My own two body experiences from both sides of the search committee table

Kelly J. Baker has a two article series at Vitae on the “two-body problem”– that is, academic couples. Part one is here; part two is here. I think it’s smart stuff, and while I don’t agree with everything she says, I feel like I can relate both as half of an academic couple and as someone who has been on hiring committees trying to figure out the coupled status of applicants. Though my own two-body experiences have been a bit different.

Here’s a long quote from the beginning of “part 1” of Baker’s essay:

In the fall of 2008, I had a campus interview for a tenure-track position in the religious-studies department of a flagship state university. At lunch with faculty members, the chair, and the dean, I made harmless small talk. Harmless, that is, until, during a lull in the conversation, and female instructor asked: If you take the job, what would your poor husband do?

Everyone at the table turned to look at me. Lunch came to a screeching halt. “My poor husband,” I responded, “will just have to figure it out.”

Some folks chuckled; others looked away. The chair apologized profusely after lunch for such an inappropriate (and illegal) question. He informed me that the offending instructor did not represent the department, and he assured me that my marital status had no impact on my candidacy.

I didn’t get the job.

During the rejection phone call, the chair told me that I had impressed the department; they just wanted to go in a different direction. I couldn’t help but wonder if the mention of my husband had affected the search committee’s direction. Did the careless mention of my marriage plant doubts about whether I would take a position if offered? No, that discussion was just an anomaly, I told myself.

Yet my marital status kept popping up in preliminary interviews, campus visits, and even in discussions with my letter writers. “What would your poor husband do?” emerged as a refrain in my job search. One of my recommenders repeatedly asked whether I would take jobs if they were offered. Later, I wondered if married male colleagues had to endure similar conversations. Did their spouses figure so heavily in the calculations of recommenders and interviewers? Were their wedding rings analyzed? Were their poor wives influencing possible job offers?

When I first sat down to write this post a couple days ago, I was going to go into a lot more detail about my own “on the market” experiences because my wife, Annette Wannamaker, is also a professor at EMU.  A lot of our experiences are similar to Baker’s experiences. But after I wrote that part, I decided it was kind of unnecessary.  The very very short version though: Like Baker and her husband Chris, Annette and I were engaged when we went to graduate school together (we got married after our first year), and she was the trailing spouse for my first job at Southern Oregon University and for the job at EMU. Annette was a full-time lecturer when we came here, but we spent our first seven or so years at EMU on the market so that we could both have tenure-track jobs. Annette remade herself into a Children’s Literature scholar and EMU hired her in 2005.

This is the first place where our story deviates from Baker’s and her husband’s story. I don’t think it was that we were lucky; rather, we were in the right place at the right time, and in a very real sense, the two body problem actually helped us because EMU knew if they didn’t hire Annette, we were both going to leave. And of course Annette did an insane amount of fantastic teaching and really stellar scholarship to make herself a no-brainer hire too, and she continues to do that. She’s on book four right now.

I’ve had different experiences in revealing/discussing marital status, too. When I interviewed for my first job at SOU, I don’t recall my marital status being a topic one way or the other. When I interviewed at EMU, I didn’t bring it up, but the folks on the committee worked at fishing it out of me and finally one member of the committee (quite illegally, obviously) just flat out asked me what my wife did– I was wearing a wedding ring, after all. That’s when I spilled the beans about how Annette was also an academic, how one of the reasons why I was interested in the job was to get to a more urban area where there were more job opportunities, etc., etc. I still had a full day of campus interview activities and meals and there seemed to be a sense of relief from my future colleagues about the proverbial cat being out of the bag. Everyone was quick to agree that yes, there were a lot of opportunities in the area, how Annette could certainly be a lecturer in the department, etc. And obviously I got the job.

Was this because I was a man? I don’t know, but I don’t think so– and by the way, as long as I’m going down the blatantly gendered path here, I should point out that the person who asked me what my wife did was a woman and as I recall it, all but one person on the search committee were women.  I’m not saying that having a spouse didn’t play into the job interviews and offers I had over the years (though for all I know, there were interviews I didn’t get because people on the committee knew I was married to another academic); I’m just saying I never experienced what Baker is describing here.

Oh, and as a slight tangent: the two-body person certainly is not limited to just academics and/or couples where both are academics. I can think of several examples where the trailing spouse (and I know examples of both men and women playing the role of trailing here) were an issue for the job search and where said trailing spouse had to do a lot to make his or her career work in a new place. I think this is true for most couples where the people have “careers” rather than merely “jobs,” if you get my drift.

Now, switching sides of the table: here are the concluding paragraphs from “part two,” which is mostly told in the form of a dialog between Baker and her husband:

Chris: The two-body problem as we currently understand it is actually a three-body problem, involving the applicant, the significant other, and the hiring committee, and describing a peculiar system in which one of the bodies is often repulsive to another. Unfortunately, as Wikipedia tells it, though three-body problems have been studied for hundreds of years, they do not in general permit an analytical solution.

Kelly: Imagining this as a three-body problem is a more accurate reflection of the actual problem. While the two-body problem lays the blame on the couple, this is really a problem, as you note, for the couple and the employing institutions. The two-body problem appears as a result of the couple’s choices, which it partially is, but it’s also compounded by the attitudes of hiring committees and their institutions. More importantly, this is also a gendered issue, and there needs to be more reflection about the consequences to candidates and institutions.

I’ve been involved in many searches, and in my experience, there are three things that have always been true. First, everyone knows that it is illegal and unethical to flat-out ask questions about a candidate’s marital status, race, religion, disabilities, etc. That’s a no-brainer.  I’m not saying it never happens; it happened to me and I’ve seen several examples over the years where someone not on the committee in the course of a campus visit did something stupid and asked about the “poor husband” or the “poor wife.” But what I am saying is everyone at least knows “the rules.”

Second, every search committee I’ve been on speculates, investigates and/or otherwise tries to guess at a candidate’s marital status. In the age of social media, this is a lot easier to do nowadays, too.  I think that’s just human nature and, as long as you don’t ask and/or act on that knowledge directly, I don’t think it’s unethical. To me, that’s the same as simply trying to find out more about a candidate from materials that they didn’t directly supply to the search committee, something that pretty much happens with every search.

Third, I’ve never been on a search where marital status was a factor in the job offer. There have been times on committees where we’ve speculated that our chances of hiring so-and-so was low because of a trailing spouse (“he’ll never take our offer because his wife has too good of a job where they are now”), and there have been times where we’ve speculated that our chances of hiring so-and-so are good because of a trailing spouse (“she’ll jump at the offer because her husband and his family are all from Detroit”), but I’ve never seen the scenario that Baker describes– that is, the committee decision to not make an offer “because of her poor husband.”

It is certainly true that women, for this and other reasons, often do get the short end of the academic stick; I just don’t think this is a problem unique to academia. 

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