See this article, “Ditch the Boyfriend,” by Elizabeth “not her real name” Fleer. It is another in a seemingly endless string of articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education that essentially argues that an academic career is more important than, well, anything, and certainly more important than a significant relationship. To quote from some of the beginning of it:
“Rule number one: Don’t talk to the media,” a senior faculty member told me as I prepared to attend a meeting of science journalists last spring. As the date for defending my dissertation fast approached, he and other faculty members at my institution were concerned that I hadn’t landed a job and were showing an increased interest in helping me out with the rest of my life, too.
“Any other words of wisdom?” I asked with a smile, since he knew full well that I tell my story of water resources and climate change in California to anyone who will listen.
“Rule number two: Don’t teach. Rule number three: Don’t fall in love.”
“And what about children?” At this point, I was egging him on.
“Definitely not! As a female scientist with the potential to do real research, you cannot have children. My wife stayed home with my children, but you can’t afford to do that. You need to focus all your energy on publishing peer-reviewed papers.”
The article goes on with Fleer discussing how she broke off an engagement to pursue her graduate program, and how, now that she was at the end of it, she was in danger of having to live in a distance relationship because her boyfriend was the one with the tenure-track job on the East Coast.
Toward the end of the essay, Fleer writes “Am I dreaming too big? Will my boyfriend and I manage to find permanent positions in the same town? Or will the strain be too much for our relationship?” (Cue soap opera organ music). Voiceover: “Tune in next time, as ‘The World of the Academic Who Dares to have a Significant Relationship Turns!'”
I’m not going to even pretend to have an answer to the particular situation that Fleer finds herself in, and I also realize that my status as a male and tenured professor makes my commentary problematic at best. But I am also one half of an “academic couple,” one where my wife, Annette Wannamaker, is under-employed as a lecturer in the EMU English department. Currently, we are “on the market” (as the saying goes), with the goal of us getting into a situation where we both have tenure track jobs. So I feel like I have some right to say something about all this.
In no particular order, here is “something:”
* I am really sick and tired of reading this “advice” to young academics that careers are more important than relationships, that the sensible course of action for Fleer is to “ditch the boyfriend.” I don’t know, maybe it is– I suppose it depends on how serious the relationship is. But a job in academia is just that, a job, which ought not to be more important than relationships and family.
* I think people who follow the advice repeatedly offered in these columns in the Chronicle– which is to always give up the relationship in favor of the academic career– are setting themselves up to become very unhappy and bitter academics indeed.
Again, I’m not saying it’s an easy choice; it isn’t. Annette and I are happily married with a child, so for us, the idea of maintaining a relationship and a family over a distance (me on the East Coast, her on the West, for example) is out of the question. I’m aware that not everyone has this strong or important of a relationship, and it might make more sense for some to take the job over the casual boyfriend/girlfriend.
All I am saying though is this blanket advice offered again and again in articles like this is ludicrious.
* Inevitably, the “trailing spouse” in these columns are always women. I suppose that is most frequently the case in “real life” too, though I’m certainly familiar with some situations in which the man was the follower. In any event, if it is a case where the man of the relationship is unable or unwilling to make any compromises in his career to give his partner a chance of getting into a tenure-track job, well, there’s something wrong with that man.
In my own case, if Annette was offered a tenure-track job some place and I had to give up tenure or even the tenure-track to follow here, I’d do it in a heart-beat. Given the sacrafices she’s made for me, that just seems right. The only thing that would get in the way of that is finances: we couldn’t afford to make significantly less money than we make now, which means we probably couldn’t afford for me to drop to “part-time” status even if she did get a job as an assistant professor. But my point is simple: my relationship is a whole lot more important than my career, and it seems pretty easy to make sacrifices to my career for the sake of my family.
Being an academic is great in all sorts of different ways. But there are a lot of things more important in life than an academic career. I realize that the Chronicle is primarily about academia and careers in it; but would it kill them to once, just once, to offer some sort of advice that would put an academic career in some kind of perspective?