THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

November 3, 2011

If it is true that the course of love rarely runs smoothly, then couples in which both partners are pursuing academic careers probably face a particularly bumpy ride.

The precarious work-life balance of an academic married couple is explored by Mark Sample, assistant professor of literature and new media at George Mason University, in a guest post on the Antenna blog.

"There are a lot of professors married to other professors," he writes. "In fact, 36 per cent of the US professoriate are academic couples, in which both partners are professors."

Professor Sample is himself married to an academic, and reports that many of his friends and colleagues are in the same situation. His difficulty, which he shares with many others, is that his wife does not work at the same institution as him, let alone in the same state.

"My wife is a tenured professor (and now, department chair) at a prestigious small liberal arts college in North Carolina. I am an assistant professor ... in a large state university in Virginia," he explains. "It's a seven-hour drive between our campuses."

In a typical week, he says, he squeezes in "all my classes and meetings between Tuesday and Thursday, and the rest of the time I spend back at home with my wife and our two sons, aged four and seven".

This routine is understandably exhausting, but his reasons for putting up with it will strike a chord with others: "The only aspect of this commute that makes it tolerable is that I love my job," he writes.

"I'm good at my job. I thrive at my job. And I'm surrounded by kind, generous colleagues at an institution that values my unconventional teaching and research."

He adds that his wife is similarly committed to her academic career, despite the fact that both of them realise they have signed up to a "gruelling, brain-frying, wallet-emptying, time-wasting, body-breaking, soul-draining" way of life.

"Commuting", Professor Sample argues, "is no way to work. It's also no way to live. And yet I'm surprised by how many of us there are."

One thing that encourages him and his wife to persevere, he says, is the many tales they have heard of other couples who were once in the same situation but who are now "in the same city or, even better, at the same institution".

"When I hear about these couples who have managed to end their commutes and continue building their careers, I experience a moment of hopefulness...But only for a moment."

Deep down, he admits, "I have a deep, gnawing sense of dread that if my commute were going to end, it would have done so already...If we haven't somehow managed to find ourselves in the same city let alone the same institution by now, then it must be we're doing something wrong."

He ends by reflecting on the meaning of the word "commute": "Commute: from the Latin commutare, meaning to change altogether, to alter wholly. And that is my only hope, that one day, and one day soon, my commute will itself commute, changing altogether."

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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