Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Musicology and The Two-Body Problem

In approximately 6 weeks I will be living as a bachelorette for the first time in over 4 years.* As a young academic, my impending solitary life is inevitable. At some point, most of us face the prospect of entering a long-distance relationship. For many of us, our marital / relationship status directly determines what types of jobs we are willing to do, or what our job negotiations will look like.** For others, it means that somebody might compromise their career for the benefit of their spouse's. In my case, my relationship status means that I tend to look for jobs on coasts since my partner / wife is a marine ecologist and oceanographer. (Irony of ironies: her new postdoc is in the middle of the desert without an ocean for hundreds of miles. I'm not sure my preference for the coasts will last much longer.) As two young academics, we embody the good and bad of the two-body problem in a tough economic climate. However, the realities being what they are in our professional lives, we are willing to tough-out periods of distance for the sake of our careers. After all, I fell in love with ethno/musicology long before I met her as did she with phytoplankton.

When I do campus interviews, I try not draw attention to the reality of my two-body problem. I don't wear my rings, and I try really hard not to bring up my wife in casual conversation. But I don't think it works. After years of being in a productive and committed relationship, she sits very much at the forefront of my thoughts. She is the person who pushed me to work on my current specialization (she fully accepts the blame), her scholarly perseverance pushes me to work harder, and she is probably my toughest reader. Also, a simple Google search will probably reveal the fact that I am indeed in a relationship. Faculty search committees aren't supposed to ask questions about marital status, but they probably know. At this point, it is pretty difficult to erase all traces of her in my internet life, so I don't try too hard.

I bring this up in this venue in particular because of a recent flare up on the outpost of young musicological civility, the musicology job wiki. Many of my colleagues and friends treat the wiki with an addictive disdain; we hate to look, but then we must. Rarely does the wiki give us good news. Right now, I'd like to point to what I consider a productive discussion about gender and relationships during the interview process (scroll down to heading "This Year's Job Market" starting with A:16).

One of my anonymous colleagues pointed out the huge gender disparities in this year's hires. (It is apparently a great year to be a white male on the musicology job market.) In the midst of that discussion, the two-body problem appears front and center. Now, you might hypothesize that only women get the inappropriate questions about their marital status or families, but apparently men often get grilled about the very same issues (see A:36).

There are all kinds of nasty assumptions that happen with PIs and search committees about what relationships are supposed to look like (long-distance relationships are out of the question, relationships mean the candidate in question won't devote time to the campus community, having children means that the academic will be less productive, etc.). In the great game of negotiations and offers, committees sometimes try to hedge their bets. Sometimes they believe that a certain candidate probably wouldn't accept an offer and, unfortunately, they sometimes make these guesses based on their knowledge of relationships. Messed up, I know! In my case, I probably wouldn't accept an invitation for a campus interview that I didn't actually believe I would take. But then again, that is just me.

What I find strange about this discussion on the wiki is that very few people are willing to discuss the the positive effect their relationship has had on their scholarship and teaching. For years I have been citing statistics that grad students in stable relationships have much lower rates of attrition than the solitary ones. And the academic couples I know best are turning into power-couples of sorts. I'm wondering if search committees worry as much about the two-body benefit as they do the problem. In other words, do they see stability and productivity in the mix as well? If, for example, someone is a top candidate and the committee knows for whatever reason that their significant other just accepted a position at a neighboring institution, would that make the candidate more attractive?

I know it isn't kosher to talk about these things publicly (on the internet no less). However, I'm wondering if any of my other colleagues have thoughts about the two-body problem. Can we maybe change the discourse to something more inclusive and positive? The emotional stability factor, perhaps? Thoughts?


*This doesn't count my many solo research trips to Brazil (6 weeks, 6 months, 1 month, 2 months, and 1 month).

**In some states, my marital status is clear: I am legally married to another woman. In my current state of Maine, I am domestically partnered.


PMG said...

It's very true, we rarely talk about the positive benefits of being in a relationship, except perhaps for a line in the acknowledgments of books and dissertations.

I will say one concrete thing I have gained from being in a longterm relationship during graduate school: I finished my degree on time. When your partner has an actual 9-5 job earning your rent, and comes home from work everyday to find you moping over an unfinished chapter and a messy house, that's an excellent incentive to suck it up and finish the damn thing.

Danielle said...

First off, wow - great post.

To reply to PMGs last comment - I AGREE. Wholeheartedly. It makes such a difference. The support does make it worth it.

Meanwhile - I loved this post. Thanks for writing it. It's true that the topic itself is almost a taboo. My partner and I are in a very similar situation. I noticed in my last successful interview that I consciously drew no attention to even being partnered.

In reality, it is an issue. Even as we speak, she's applying for jobs in the new city I'll be studying in. There are some difficult decisions to make, as her current academic job right now is pretty amazing both in terms of content and financially. As such, of course we recognize the value of the opportunity, can weigh the decisions, and quickly realized that if she doesn't find a comparable job she should just stay here in her current position. I wonder often if whether I'm partnered and/or queer would have had an adverse effect on the admissions decision and admittedly, we're both a bit nervous about settling in and bursting the bubble in a conservative academic city.

Anyway - keep writing. I'm going to link to you so I can keep up with your work!



MMR said...

I really love this entry. I feel strongly that this is an important avenue for us to attempt to guide the "two-body problem" conversation onto. I know that my relationship made me feel happy and safe throughout grad school, when so much of the other stuff going on is threatening and complicated. He is my best reader, like you say about your lady, and we have enriched each others' scholarship enormously--both of us have written papers in the other's field, which was made possible by shared expertise and discussions. Another more mundane but very real benefit of the two-body problem is that if a committee likes a candidate, and knows that candidate's partner has a position at that institution or city, then they can BANK ON the candidate taking the job if it's offered, and STAYING THERE.