What happens when a husband and wife take the same academic job?

Eight years ago, Carol Hay and John Kaag took the same position at the same university, and their lives since then offer fascinating insight into academic career progression 

June 14, 2016
Fork in the Road

Three inches of drywall separate our offices. We commute to and from campus together, teach at the same time, have office hours at the same time, go to meetings at the same time and lunch, you guessed it, at the same time. All this togetherness is a matter of choice, not necessity: we have tenured positions in the same small philosophy department. Most days we marvel at having won the professional (and personal) lottery.

Over nearly a decade, our writing has converged. John, who was brought up in a continental department, now makes arguments. He realised, thanks to dozens – no, hundreds – of conversations with Carol, that continental philosophy, when you pare away the jargon, often amounts to a historically grounded analytic approach that insists on asking existential questions. The concessions haven’t been one-way. Carol, the arch-analytic, now writes like a human being. She no longer has patience for philosophical disputes that occur in a vacuum and has embraced non-ideal theory’s refusal to analyse the social and political world independently of actual people’s lives and experiences and injustices.

Partnerships – close, emotional, or romantic ones – have a long and storied history in philosophy. 

Descartes and Princess Elisabeth, Nietzsche and Lou Salome, Sartre and de Beauvoir: these couples worked and wrote in personal, if not always geographic, proximity and the integration of their thinking produced something much richer than the philosophies that they might have produced in isolation. These partnerships, however, had the tendency to prioritise the philosophising of one half of the couple over the other and this inequality, all too often, emerged along gendered lines. 

De Beauvoir might have scored higher than Sartre on her examinations in philosophy, but today, most people recognise his name, not hers.

In many cases, it’s difficult to identify the root causes of this inequality. Couples in philosophy come to be housed in the same department in a variety of ways that sets the tone for the rest of their professional lives. When spousal hires take place, they’re usually made on the presumption that one scholar is the all-star and the other a sidekick.

Similarly, when graduate students marry or date their professors – or when there is an obvious disparity in seniority – the gendered inequality can be masked by the ostensibly benign forces of age or experience in the profession.

In our case, however, there are none of these confounding factors: we were hired for the same job. The exact same job. There was one tenure-track line and when we applied the selection committee was split in their vote. Magically, the provost created two positions and both of us were hired. 

We didn’t know each other before taking the jobs and came in regarding each other as the presumptive competition. These days, we like to say that we solved the two-body problem post hoc. Getting here wasn’t entirely unproblematic (if you want the details you can read John’s American Philosophy: A Love Story, out with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in the fall) but it did lay a foundation of brute equality in our relationship. 

And this equality has made our relationship a control study of inequality in the profession. The findings aren’t particularly good.

Many times, colleagues simply assume that John was hired first, that Carol was the spousal hire. (This, despite Carol being older and having spent more time in graduate school than John.) Even more galling is the assumption that any new philosophical insight Carol might make is ultimately attributable to John. Other times, colleagues assume that Carol’s professional persona is simply an extension of John’s, that she’ll automatically agree with his opinions, automatically vote the way that he does on departmental matters, and automatically function as his secretary. 

We know of couples in other departments who are so careful to avoid the appearance of being a voting bloc that they out-and-out refuse to discuss departmental issues at home.

In less than a decade, John’s base salary already significantly outstrips Carol’s. (This, despite Carol’s work being more firmly entrenched in the mainstream of professional philosophy having, for example, recently won the American Philosophy Association’s Kavka prize.) This financial disparity doesn’t reflect some explicitly diabolical plan on the part of the university administration – and, to be clear, both our pay cheques are deposited into a single checking account – but it does highlight the structural factors that can lead to lasting inequality in our profession. 

When our daughter was born four years ago, we were offered a single parental leave, which Carol took. In hindsight, this was probably unwise; it delayed her tenure clock, which will, in turn, delay her going up for full professor. John faced no such delays. 

Again, there’s nothing particularly pernicious about this, but what start off as small disparities can grow exponentially and become self-perpetuating. As one partner makes more money for virtually the same amount of work, his or her work tends to be prioritised accordingly. Success breeds success, and before you know it, the thankless service work gets diverted to the less productive partner, who also happens to have the gender-typical traits of organisation and meticulousness. 

Nietzsche said that his partner, Lou Salome, was “the smartest person [he’d] ever met”. But all too often she was described, as Freud called her, as “the great understander” – a foil, a receptacle, not a font of knowledge. Despite our best efforts, and our explicitly feminist commitments, we still find ourselves having to fight to prevent our work-life balance from becoming a microcosm of the gender imbalances of the wider profession of philosophy.

In the discipline of philosophy’s “war of all against all”, where publication is a zero-sum game and collaboration almost unheard of, we’re taught that we’re entitled to make the best possible argument, entitled to publish in the best possible journals, entitled to attend all of the best possible conferences, and to take no prisoners along the way. We know, first-hand, that this is not the most conducive approach to forming lasting partnerships, collegial or otherwise. 

Being a healthy couple in a shared department often means putting entitlement in check, foregoing what one once thought he or she was naturally entitled to. It means “leaning out” of an argument, or publication opportunity, or speaking engagement, so that the other has the chance to “lean in”.  

This is not an issue of pity, but of fairness. Sometimes we fail miserably. And it’s never easy. But it’s easier than living with resentment, that ruthless assassin of all flourishing relationships.

Carol Hay is associate professor of philosophy and director of gender studies, and John Kaag is professor of philosophy, both at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

This blog originally appeared on the philosophy news site Daily Nous.

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