American University professor breast-feeds sick baby in class, sparking debate

September 11, 2012

Adrienne Pine was in a jam. The assistant anthropology professor at American University was about to begin teaching “Sex, Gender & Culture,” but her baby daughter woke up in the morning with a fever. The single mother worried that she had no good child-care options.

So Pine brought her sick baby to class. The baby, in a blue onesie, crawled on the floor of the lecture hall during part of the 75-minute class two weeks ago, according to the professor’s account. The mother extracted a paper clip from the girl’s mouth at one point and shooed her away from an electrical outlet. A teaching assistant held the baby and rocked her at times, volunteering to help even though Pine stressed that she didn’t have to. When the baby grew restless, Pine breast-fed her while continuing her lecture in front of 40 students.

Now Pine finds herself at the center of a debate over whether she did the right thing that day and what the ground rules are for working parents who face such child-care dilemmas.

On Tuesday morning, university officials issued a statement about the incident that seemed to indicate some disapproval of Pine’s actions, generally citing them as a health issue because the baby was sick. But school officials also noted that the situation was one that could confront any parent with multiple responsibilities. The university emphasized that faculty members should take advantage of options such as sick leave, break times and private areas for nursing mothers to express milk so they can “maintain a focus on professional responsibilities in the classroom.”

“Every working parent can empathize with facing the choice of an important day at work when a child gets sick,” officials added in a second statement Tuesday afternoon. “Both demand your focus and attention. There is no easy or ideal alternative.”

Some students interviewed Tuesday said breast-feeding doesn’t belong in the classroom.

Pine, who expected that headlines would emerge when a student newspaper reporter asked her about what happened in the Aug. 28 class, sought to frame the discussion with an online essay titled “The Dialectics of Breastfeeding on Campus: Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet.”

In the Sept. 5 essay, Pine wrote that she was “shocked and annoyed that this would be considered newsworthy.” She lamented that her workplace had suddenly become “a hostile environment.” She also upbraided journalists at the Eagle student newspaper — which, as of Tuesday afternoon, had not published any article on the matter — and wrote that the tone of a reporter’s questions implied an “anti-woman” view.

University officials, however, said professors should avail themselves of other options rather than expose students to potential illness.

“For the sake of the child and the public health of the campus community, when faced with the challenge of caring for a sick child in the case where backup childcare is not available, a faculty member should take earned leave and arrange for someone else to cover the class, not bring a sick child into the classroom,” university spokeswoman Camille Lepre said in an e-mail.

That statement indicated that the university follows federal and D.C. law for nursing mothers.

The university also said that Pine’s essay “does not reflect professional conduct,” with officials taking issue with the professor’s sharply critical characterizations of the student journalists.

Pine, in her fourth year of teaching at AU, continues to teach, Lepre said. Via e-mail, Pine declined requests for comment on Monday and Tuesday, referring questions to Lepre.

Pine’s essay, published on CounterPunch.org, summed up her view: “So here’s the story, internet: I fed my sick baby during feminist anthropology class without disrupting the lecture so as to not have to cancel the first day of class. I doubt anyone saw my nipple, because I’m pretty good at covering it. But if they did, they now know that I too, a university professor, like them, have nipples. Or at least that I have one.”

Jake Carias, 18, a sophomore from New York, said Tuesday that he was in Pine’s classroom the day she brought her daughter and that he was okay with the situation once the professor explained the circumstances.

“I wasn’t too distracted initially,” he said. “We’re college students, things go on all the time. Whatever. We’ll survive.”

But when Pine started to breast-feed mid-class, Carias said, it crossed a line.

“I found it unprofessional,” he said. “I was kind of appalled.”

Carias fired off a tweet: “midway through class breast feeding time.” He also posted a message on his Facebook page. He said he later dropped the class.

Now, the Northwest Washington campus is abuzz.

At the Tavern, a dining room just off the central quad, Jenna Wasserman, 18, a freshman from New Jersey, said she has heard two opinions from students: that breast-feeding “is very much natural,” and that doing so in class is “kind of unprofessional.” Wasserman said she leans toward the latter view. “There were alternatives,” she said.

Leyla de Avila, 18, a freshman from California who was sitting with Wasserman, said she sympathizes with the child-care emergency. “I understand she could bring her baby to class,” she said. “Just don’t breast-feed in class.”

But some faculty members said it is not unheard of for a professor to breast-feed in the classroom. Eileen Findlay, an associate professor of history, said she breast-fed her two children during AU research seminars after obtaining permission from students.

Findlay said Pine’s response to her parenting challenge provided a teachable moment.

“Why don’t we use this as an opportunity to have a discussion about how one can actually be an embodied person in a classroom?” Findlay said. She said the episode challenges the notion that faculty members “are ‘walking brains’ — that we don’t have lives and we don’t have bodies.”

At the office of the student newspaper Tuesday afternoon, Eagle editor in chief Zach C. Cohen praised the “utmost professionalism” of the reporter who spoke with Pine and declined to comment on the professor’s criticism of the paper. Asked whether the paper will publish a story on the matter, Cohen said, “We’re still deliberating.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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