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Lisa Belkin

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Should A Professor Breastfeed While Teaching Class?

Posted: 09/12/2012 4:48 pm

The first breastfeeding woman I saw was when I caught a glimpse in my bedroom mirror. My mother's generation fed mine with bottles, so I didn't watch the process as a child. I was among the first of my friends to have children, and the new mothers I knew who were not close friends were less likely to nurse in public back then, so I had no real visuals as a young adult.

And I certainly was never in a classroom when a professor did it.

The 40 students in Adrienne Pine's "Sex, Gender & Culture" class at American University were, however, when the assistant professor of anthropology brought her infant daughter to the first day of class two weeks ago. It was either do that, or cancel class, the single mother has written, because the baby woke with a fever and was therefore not allowed at daycare. When the girl became fussy, Pine fed her, while continuing with her prepared lecture.

According to the Washington Post, an 18-year-old sophomore, Jake Carias, was "appalled" by behavior he considered "unprofessional" and sent a tweet saying so halfway through the 75-minute class.

(By the by, that same student would later tweet "...I don't do feminism, I'm a pro-male chauvinism type guy #makemeasandwich" and, reportedly, drop the class.)

That appears to have caught the attention of the school's newspaper, which sent a reporter around asking questions. The tone of those questions, in turn, led Pine to feel that an "anti-woman" article was in the works. So she took the offense, with an essay on the website counterpunch.org, titled "The Dialectics of Breastfeeding on Campus: Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet," which took the view that it was perfectly fine to breastfeed during a feminist anthropology class (italics are hers) and that the only unprofessional conduct being shown was by the students and reporters who questioned hers. As she wrote:

If I considered feeding my child to be a "delicate" or sensitive act, I would not have done it in front of my students. Nor would I have spent the previous year doing it on buses, trains and airplanes; on busy sidewalks and nice restaurants; in television studios and while giving plenary lectures to large conferences. I admit those lectures haven't always gone so well (baby can get fidgety), but as a single parent without help or excess income, my choice has been between sacrificing my professional life and slogging through it.

The administration, then, responded by suggesting that maybe a child with a fever does not belong in a classroom, essentially avoiding the question of breastfeeding professors completely.

I find the drama refreshing. After all, the reason I was never in a college class where a professor was nursing is partly because I was so rarely in a class taught by any kind of woman at all (such was the nature of the Ivies not all that many decades ago) and partly because those who were there would not dream of doing anything that so clearly showed that she was not a man. That has changed, and among the things that Professor Pine has taught her students is that this is how change looks. If it is appropriate for a baby to be someplace -- and even the student who started it all told Post reporter Nick Anderson that he was fine with her presence -- then it is appropriate for that baby to eat in that place. The more we see that, the more it becomes the norm.

Which leads to the question: WAS it appropriate for the baby to be there in the first place? I have to say I don't think so, not if she was sick. What would have been appropriate -- what should, in fact, be standard at workplaces -- was for the university to have emergency babysitting available for its faculty.

And speaking of appropriate, I have one more question.

Since when is it okay for a student to be tweeting in the middle of a class?

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