Breastfeeding in Class: From One Professor to Another

In a class whose whole premise involves feminism and culture, if your sensibilities are offended by the notion of a mother feeding her baby, then it seems you're not quite ready for college, let alone this seminar.
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The hooplah surrounding the American University professor who breastfed on the first day of class -- and then tried to censor the student newspaper from writing about it -- has reached a fever pitch. As a professor who's nursed three children and yes, been associated with American University, I feel a personal stake in this, but also can't help but feel that both the critics and the professor are missing the point.

"It's not professional," the original student critic declared, having started the fire via a tweet in the middle of class (oh, the irony!). (As Lisa Belkin notes, this student later tweeted "...I don't do feminism, I'm a pro-male chauvinism type guy #makemeasandwich." Wonderful. He has since reportedly dropped the class -- which had feminism in its very title.

But this "professional" construct, also put forth in an official statement by American University, is a red herring. "Professional" culture looks different in different environments. What does professional mean, exactly, in a college environment? I'd hope it should entail behavior that is respectful but thought-provoking, engaging, and sometimes, yes, provocative or controversial. One of my favorite college professors -- arguably doing his professorial job in a phenomenal way, thus being the ultimate professional -- rarely appeared to have taken a shower. Another one's briefcase looked like it had survived a nuclear holocaust. And in a corporate boardroom, if I were to lead an open discussion about sexual sadomasochism and whether it should be considered a disorder, I assume I'd be hit with the unprofessional label. In my Abnormal Psychology class at Georgetown University, however, I do it ever single semester, and I think it falls directly in line with my professional goals -- to convey ideas and provoke thought to the best of my ability. "Professional" should never be conflated with "conformist," and the moment we do that in a college environment, we're missing the point of college altogether.

There are also those critics who say, "These kids pay tuition; they're not paying to see her breastfeed." I'm confused by this criticism, mainly because the alternative to her having the baby in class was to cancel the class, and therefore not give them anything for their tuition money that day at all. Or, to let the baby continue to fuss -- thus causing even more distraction and interruption. If the focus is really on what they're getting out of class that day, then arguably she made the right choice to still deliver as much content as possible. This does seem to be a case of damned-if-she-does, damned-if-she-doesn't. And honestly, in a class whose whole premise involves feminism and culture, if your sensibilities are offended by the notion of a mother feeding her baby -- something that can and should be seen in your average shopping mall any day of the week -- then it seems you're not quite ready for college, let alone this seminar.

Of course, Professor Pine is not helping matters; she's not the most sympathetic of subjects. For one, the whole reason her baby was in class that day was that the baby was too sick to attend day care. Not great from a public health standpoint, for either the class or the baby. And in defending her behavior, she lashes out, ironically, against the "lactivists" who aggressively promote breastfeeding -- and it seems that her major criticism of them is their race, or at least what she generalizes to be their race. Worst of all, instead of being a proponent of discourse and discussion on this subject, she tried aggressively and obnoxiously to shut down any further mention of this by the student newspaper, in the process snottily belittling it and the reporter who attempted to talk to her. And using the tired 'Newspapers should be focusing on more important things' trope doesn't win her any fans here; isn't the whole premise of her course that conceptualizations of gender roles are worthy of discussion?

What a missed opportunity for everyone involved. Some people -- or possibly just one rabble-rousing tweeter -- got uncomfortable with something that happened in a college class. Wonderful! This is what learning is all about, as long as we choose the right response. The answer should always lean toward discussion, discourse and respect. Unfortunately, both sides seem to have failed in this.

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, professor, and author of The Friendship Fix. She also writes the long-time mental health advice column Baggage Check in the Washington Post Express.