Game for Anything

October 06, 2004

It never fails: We tell folks we're going on the job market as an academic couple, and they look at us like we've just suggested abolishing tenure. One senior colleague, famous for his eloquence and ability to find le mot juste in any situation (even the most hair-raising of faculty meetings), could only sputter, "But ... but ... you're not married."

It's true, we're not. Heck, we're not even a "couple." We don't share a house, a Volvo, an office, or even a department. In fact, we don't share much of anything except a passion for our field.

And yet, we're an academic couple in every sense of the term. We do research and write together, travel to conferences together, present workshops and papers together, and direct an interdisciplinary-research group together. As if that weren't enough, we're actually going on the job market together.

Our brand of academic coupling isn't new (think of Marx and Engels, Adorno and Horkheimer, Deleuze and Guattari), though it is somewhat rare in the humanities these days because of the emphasis on individual achievement. We find that both strange and sad; collaboration is not only fun and interesting, but the cornerstone of academe. It underpins departmental service, faculty retreats, conferences, journal publication, even promotion and tenure.

So why do our colleagues think we've completely lost it?

They're realists, for starters. Despite the fact that nearly 40 percent of academics have spouses in the profession, dual hires are still pretty rare. Budget is a factor, for sure, but so too is fear.

Not only is it difficult to secure multiple lines, but departments simply don't need any more internal strife, especially not the kind that inevitably crops up between even the happiest of couples. Likewise, departments are afraid to upset the balance of power, as hiring an academic couple can do, even in the largest department.

Salary too is an issue, as is space. Dual hires seem to need more of both. They also tend to want to go on sabbatical at the same time, which makes scheduling courses and finding replacements a real pain.

And of course, there's always the question of redundancy. Why hire two people when one is enough (if not too much), particularly when the hires are of different rank (as we are)?

Despite those obstacles, and the skepticism of our colleagues, we're going to forge ahead with our plan. Not out of hubris, mind you, or novelty, or even fun (though the fact that we get to work on another project together certainly does have its appeal).

Rather, we've decided to go on the market as an academic couple because we've learned that we do our best work when we do it together. Our articles are smarter and better written, and we write a lot more of them. The same with our conference presentations, grant proposals, workshops, and all the other projects we do (many of which are so large that one person couldn't do them alone anyway).

There's also the money. We study computer games, and games aren't cheap. Neither are game systems, peripherals, or memorabilia. It would be one thing if all that stuff were on the shelves of our university library, but, sadly, games aren't yet considered research-worthy by most folks.

So, we have to consistently pony up a fair bit of cash to do our research. On the plus side, we've started a working archive, which at this point contains dozens of game systems, thousands of games, and God knows how many books, articles, toys, and other sundries.

Maintaining the archive and keeping it updated is insanely expensive, however, so the thought of research money -- the kind that would inevitably be part of a dual-hiring package -- is more than enticing. It's downright necessary.

Ditto the potential for office space. Collecting all that stuff has not only filled our homes and offices both, but we're now actually having to "rent" space from our colleagues (and by "rent" we mean they take games and systems home to play with).

A dedicated archive space would be fantastic and, in truth, would make our research (and that of our colleagues, for that matter, who use the archive almost more than we do) much easier. Although actually negotiating a dual hire is undoubtedly diabolically complex, getting a reasonable amount of storage space for the archive is probably among the simplest things to arrange.

It would also be nice to be "officially" recognized. As any cultural-studies professor will tell you, there is something satisfying (and also disconcerting) about being legitimated by the academy. A dual hire would do just that, in essence saying "not only is your research valuable, but so is the way you conduct it."

So, here's what we think we're up against, beyond the fact that we're an academic couple that really isn't a couple:

  • Game studies is not exactly the hot, money-making field that, say, optical engineering is. People still think games are child's play. There are a few institutions committed to the discipline, and a few others that might be interested, but we're pretty restricted in terms of where to direct our search.

  • We have very different intellectual backgrounds. One of us (Ken) is a classically trained rhetorician whose longtime interest is the rhetoric of technology, while the other (Judd) cut his teeth studying mass-media history, theory, and criticism. Those areas are not exactly peas in a pod, making a dual hire in the same department (or even closely allied departments, for that matter) a tough sell.

  • We're at very different stages in our careers. One of us (Judd) is about to defend his dissertation, and the other was just awarded tenure (Ken). Were a dual hire to happen, therefore, it would involve the hiring of a midcareer professor and the greenest of juniors. Conventional wisdom (or is it run-of-the-mill academic anxiety?) holds that newly minted Ph.D.'s need a lot of seasoning, and may never deliver on the scholarly promise they show. Tenured associate professors, by contrast, may be too seasoned (i.e., lazy), and if hired with tenure may never again show the kind of scholarship their careers seem to promise.

  • In addition to all of the challenges above, we don't even know how an academic couple is actually supposed to look for jobs. We certainly plan on cruising various job lists, but having poked around various sites, we have yet to see an "academic couple" (or even "research team") category. We might also cold-call promising institutions, but selling an idea like ours -- not to mention finding out who's really in a position to act on it -- is as daunting as soliciting parent-teacher associations for help in building a new video-game arcade. And then there's perhaps the most common approach to arranging a dual hire: trying to coordinate the two positions through different departments that are hiring simultaneously. As anyone who's ever seen one of those imbroglios in action can tell you, it's much easier said than done.

  • Finally, there's the application itself. What do we include? A single cover letter? Two letters? A collaborative research plan? Money and a note promising to behave?

Obviously, going on the job market as an academic couple is a huge pain. The search promises to be even more complex and depressing than the usual apply-to-dozens-of-openings scenario that hundreds of Ph.D.'s face every year.

Don't count us out just yet, though. We've got some leads, some contacts, and a bag of tricks to delve into if necessary.

Judd Ethan Ruggill is a Ph.D. candidate and adjunct instructor in the media-arts department at the University of Arizona. Ken S. McAllister is an associate professor of English at Arizona. They also direct the Learning Games Initiative, a research group at Arizona that studies, teaches with, and builds computer games. They will be chronicling their joint search this academic year.