Academics Abroad (With the Family in Tow)

Jill DeTemple, an assistant professor of religious studies at SMU, talks about doing research abroad with your children along.

By Don Troop

Michael Kevane has a suggestion for academic parents traveling with restless kids: Get them a couple of goats — and maybe some chickens.

Since 1994, Mr. Kevane and his wife, Leslie C. Gray, have paid regular visits to Burkina Faso as part of their work as faculty members at Santa Clara University, where he is chair of the economics department and she directs the Environmental Studies Institute. In 2007 and 2008, the couple took along their children, Elliot and Sukie, who were 9 and 4 at the time of their first visit. A month into that stay in a walled garden home that the family rents in the capital city, Ouagadougou (pronounced wah-guh-DOO-goo), the kids clearly needed some distraction. . .

Jill DeTemple's children, John and Molly, have sweet memories of the 12 weeks they spent with their mother in rural Ecuador in 2009, when they were 2 and 4. Ms. DeTemple, an assistant professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, is married, but her husband, Brian Bunge, works as a corporate accountant and couldn't go along for the full trip. Ms. DeTemple rented a tiny room in the home of a family that ran a small grocery on the first floor.

"People would run in to get flour and sugar, and they also happened to stock a lot of penny candy," says Ms. DeTemple. "So my kids remember this place as, 'We lived in a candy store!'"

She split her visit into two six-week trips and was able to share child-care chores with her host family, who had a 3-year-old daughter. The arrangement worked pretty well, she says, though her work demands and the tight confines wore on everyone: "Cranky kids, cranky mom, trying to get all this research crammed into a very short time."

At the end of the first six-week stretch, Mr. Bunge came for a visit. When he arrived, Molly had a 104-degree fever and, says Ms. DeTemple, "the whole gamut of intestinal parasites."

She and the children weren't the only ones relieved to see Mr. Bunge. "The priest was very concerned that my husband was not there," Ms. DeTemple says with a laugh.

She was less amused by the raised eyebrows she had gotten from some of her colleagues before the trip. "People thought I was nuts," she says. "This is not really the Dallas parenting style."

But what Ms. DeTemple and other scholars have figured out is that taking one's family into the field can actually make the job easier.

"I showed up with the ultimate coup de grâce, which was having two kids," she says. "That opened up a lot of conversations."

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