He Doesn't Like the Midwest

April 21, 2003

Question: Although I come from more cosmopolitan roots, I'm loving my job in the rural Midwest. The problem is my very disgruntled spouse ("Peter") who really, really, really hates it here and, no matter how much he loves me, can't stay. (He also can't make a living here doing the kind of work he enjoys.)

If I walk away from this great job without another one in hand, I may never get back into academe, and I fear that I will come to resent my spouse. But I can't inflict any more misery on him. We're considering commuting, but that's expensive, difficult, and not a long-term solution. I also can't think of any other career I would like as much as this one that would allow us to live where he wants. In all your wisdom, what do you suggest?

Answer: If Peter must pout, perhaps you want out.

Ms. Mentor, who has observed many a scenario like yours, can imagine your life. On campus, you enjoy your colleagues, energize your students, and feel productive, valuable, and smart. And then you go home to a brooding, melancholy presence. You work to draw him out and share the happiness of your day. But he gets up from the dinner table, slams doors, and growls, "You brought me here to this Godforsaken place." Your sex life is dying.

You'd like to include him in university social gatherings, but you can't rely on his behavior. He may disparage "the idiocy of rural life," or insult the provost, or refuse to dress for the occasion. Your colleagues may find him so unpleasant that they wonder about granting you tenure. You're intelligent and collegial -- but would they be stuck forever with Petulant Peter?

Perhaps Ms. Mentor is being melodramatic. Yet she knows that even in these enlightened times, attention-seeking husbands have been known to sabotage their wives' careers. "Bill" picked a fight just before his wife's dissertation defense, so that she arrived at her oral with shaking hands and a tear-stained face. "Bob" flew into a rant about their messy house the night before his wife's first conference presentation. "Arthur" told his wife's new colleagues that as soon as they got settled, "I want her to have a baby. That matters more than a job." And "Paul" chose the night before his wife's first on-campus interview to tell her that he might be in love with someone else.

Presumably Peter was not always difficult, and Ms. Mentor wonders what he gave up to go with you to the Midwest. Surely, as a youngish person, he can find something to do with his talents. Can he teach? Write? Do computer work via the Net?

Since you seem to be supporting him, can he volunteer in schools, hospitals, museums, homeless shelters, or political causes? (As more and more U.S. money sinks into Iraq, home-front good deeds will be desperately needed.) Can Peter run for office, research zoning and legal issues, tutor illiterate adults, offer himself as a consultant, build houses, repair musical instruments, be a chef for meals on wheels for elderly and disabled people, or start a much-needed local business?

He doesn't have to get rich, does he? Can't he make something valuable of his life in the Midwest? Except for actors and musicians, few people have to work in specific geographical areas. The feeling of being "exiled to the provinces," which Ms. Mentor in a column dissected long ago, is mostly a problem of attitude. With a cushion -- your income -- Peter can indulge his curiousity, try different jobs and roles, and expand his imaginative horizons. He can make himself an entertaining, lively partner in your life.

Or he can be a Mr. Pitiful and destroy your career.

Ms. Mentor congratulates you for describing your dilemma clearly. You would probably have trouble finding another tenure-track job, let alone one that you loved. Moreover, your leaving a job because your husband is grumpy will make it easier for employers to tell themselves, "We hired a woman, but she didn't work out. We won't make that mistake again."

Ms. Mentor, if she were truly ice-veined and immune to the charms of romance, might also offer a cold and rational calculation: The average American marriage lasts about seven years, and half of marriages end in divorce. But a career continues, and you'll be spending more than 30 years in the labor force. Which part of your life will have more long-term impact on your comfort and happiness?

Those new, cold-blooded economists who study social choices would also point out that your odds for getting a new spouse are much better than the probability of getting another good job.

What to do?

Ms. Mentor believes that you should keep your Midwest job, and try a commuter marriage. Peter may find that his perfect job does not exist, or you may discover than he is a hopeless malcontent. You will certainly find your job easier and more pleasant if anger and withdrawal aren't waiting for you at home. Ms. Mentor recommends adopting a dog or several cats.

You and Peter will have breathing space -- or, if need be, a soft road leading to the end of the relationship. Sacrificing your career for someone who says he loves you is a very 19th-century thing to do, but unbecoming in 2003. (See Ms. Mentor's previous column, "Whose Career Should Be No. 2?"). If you cannot both be happy, and if Peter refuses to support you in your joy, what is he contributing? Or as Ann Landers used to say, "Are you better off with him or without him?"

Ms. Mentor suspects you already know the answer.

Question: If my colleagues have treated me badly (badmouthed me, denied me tenure), but I've managed to nab another good job anyway, should I (a) be brutally honest, lording it over them and berating them for their foolish behavior or (b) be condescendingly gracious, thanking them warmly for their support, especially the ones that I know were enemies behind my back?

Answer: (b).

SAGE READERS: Ms Mentor expected bilious and vituperative retorts to last month's column, in which she laid bare the techniques for getting good teaching evaluations. She expected to be kicked for cynicism, pilloried for pandering. Indeed, one graduate student proclaimed (as the inexperienced often do): "Good teaching is good teaching." But mostly, Ms. Mentor has received plaudits, especially from the victims of evaluation vendettas. "Had I known then ...," several mused.

One dissenter did accuse Ms. Mentor of having received poor evaluations herself (never), and claimed that his evaluations are always high because he is "handsome and dramatic." (Were anonymity not promised to all writers, Ms. Mentor would direct readers to check the photo on his Web page, as she did.)

Ms. Mentor welcomes dissent as well as agreement, and always invites gossip, speculations, queries, and rants, for this column and a second tome in progress. She especially invites comments about discretion: What do you tell to whom, and what should you not talk about in the faculty lounge? Ms. Mentor rarely answers questions personally, cannot do individual consultations, and will not be rushed, but she eventually responds to the tenor of most questions. Anonymity is guaranteed, and identifying details are always masked, if not minced, diced, and puréed.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her Chronicle address is

Her views do not necessarily represent those of The Chronicle.

Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia, by Emily Toth, can be ordered from the University of Pennsylvania Press by calling (800) 445-9880 or from either of the on-line booksellers below.  Barnes & Noble