Phinney says she’s constantly thinking about what’s going on in the rest of the house — checking the time to make sure her kids are in the right class, or wondering if her five-year-old will have something to do during his breaks from online senior kindergarten.
After nearly a year of living in survival mode, Ryerson faculty members taking care of children face an especially uncertain future in the coming months. Navigating school restrictions in the midst of another wave of COVID-19, professors are trying to balance the safety and well-being of their family with expectations for research productivity and responsibilities to their own hundreds of students.
And the responsibilities of child care are still not equally shared. While the number of dual-earning families in Canada has increased 20 percentage points since the mid-1970s, economic pressure and global competition mean women are expected to put in long hours at their jobs while also “invest[ing] heavily in child rearing,” according to 2018 research from Statistics Canada.
Today, the collapse of the child-care industry and the disproportionate burden of the pandemic on women has created a downturn that economist and Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers Armine Yalnizyan calls a “she-cession.”
Ryerson’s own Early Learning Centre, which operates as part of the School of Early Childhood Studies, is closed for construction until at least April 2021, while Ontario recently announced a return to in-person school for children amidst testing and COVID-19 variant concerns.
Phinney says her kids have been doing school online since September for the safety of her parents, who they’ve been bubbling with for support.
Although she says her department has been understanding and offered extra teaching assistant support, Phinney says she’s not sure what could be done at a university level, especially because she doesn’t have the “the energy or the time to log into another session.”
To recharge, Phinney says she’s been taking Friday evenings to drive the long way to get groceries, blasting music in her car. Other than speaking briefly to a few other colleagues with kids, she says she hasn’t been able to talk to anyone at the university about it.
“It’s been isolating in so many ways … I’ve just come to [the realization] that this is what it is. And every single day, you just have to get up and you get through it.”
At a department-wide workshop to transition instructors to remote learning, journalism professor Joyce Smith says a non-Ryerson guest speaker described taking care of children as a “personal problem.”
“[He insinuated] we shouldn’t inflict our personal problems on our students, which is a pretty retrograde way of thinking about caring for small human beings, I think, and their importance to society,” Smith says.
Smith is a single mother of a five-year-old daughter. At the workshop, she says she had raised the issue of how real-time online lecturing may be difficult for people taking care of children at home.
Like Phinney, she has very limited time to attend extra workshops, but Smith says she’s felt a lack of acknowledgement at them about what is reasonable for instructors with dependent care responsibilities.
“Ryerson puts a lot of time and effort into thinking about the student experience, which I think is as it should be, and that’s great. But there often isn’t a lot of mention of ‘OK, is any of this actually feasible if you have a five-year-old asking you for apple juice every half hour?’”
In a statement released on Jan. 13, the university said that flexible work practices during COVID-19 are to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, and that instructors should speak to their program’s leader or supervisor – for example, their dean or chair, depending on their position – about “any new or adjusted options that could support [their] work.”
In an emailed statement to the Ryersonian, a representative of the university wrote that employees can use vacation time, overtime hours and personal days for adjusted work weeks. If needed, the statement suggests that faculty and staff can take an “unpaid leave of absence” and rely on the possibility that they are eligible for wage subsidy programs or an unpaid, job-protected leave.
Professors are expected to keep producing research in their field and are evaluated annually for their ability to do so in addition to often non-negotiable funding deadlines for projects, according to Smith. This is especially stressful and hampering for instructors seeking tenure or applying to other positions, because their performance is being compared to peers without dependent care responsibilities — people that may have actually benefited from the quiet, or the lack of a commute.
“At times, you’re in meetings, listening to people talk about all the great things they’ve explored and discovered, and… I don’t know, I feel my heart sink,” Smith says. “Because I’m just trying to get through each day making sure that the laundry is clean, and the groceries have been ordered in time, that we haven’t run out of milk. And also trying to make sure to prep my course.”
Fashion professor Kimberly Wahl was conducting research in the United Kingdom on her sabbatical last March when the pandemic hit and her family had to pick up everything and return to Canada.
As a mother to a four-year old, she’s facing a lot of the same challenges as Phinney and Smith — endless emails, housework and coursework that never seems fully finished, the need for supervision so her daughter doesn’t wander off during her classes, and the “constant, low level demands placed on your attention.”
In addition to this, the sudden move meant that Wahl and her husband had to abandon their established child care in the U.K. — and statistics show that finding suitable and affordable daycare in Canada even before the pandemic takes months if not years.
Now, Wahl’s daughter hasn’t been in daycare or able to socialize with kids her age for nearly a year — something Wahl is concerned about for her four-year-old’s emotional well-being.
“We worry about her having to be around grumpy adults all the time,” Wahl says. “I mean, she started school wearing a mask. And that was normal. She has some strange ideas about how to relate to other people and what a virus is. She has stuff that she has to deal with that little kids really shouldn’t have to deal with.”
Research indicates that prolonged social restrictions, school closures and increased anxiety and stress for parents and children have adverse effects on children’s growth and development.
But the problem for many parents – especially mothers, who are dealing with “decision fatigue, rage and a feeling of powerlessness” on a daily basis – is that they just don’t have time to sit and ponder policy responses when they’re already being asked to make impossible choices.
“We worry, we worry about a lot of things, but not in a reflective way. We don’t have time to stop and think,” Wahl says.
“I’m sort of in survival mode, as I imagine most parents with small children are. We’re just trying to get through the day and get our jobs done and feed our child and look after her.”
This story was updated on Feb. 15, 2021 at 10:42 p.m. EST. The workshop held to help prepare instructors for remote learning was not Ryerson-wide; it was for the department of journalism. For clarification, the person referenced was a non-Ryerson guest speaker.
Emma Buchanan is opinion editor for the Ryersonian's winter 2021 masthead. She is a fourth-year journalism student who loves reporting on policy, communities, technology and the arts.