"Are you coming back?"
Kathleen: That was my department chairman late last spring, probing for information. It was a good question. I wish I knew the answer. But the truth was, I didn't know. So I was stalling.
I had been on leave since the previous August. During that time, I had become increasingly unhappy in the administrative position I had taken in order to live with my husband. I was working in a teaching center, and while I enjoyed working with faculty members to improve their teaching, I missed teaching my own courses and working with my own students. I also missed some less tangible things, like being treated like a faculty member. In our last column, we described Joshua's attempt to get a position at my home institution. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful, and there had been no openings this year.
Should I stay at a job I disliked in order to be with my husband? Or should I return to my tenured position and plunge us back into a long-distance marriage?
Faced with a no-win situation, I did the only thing I could do. I applied for an extension of my leave for another year -- hence the call from my chairman. Not surprisingly, the conversation was awkward. It didn't help that I don't trust him. He likes to control information and he was definitely fishing for more specifics than I was ready to part with. In the end, I assured him I wanted to come back and that Josh fully planned to apply for jobs in the area.
Joshua: Kathleen's statement was true. She did want to go back. The trouble was, there were no job prospects in the area for me. Unless Kathleen's department became uncharacteristically active in trying to conjure a position for me, I couldn't imagine how she might actually return.
I was feeling increasingly guilty about her unhappiness. I consider myself a relatively egalitarian man and husband, so the fact that Kathleen gave up a tenured position to follow me didn't sit well. My discomfort was compounded by Kathleen's dissatisfaction with her administrative position. After years apart, we were finally living together, but the situation felt far from stable. And I feared that resentment would begin to infect our marriage.
Kathleen: I didn't blame Joshua, but I found myself in the uncomfortable position of sacrificing my career for his. The move into administration was a lateral one in terms of rank, but given how much I missed teaching and chemistry, it felt like a big step down.
There was one other possibility, which had its own pros and cons. A few months earlier, I had seen an advertisement for a tenure-track position in the chemistry department at a local liberal-arts college. I had procrastinated about applying, partially due to my reluctance to give up my tenured position, and partially because I was stumped as to how I was going to describe my current situation to my potential employer. In the end, I crafted a cover letter in which I was totally upfront about it all. With the cover letter written, I submitted my job application, albeit late. It wouldn't be an ideal job, but I had always wanted to be at a small college, so maybe this would work out.
In the meantime, the chemistry department at my home institution decided to support my request for an extension of my leave for another year. If there was a chance they could get me back, they said, they wanted to take it. The department had just hired a new person in my area, which relieved some of the pressure in the teaching schedule. I was cautiously optimistic.
Then, I received an e-mail message from the small liberal-arts college. Was I still interested? I was.
When I finally spoke to the chairman in person, he explained that the department had received my application after it had already started interviewing candidates. Its initial reaction was that I was from a large university and was probably not right for its small-college environment. Once the faculty members looked closer, however, they realized that I had attended a small undergraduate college and had tried to create that kind of environment for my students, even though my university was much larger. The chairman assured me that if they had had my application earlier I would have definitely been among the top three finalists they chose to interview. Then the other shoe dropped: The department had already made an offer to another candidate.
Joshua: The next few weeks were tense. It felt as if the nearly perfect solution to our two-body problem -- two tenure-track jobs, each in our chosen field, less than 60 miles apart -- was about to evaporate.
Kathleen and I both wrestle with procrastination, a particularly loathsome demon for academics. More than this, I understood the ambivalence that Kathleen felt regarding this job opportunity. She was, after all, on a professional leave of absence from a tenured position, and her leave would almost certainly be nullified if she accepted a tenure-track position elsewhere. But damn! Were we ever going to find another opportunity like this?
Once again, our future rested on the decision of a faceless rival.
Kathleen: We didn't have that long to wait. When I received the call, I held my breath, expecting the worst. We'd been through this twice before. This time, however, the fates were with us. The candidate had declined the position. Relief flooded through me.
The chairman told me the department would be bringing in candidates one at a time and would make a decision right afterwards. Apparently, the job was mine to lose.
Joshua: I tried, with limited success, to contain my excitement.
Kathleen: I went to campus for the interview. It was a dreary day, gray and sleeting, a far cry from the perpetual sunny weather at my home campus in the West.
My meetings with the faculty went without a hitch. My year in a teaching center served me well here, as the discussion centered around my approach to teaching. My job talk was OK, if not as smooth as I would have liked. When I went to meet the dean, I found myself answering the same sorts of questions that I ask faculty members back at the teaching center: What were my learning objectives for my students? How would I create an environment that would allow my students to achieve those objectives? It was refreshing to meet a dean who actually seemed to care about the education of students, not just research dollars. At the end of the day, the department indicated I would get an offer. Two days later, I received word officially.
I was torn. I liked many things about this college, but I wasn't sure how I felt about the more limited range of courses I would be able to teach. With only four full-time faculty members in the department, the teaching schedule was relatively fixed. I would not be able to teach in my secondary field very often, if at all, and there were no graduate courses. I had taught 11 different courses in my six years of full-time teaching. Although it had been brutal, I had enjoyed the variety. I was also concerned about the increase in contact hours. Oh, and there was that little matter of giving up tenure.
I had several phone conversations with the chairman of the department. Josh and I visited campus on a sunny day. I went to dinner with the chairman. Josh and I went to dinner with the chairman. I asked for, and was given, more time to come to a decision -- twice.
Meanwhile, I heard back on my leave of absence request from my home institution. The dean had rejected my request for an extension. This was the same dean who, after Josh's unsuccessful application for the psychology job at my institution, claimed that he "didn't know" that one of the candidates was my fiancé until it was "too late" to try to intervene. I knew, quite reliably, that he had been informed. I realized that there were procedures and regulations in place that may have limited what he felt comfortable doing, but his transparent attempt to cover his butt was infuriating. Now, a year later, he was denying my request for an extended leave. I wondered why I wanted to go back at all.
So, I called the chemistry department chairman at the liberal-arts college. Although I knew the department would not let me come in with tenure, I asked for some other considerations: notably a shortened tenure-and-promotion period, several years' credit toward a sabbatical, and a delayed start date until the following January. He agreed to all my requests.
I was faced with two choices. I could accept a job as an untenured assistant professor at a liberal-arts college that was bending over backward to get me. Or, I could return to my home institution that appeared completely unwilling to accommodate my two-body problem. At the liberal-arts college, I would suffer a serious cut in pay, but I could continue to live with my husband. At my home institution, I would draw a much higher salary, but I would live apart from husband (again). If I returned to my home institution, I would have to hope that eventually an opening would arise for Joshua, and he would be offered the job.
Once again, I did the only thing I felt like I could do. I made a phone call and accepted the job at the liberal-arts college.
Meanwhile, back at my home institution, the dust hadn't quite settled. My department was furious that its recommendation on my leave had been overridden by the dean's office. Some faculty members pressured the department chairman to write a letter to the provost. Some also wrote letters of their own, urging the provost to override the dean and side with the department. As it turns out, in the only two previous instances that faculty members in my department had asked for an extended leave, their requests had been granted. In both cases, the faculty member had a spouse residing in the location where they were taking a leave of absence. In both cases, the faculty members were male. It is possible, I might even say likely, that one faculty member took it upon himself to mention these historical details to the provost. The provost approved my leave of absence for another year.
So last summer, I found myself in the odd and uncomfortable position of having three jobs. The ensuing months brought many awkward conversations. On a trip west to visit my home institution, I found myself sitting across from a good friend and colleague who asked me that same fateful question:
"So, are you coming back?"