The Sunday Styles section of The New York Times yesterday has an essay by a woman who is part of a 2-career academic couple of English professors. Or, I should say that she was a part of an academic couple until her husband was denied tenure at his college, and thereafter reinvented himself (quite happily) in a career in "investing".
Most of the essay describes the history of this couple as an academic pair. Most of it sounds rather familiar, including that the couple spends some time living apart with jobs at different institutions until finally, luckily, they both get academic jobs near each other.
What also sounded familiar were the concerns of hiring committees and departments about the academic coupleness of these people. The author, Caroline Bicks, gets an interview for a position, but before the campus visit:
..a professor of mine confided that a member of the interview team had contacted him about my candidacy and asked, “Is the husband going to be a problem?”
The wife, however, does not seem to be a problem for the husband:
No one on his interview committees seemed to be sniffing around for info on his “problem” wife. Maybe they assumed that men put their careers first, or that women are less serious about theirs. It felt as if my wedding ring was a hurdle I had to clear to prove my commitment to academia, while Brendon’s was a badge of stability and good-guy gravitas.
Actually, that is different from my husband's experience back when we were applying and interviewing for jobs. He was asked about me at more than one interview. I was definitely seen as a potential problem. Hooray for equal-opportunity unethical questioning by hiring committees?
During her interviews, Bicks also made sure not to seem "too eager to have children any time soon."
I know other women have been asked directly about actual and potential children, but I was never asked about this during interviews. When some interviewers started talking to me about schools in the area, I wondered if they had ulterior motives, but in most cases I think they were people with families and were genuinely trying to give me useful information in case I got the job.
The author's life in an academic couple then veers in a new direction when her husband is denied tenure "Despite a teaching award, a book contract and extreme collegiality". That's rather chilling, but the story has a happy ending for this couple:
Still, it turns out that being two separate bodies has its advantages. For one, it’s given us a lot more breathing room, since we aren’t endlessly comparing our jobs, progress and institutions. And with distance comes perspective. Watching Brendon’s successful reinvention has pushed me to try new kinds of writing — to tell my own stories, and not just Shakespeare’s.
I suppose my husband and I compare our jobs and career progress to some extent, but I don't feel competitive in any way, nor stifled by the fact that we are in the same field. I do not need any "breathing room", and I enjoy the benefits that come from being married to someone who totally 'gets' my job and my professional life.
Strangest of all is the last sentence of the essay -- the last sentence in the excerpt above. I suppose we can all find creativity in the strangest of places, motivated by various unexpected events in our lives, but the implication is that the lack of "breathing room" in an academic couple might somehow stifle creativity(?).
If you are in an academic couple, and especially if you and your significant other are in the same general academic discipline, where do you fall in the spectrum between 'my significant other totally gets my job and professional life' (and that's great) and 'we are endlessly comparing our careers and progress' (and this is stressful/stifling)?
Perhaps most people are somewhere in between, or perhaps the answer varies with time and career stage, but how does it balance out for you?
9 years ago