Never Mix, Never Worry: A Brief (And Incomplete) History Of The Academic Couple

August 15, 2010, 3:01 pm

Push your way past the Katie Roiphe essay on page 2 of the New York Times “Sunday Styles” section today (yes, this conservative anti-feminist really does seem to own the column named “Cultural Studies,” which is an irony, is it not, given what cultural studies represents on the academic left? Does Roiphe know this? One suspects not.) Make your way to “Modern Love,” where Boston College Shakespeare scholar Caroline Bicks, who also blogs at Academic Shakespeare, writes about academic commuting. In “Is The Husband Going To Be A Problem?” she addresses going on the job market as a couple, commonly known in academia as “the two body problem.” She also mentions what I think is probably a widespread experience: Bicks’ husband was never asked about what would happen to her on his interviews; but whether he would be a “hiring issue” was an anxious subtext of her interviews, a question that was conveyed to her in a way that was highly informal, irregular and effective. No, no, she reassured them, via her advisor; he’s not an issue. We are ready to do whatever it takes.
In case you wondered, this is how women are disciplined not even to ask for the things men just get (like being treated with respect); and how we are trained not even to think about what we might need or want to do a job and have a life at the same time, since we should feel so damned lucky to be there in the first place.
If you are about to go on the job market, or are already a young commuting couple, read this: it is a story that has its hitches, but it ends happily: they live together, in the same city, with a daughter who didn’t sleep through the night until she was almost five.
Academic commuting is an historically recent phenomenon, but not so recent that universities have not had time to address the problem — and drop the ball instead. Once women decided to stop baking cookies for their husband’s seminars and type manuscripts for love and pin money, it occurred to them get their own advanced degrees (it was around the mid 1960s, when women’s liberation really took off, Katie Roiphe) and have their own careers. Prior to the mid-1970s, in other words, there was no two-body problem: the wife, awarded to the husband some time after his BA but prior to his hooding as a Ph.D., came along in the moving van along with the furniture and books.
Legend has it that at Zenith, when women began to be appointed as tenure-track faculty, it was such a seismic shock to the system that no one knew what to do with them socially. The first few of these pioneer women were, legend also has it, put in the odd position of having to navigate well-meant invitations to a faculty wives’ lunch club. Indeed, when Zenith alumni of my age and older recall the happy days of intimate seminars held in professors’ homes, they may have only a very vague memory of the unobtrusive (little) woman who kept the children out of the way, cleaned and dusted the house, baked the cookies, and washed the sherry glasses at the end of the day.
It wasn’t a pretty life for everyone. Growing up in the nexus of three well-regarded liberal arts colleges and one Ivy League University, take it from me that a lot of these women resented the hell out of their second-class status. More than a few were closet drinkers and maintained a low-level buzz all day (you know, the ones that “went to the bathroom” just a few too many times a day, and kept a bottle of vodka in a locked glove compartment in the car.) In the Mad Men era (which is exactly when I grew up) men were capable of spacing out a great deal, particularly when it was in their own self interest, but let me just say that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is worth a little look-see for you couples out there who are considering ditching wify’s career in order to live and raise your children in the same city.
There are a variety of reasons that colleges and universities have never come to some comprehensive solution to the two-person academic career, a problem that is now acknowledged to include queer people. None of them are good, and none address the stress induced by commuting academic careers that invariably falls hardest on women. A partner hire is most frequently thought of as an exceptional event akin to a prize: in order to get “him,” you shoehorn another department or program into taking “her;” in order to keep “her” in the face of an outside offer, a department is cajoled into interviewing “her.” The best possible scenario is the one least available to most of us: to be thought of as a “power couple” in the field, a kind of academic Ferdinand and Isabella scenario where 1 + 1 = more than 2.
Why can’t we solve this problem? Well, two reasons.
Adding tenure-track faculty lines is far down, and in many cases not even on, the list of institutional priorities for most universities. There are very few exceptions to this rule, and the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Franklin & Marshall, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, which often agrees to create an extra half line for partner hires. Each member of the partnership is tenure-track and each occupies 3/4 of a line. Who is the big winner here? Franklin & Marshall, of course: they get two faculty for the price of 1.5 — and who knows what it means to work 3/4 time at a liberal arts college? My guess is that both members of the couple are working full-time for 3/4 pay. Franklin & Marshall also gets to keep faculty who might otherwise want to escape Lancaster, PA, because what other schools have any partner hire policy at all?
Add to this the following fact: the bad job market is not a natural phenomenon. It is not going to magically correct itself when the economy improves. The bad job market has been entirely manufactured by colleges, universities and state legislatures who are unwilling to create the number of full-time positions that they need to teach the students they have. Until there is some kind of effective social movement of students and faculty to correct this, Boards of Trustees and administrations will continue to shrink faculties, particularly in the liberal arts. In this atmosphere of scarcity, the idea that faculty lines would be created for two-career couples is unthinkable.
The fiction that academic hiring is, and should be, a meritocracy in which those awarded jobs and tenure are understood to be the “best.” Hiring
, particularly in an expanded market, could be a mix of competitive searches and opportunity appointments — which, in fact, is now the case at the most senior levels and at the lowest adjunct levels. But right now there is no constituency advocating for this, except the people who are running to the airport on Thursday at 3:30.

The worst offenders, in my view, are departments, who think the world is going to come to an end if they hires a 19th century economic historian rather than a 19th century political historian; or if the political historian spouse turns out to be an African Americanist (“Shriek!!! We’ve already got one of those!!!!”) Departments are usually utterly unwelcoming to candidates — no matter how promising — who do not fit an exact niche that has been decided upon in endless department meetings, received the dean’s stamp of approval, been searched for, and been vetted as part of a vast pool of candidates — by them. Being a spouse of someone already on the faculty can hurt you as a candidate, because it launches grumbling about whether the department will be “forced” to take you. The hiring mentality often includes a form of magical thinking that goes like this: if, out of 100 candidates, we picked Assistant Professor X — then we can be assured that s/he is the best!

You are getting my point here? “We picked hir = s/he is the best.” If you don’t go through “the hiring process,” no one can be certain that you are the best.
But graduate students have drunk the Kool-Aid too, and are just as invested in the idea of meritocracy as faculty are, if not more so. Take a look at the job wikis, if you don’t believe me, and the number of people who seem to honestly believe that they were objectively more deserving of a given job than the person who actually got it. How is it that people think they know they were the best candidate? Gave the best talk? Wrote the best dissertation? Wore the prettiest shoes? I dunno. I suppose this kind of hubris is a good way of maintaining your self-esteem in a brutal job market, but it is also insane. Thus, one of the constituencies that is most harmed by the “two-body problem” is also not likely to accept a solution in which people are awarded jobs without clawing their way to the top of the application pile and being brutally hazed by search committees first.
So good luck to all of you on the market this year. And by the way, if you are on a search committee, you might want to know that what happened to Caroline Bicks during her interview process is not just sexist, it’s against federal law: asking about, or considering, a candidate’s marital status part of the selection process is a major-league no-no, regardless of the candidate’s gender and sexual orientation. Here’s a complete list of things you can’t be asked at an interview.
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