Following the story: Professor Sarah Hampson

sarah chris and anna hampson


Sarah Hampson, an Assistant Professor in PPPA starting her second year at UW Tacoma, has a few secrets.

Enthusiastic about her classes and her research into work/life policies surrounding motherhood, as well as her self-identity as an idealist occasionally called “Pollyanna”— Hampson is also a huge sci-fi fan!

“I love sci-fi!” she said, laughing. “Star Trek. Time travel. But also historical fiction, and any kind of meta story.”

“I just want to be in a really good story and never have it end.”

A bit surprising for a Law and Policy professor? Maybe.

But maybe not so much when that professor was an undergraduate English major who spent a year studying at Oxford and still loves reading novels—at least when she has time.

But with a love for sci-fi and British literature, how did Hampson end up teaching Law and Society at UW Tacoma?

Well, that’s quite a story…

As an undergraduate at Gordon College in Massachusetts, she was interested in writing, and planned to be a journalist.

“I loved the news,” she said.

But after the requisite literature courses that every English major takes, she quickly realized she didn’t want to analyze literature.

“I just wanted to yell, ‘Stop it! I want my stories!’”

Taking an American Politics course to fill a social science requirement, Hampson realized how much she enjoyed it—and she did pretty well in the class, too. With a professor who was a “notoriously hard grader,” she was a bit worried. So when she got back her first paper, Hampson was surprised to find “a big fat A+ on it!”

In his comments on the paper, the professor told her that she didn’t belong in journalism. “He said, ‘you belong writing and thinking about politics.’ And I was like, ‘Ok!’ But it really affected me.”

“It’s one of those things about being a professor that is actually terrifying. I try to think about it and have what I say be positive and inspiring so that’s what people will remember—not the negative.”

For a while, though, Hampson’s success in American Politics seemed destined to go nowhere. She had a chance to study at Oxford University—surely every English major’s dream—and jumped at it. But what happened next changed the course of her story—in more ways than one.

Although she called it “embarrassing,” the next scene is not an unfamiliar one. During her first weekend at Oxford, “I met a guy”… who she ended up marrying several years later. Her then-boyfriend—Chris—followed her back to the US at the end of her study-abroad year, where Hampson graduated from Gordon College with a double major in English and Political Science. After graduation, Chris returned to the UK to get a teaching certificate and Hampson followed—planning to do the same. But when that didn’t work out, she decided to apply for an MA program in International Politics—“because in the UK, American Politics is international.”

She finished the program, focusing on domestic interest groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but had no thoughts of continuing on to get a PhD.

“I was done. I wanted to work for a while,” she said. “So, we got married, and I worked in London for a transcription company—a very administrative position.”

But she missed being in school.

After a few years, the Hampsons decided it was time to look at grad programs in the US. They ended up at the University of Connecticut, which offered good funding for both of them.

Hampson thought that she’d just continue her MA research on Interest groups, but thoughts about expanding her family someday turned her research focus in an entirely different direction, and added yet another plot twist.

“I thought I might want to have a kid sometime. I’d never thought about it before.” As is apparently quite typical of Hampson, she set out to do a bit of research on the topic.

“Very quickly, I found out there was this whole culture around having kids in academia, full of unwritten rules.”

She started to wonder how it would all work.

“What would leave be like? How do you negotiate it? Who do you tell? I saw all kinds of people getting kicked out of their programs for this stuff. It was like a minefield!”

At that same time, Hampson took a Law and Society class, and started to see a connection between the theories she was studying in class and the informal norms and expectations she saw around her every day.

“All I could think was, ‘Wow! There are a lot of connections here.’”

A book she was reading at the time, Rights of Inclusion: Law and Identity in the Life Stories of Americans with Disabilities, made her realize, “this is really what’s going on with people and maternity leave.”

The topic became more than just research to Hampson, though; it became a part of her own life story. After writing a book chapter on the topic with several  colleagues, she recognized that the topic really interested her, plus there was the fact that “I had my kid in grad school.”

In addition to her status as a graduate student, she was working for Polity, a prestigious national journal, when her daughter was born—going into labor at the journal’s first meeting, then returning to work just two weeks after giving birth. She even worked from home during her very short maternity leave.

“There was no one else to do it,” she said, speaking of journal deadlines that had to be met. But she knew her experience was not unusual, in spite of organizations like her own university that actually offered maternity leave.

She realized that “no one [at UConn] knew about their [leave] rights,” and those who did, often couldn’t access them. “So in spite of having a leave policy, no one could really use it.”

Hampson found herself looking at the utility of these policies, with the critique forming the focus of her dissertation.

Examining the everyday realities of family leave policies, she asked, “are [leave policies] doing what they are supposed to do? Are they allowing new parents to take time off? Or are informal norms actually more important in terms of driving people’s decision-making, instead of what the policy does or doesn’t do?”

She quickly came to see that those informal norms are more important than any stated policy—and that’s the whole law and society theme.

“It’s not just whether a policy is effective or not,” Hampson stated.” It’s also the stigma around it. So even if I were to say ‘I’m going to take my six weeks of unpaid leave, thank you very much,’ there’s still this stigma around it that not taking the leave wouldn’t have caused.”

“As long as we as a society are not valuing reproduction and caregiving,” she said, “this is always going to be a problem. Caregiving is far beyond children, but it’s still very invisible, very undervalued.” She added that corporations often seem to imply, “if you have to do it, you’d better hide that you have to do it—or you’re not useful to us.”

Although Hampson began her research with mothers in academia, she later branched out to consider others.

“There’s next to nothing written about mothers in the military—as mothers, or as workers who also take maternity leave and have caregiving responsibilities and go on deployments, or have custody issues.”

Yet, because of Hampson’s research, there is now.

Aside from her research focus and her task-of-the-moment—taking her dissertation and turning it into a book manuscript—she also manages to find a few spare moments for other interests. A life-long bibliophile, she loves to escape into a good story when she can, noting that she always likes to have “a novel on the go”—although nowadays, most of her reading is done on her phone.

“I don’t like reading off the screen, but sometimes it’s the only way I have time.”

Hampson is also a music lover who is the proud owner of a baroque flute—an anniversary gift from her husband.

“It’s really hard to play. The key spacing is different than a normal flute—really wide, like for a man’s hands. But I’ve worked my way up from fifteen minutes to [playing for] forty-five minutes.” Despite the difficulties for someone with really small fingers, she loves it!

Which leads me to another of Hampson’s secrets…

“I have crooked pinkies,” she laughed. And in spite of her musical history, she added, “I could never have been a concert pianist.”

But that’s a story for another day…