by Sarah Titus

I struggled to choose a topic for my SG&T Division blog post in honor of GSA’s 125th anniversary.

Originally, I planned to write about the unexpected kindnesses from strangers while in the field. For example, when the chief’s daughter from the local tribe in New Caledonia made me a coconut cake in a Dutch oven, heated by hot mantle rocks, which were themselves heated by a coconut husk fire – a pastry Ouroboros (Fig. 1). Or when I ate a piece of birthday cake at 10:30 AM with a nonagenarian ranch wife in central California, learning (post-cake) that her birthday had been five months prior. I had visions of Miss Havisham and food poisoning but eventually she mentioned that the cake had been frozen.

Figure 1. The Dutch oven with coconut cake inside, heated by peridotites.
Figure 1. The Dutch oven with coconut cake inside, heated by peridotites.

But blogs are a novel format – the ones I tend to read are often personal or anecdotal, conversational or even somewhat confessional, and generally about cooking or sewing. Telling anecdotes about others does not reveal anything especially personal about me except, perhaps, a certain fondness for cake.

I also considered writing about one of my research projects – either the San Andreas fault or oceanic transform faults – as previous contributors have done. But since I am the only contributor to this series from a small school, I felt like I was in a unique position to explain what my job is like. To make it even more personal, I decided to share how my job has changed in the past year, following the birth of my daughter.

This essay is meant to give all readers a taste of a liberal arts lifestyle, at least one version of it. But more than that, it is meant to give graduate students, especially women, an idea of how this kind of teaching-heavy career intersects with having a family. Don’t stop reading if you are not a woman under age 40. This post may also be a useful conversation starter for other faculty, administrators, and present or future fathers.

Life at a liberal arts college

I have been teaching at Carleton College for eight years. Our school is a residential liberal arts college, our department has five faculty, and our ~20 majors per year are all undergraduates. I teach Introductory Geology, Tectonics, Geophysics, Structural Geology, and Field Geology on our off-campus program in New Zealand. I’ve had as few as 11 students in one class and as many as 42.

Teaching consumes the largest portion of my workweek. I try to restrict my preparation time to one hour outside class for every hour in class, resulting in a grand total of 12-15 hours per week. This works only for courses that I have taught already. Realistically, teaching-related time could be 20 hours in a single week if I introduce a new activity or lab or 30 hours every week for a new course.

Perhaps this seems like an exorbitant amount of time devoted to teaching? My institution values teaching above research, a principle that has defined the rhythm for my job. My course prep has evolved to include equal parts planning the content and planning activities to deliver that content, since it is impossible to lecture (or listen) for our 70- or 105-minute classes. On a given day, my teaching tools might include play-doh, demos, worksheets, hand samples, slides, maps etc. I might lecture for one or two discrete bursts of 20-30 minutes – the average adult attention span. I always write and draw information on the board, because it slows me down enough that students can ask questions in real time. In non-lecture time, students might solve problems on a half-sheet of paper (see examples here  and here), roam the class looking at different maps, study and describe images from their own textbook, discuss articles etc. As an aside, online courses and MOOCs seem poised to change the academic landscape. But I believe the hands-on, directed learning activities that I design cannot be replicated over the Internet. They exemplify the value of the educational experience at a school like Carleton.

Grading also takes up a sizeable fraction of my week, but tallying these hours would be too depressing. I have undergraduate teaching assistants who grade assignments with clear-cut answers. But the better my assignment is for learning, the more likely it is that I must do the grading. For example, my Tectonics students write weekly in a class wiki. Each student becomes an expert about his or her “own” plate, applying course material to an individual case study. Because of the collaborative nature of wikis, students peer-edit neighboring pages. My main involvement is weekly feedback to each and every student on the writing and the content. My comments are tailored to the students’ intellectual maturity, since the class has a mix of ages from sophomores to seniors. I am always impressed by my students’ great improvement over the course. By the end, they have created informative, mostly error-free, well illustrated articles in something resembling the geologic idiom. It makes the 10-15 minutes per student per week feel worthwhile, even when I have 26-person class, as I do at this moment.

Research time is heavily weighted to the summer months when I am not teaching. But I have a secret weapon, learned at a workshop, for carving out time during the school year: Write every day, for thirty minutes per day. On bad days, I am allowed to stop after thirty minutes. On good days, I also stop, but know exactly where to start again the next day. I save a separate draft from each day. In my most extreme example, I have 230 drafts of a manuscript written over a four-year period. Progress may be slow, but the benefits are two-fold: (1) the research eventually gets completed and (2) the process of writing for 2-3 hours per week provides intellectual stimulation that I cannot always achieve through teaching alone.

Although not strictly required by my job description, Carleton strongly encourages its faculty to involve students in research. I work with several students each year on field-based and computational research projects. The reality of field projects at a small, teaching-focused school: field work must occur during summers and school breaks, even if the weather is inconvenient. Central California is nightmarishly hot in August (Fig. 2). The truth about any kind of undergraduate research project: sometimes training students is more work than if you just did the research yourself. But if you’re clever about designing projects (and to some extent lucky), then your research can move forward via smaller, undergraduate thesis-sized steps.

Figure 2. Two former undergraduate research students – Alice Newman ’11 and Amanda Yourd ’11 – braved excessive heat and likely exposure to valley fever during our summer field season in central California. Note the snake chaps and hard hats, required for safety by Chevron, which do not help one stay cool in August. Incidentally, I would like to get back into Kettleman Hills for more field work. If you work at Chevron or know someone who might help me gain access, please send me an email.
Figure 2. Two former undergraduate research students – Amanda Yourd ’11 and Alice Newman ’11– braved excessive heat and likely exposure to valley fever during our summer field season in central California. Note the snake chaps and hard hats, required for safety by Chevron, which do not help one stay cool in August. Incidentally, I would like to get back into Kettleman Hills for more field work. If you work at Chevron or know someone who might help me gain access, please send me an email.

Life at a liberal arts college + baby

By my fifth and six years at Carleton, most of my classes were well established. I typically traveled to GSA and AGU each fall, plus one or two other specialty meetings or workshops. I did field work up to four times per year. For the first time in a decade, I did not have to work after dinner. I exercised regularly. I had hobbies – like sewing and throwing pots. I took vacations. Life was good. Not just good – it was great.

I got pregnant within weeks of learning I had tenure. This might sound as if I was waiting for a blessing from the Carleton powers-that-be, which isn’t strictly true. But really, who can ignore the big T? As my pregnancy progressed, I imagined the upcoming changes to my life. I had mentally given myself permission to take the school year off from research – a luxury I could now afford because of tenure. I planned to breastfeed, since all the books I read made strong arguments[1] for it and, let’s face it, I am a mammal so it seemed pretty logical. I knew, in theory, that I would be tired.

During my first trimester, I taught a 5-week intensive field course in New Zealand. I had no problems, except for some minor carsickness. At the time, I thought the students didn’t notice anything odd, although apparently by never drinking alcohol at dinner I caused some young minds to wonder. During my second trimester, I did a week of field work. It was pretty hot, so I rested in the shade more than normal. But otherwise things went well; my delightful field assistants made sure I had plenty of Gatorade. By the third trimester, I found that growing a human was conflicting with my ability to concentrate on geology. To stay focused, I made myself read a paper every day for the month of August.

My daughter was born in late September. I’ll spare you all the gushing I could do about being a new parent and fast-forward to January, when I returned to work after 12 weeks of paid parental leave. My life that winter essentially consisted of two things: (1) teaching my largest Structural Geology course ever, with 25 students, which simply meant that I had to spend more time grading and (2) nursing my daughter. What I had failed to understand about breastfeeding is how much time it takes. At age four months, my daughter nursed 9-10 times per day, for at least 20 minutes per session, for a total of 25 hours per week. And that’s just nursing – it doesn’t include all the other time spent with this new tiny human. On days when I was not physically with my daughter because I was teaching, I still had to devote about the same amount of time pumping milk to ensure a steady supply for her needs.

Not surprisingly, my research productivity took a nosedive. My trusty 30-minutes-a-day for writing became one of nine daily nursing sessions. Since I had already given myself permission for slowed research progress, I felt okay about this loss. In fact, now that I have a better idea of the sleep deprivation that is part of being a new parent, I really doubt that I would have solved any serious geologic problems by writing daily.

I am happy to report that I have been in the field both for teaching and research several times during the past year. This is possible only because my husband has a flexible schedule and has come along on every trip. For example, when my daughter was four months old, she went on a five-day mapping trip to southern California with my Structural Geology students (Fig. 3). (We are so fortunate to have this opportunity – thank you again, Carleton alumni.) Instead of worrying just about which outcrops were best to teach certain field skills, I also worried about whether the outcrops were near any shady, semi-private spots where I could nurse undisturbed for 20 minutes while my students worked. Best places: the shady side of arroyos, deep gullies and the car. It was a whole new level of field trip logistics.

Figure 3. Photo of the author’s daughter and five current Carleton students on a Structural Geology field trip. Photo credit: MacKenzie Person.
Figure 3. Photo of the author’s daughter and five current Carleton students on a Structural Geology field trip. Photo credit: MacKenzie Person.

My family also came along for two trips with undergraduate research students: one short week in Maryland over spring break (age 6 months) and three weeks in Cyprus after school finished (age 8 months). My daughter could not come along each day to nurse, so I spent part of my field days pumping – in parking lots, at trailheads, under lone fig trees, and next to shrines of various Greek saints. Pumping offered quiet reflection time (except for the repetitive sound of the pump), but after both of my pumps broke in Cyprus, the breast milk-related logistics were more of an irritation than anything else[2].

Some reflections on the past year

My daughter turned one the day I submitted this essay, making it the perfect time for reflection. So how has this year been different from my pre-baby years? I haven’t been to a scientific meeting in over a year, but I am going to GSA this fall. Fieldwork has been possible, but I have a larger entourage and a lot more luggage. Sadly, I am back to working after dinner. I still exercise, although a bit less regularly. My main hobby seems to be changing diapers. No vacations yet. (Let’s be honest, I felt lucky to have escaped the house to see one movie this year.) I would like to finish this essay by offering a few larger-scale reflections about being a new parent and a geologist.

I am grateful for my paid parental leave from Carleton, since paid leave is not required in the United States. But it is hard to balance the AAP recommendation for a year of breastfeeding with the US Family Medical Leave Act, which allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Personally, I can’t help thinking that I might have been a better teacher, been better able to answer questions and think on my feet, had an easier time leading field trips, etc. if I had had a longer break. Twelve weeks is not much compared to other countries – most of Europe offers more than 26 weeks; Canada offers up to 50 weeks. For those of you who like looking at maps, see this amazing image from the NYTimes about international maternity leave lengths.

My department made the return to teaching as smooth as they could. My teaching schedule was adjusted. I had no new courses. I did not supervise research students. I was excused from three multi-day departmental field trips. I left department meetings to pump before class. I was able to hire extra TAs for my courses. The one thing that would have made my return to teaching even better is the option for on-site day care. Imagine my day: teach, visit daughter, nurse, go back to work, repeat. No pumping. No cleaning of pump parts. No rhythmic sound of milk being extracted, audible through a cinder-block wall. No typing while pumping. (If this last item makes you scratch your head, query the Internet.) Ask any woman who has pumped her way through her child’s early months – the idea of not pumping is just dreamy.

The return to research has been a little less smooth, but I must thank NSF twice. First, they provided supplemental funding for a part-time research associate while I was on parental leave to keep my research alive. Second, having existing NSF grants was the carrot (or in my case carrot cake) for getting me back in the field. Without grants looming, I would have spent this summer at home doing some light gardening and maybe some sewing. I marvel at women who have had one baby (or more) before tenure since I cannot fathom the extra stress. Truly, this topic deserves its own post since women’s biologic and tenure clocks align in the worst way possible under our current academic system (DeWet et al., 2002). But here is a wild suggestion: NSF should start a new kind of funding. Only pregnant scientists can apply; funding begins about nine months to a year after the child is born. This funding could help nudge female scientists back towards their research and maybe even strengthen tenure cases of pre-tenure faculty.

I have had a whirlwind year. Personally, I wouldn’t change much about it, except using hindsight to purchase a field-worthy breast pump. Institutionally, I would wish for day-care and maybe pregnant-academic grants. Culturally – as in US culture – I would wish for longer parental leaves. Culturally – as in geology culture – I wish there were not such a taboo on talking about motherhood, so I am using this blog post as a way to start a conversation. Our field benefits from women scientists and needs to make room for the additional challenges that are unique to being a science mom. In the spirit of leaning in, I hope that essay has been useful to you, lady scientist or future lady scientist. If you are a man-who-knows-a-lady-scientist – why not go out for coffee, chat, and maybe treat her to a piece of cake.

Sarah Titus is an Associate Professor of Geology at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. She studies transform faults including the San Andreas fault in California and the Arakapas fault in Cyprus. Visit her website to learn more about her teaching and research.


I want to thank Joshua Davis, Scott Giorgis, Eric Horsman, Bonnie Keeler, Michelle Markley, Elizabeth Nadin, Suzanne O’Connell, Basil Tikoff, and Sandra Titus for helpful comments on earlier versions of this post. Many of my ideas for classroom activities, plus the great 30-minutes-a-day advice, came from On the Cutting Edge workshops. The idea for the Tectonics wiki came from a mash-up of conversations with Joshua Davis and Michelle Markley. Last, I thank Josh for traveling the Earth with me for my job while being a great papa.


DeWet, C. B., Ashley, G. M., and Kegel, D. P., 2002, Biological clocks and tenure timetables: Restructuring the academic timeline: Supplement to November GSA Today, v. 12, p. 1-7.

[1] For example, breast milk offers the child protection against illnesses, SIDS, allergies, and obesity. For the mother, it may reduce the risk of stress, depression, and certain cancers. Also, making  milk requires higher caloric intake for mothers, which enables guiltless cake consumption for some. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, institutions that know more about this topic than I do, recommend breastfeeding for one and two years, respectively.

[2] You may be thinking that if I did not insist on breastfeeding, my year would have been easier. And you would be right from a purely logistical standpoint. But again, as a scientist, it is hard to ignore all that data about breastfeeding. What I also did not know before becoming a mother: you cannot stop nursing when it’s inconvenient – like for a week of field work – and expect to start nursing when you’re finished. The milk supply depends on demand.