The New Faculty Wife

February 17, 2009

Last year my alumni magazine published a reminiscence by a senior professor, who fondly recalled a youth of wild parties with illustrious scholars and the remarkable women who backed them up. Academic culture had changed, he noted, and no doubt that was a good thing. But he couldn't help but lament the disappearance of the faculty wife.

I am happy to inform all who share his sentiment that they need lament no longer. The institution of the faculty wife is alive and well in academic culture. She's an adjunct.

I first noticed the new faculty wife at the best university party of the season, which I attended as the date of the tenure-track professor who was, at the time, my fiancé and is now my husband. We taught in different departments, and socially, I felt far more comfortable with his colleagues than mine. We spent more time with them, for one thing. As an adjunct instructor I had no committee work in my department, which happily limited my working hours, but less happily left me with little opportunity to get to know my co-workers.

But as comfortable as I felt with my partner's colleagues, it was nothing compared to how easily I slipped into conversation at the party with one of their wives. Like me, she was a limited-term, part-time instructor. We swapped stories without embarrassment about that in-between adjunct hinterland, in which you're sometimes part of the club and sometimes not. There was none of the awkwardness that can arise between adjuncts and tenure-track professors communicating across class lines.

We could also talk about the more consuming of our two day jobs — parenting. We each had a child (mine from a previous marriage) and shared the challenges of balancing work and family demands.

And we had a certain amount of security. Our jobs might be up in the air from year to year, but our partners' jobs weren't. Unlike many temporary faculty members, she and I didn't have to worry about losing our health-care coverage, or the prospect of uprooting our children if our positions suddenly disappeared. Life might have its frustrations, but it was cozy. We even got invited to all the big social events.

It came to me as I was talking to this woman that she was my true colleague, not the other professors in my own department, and that I was on the verge of becoming a new faculty wife myself.

I've striven (I can't tell how successfully) for a resentment-free tone as I write this. Nobody asked me to be a faculty wife — not even my husband, who would have no objection if I changed careers. I'm also an adjunct by choice, having given up tenure at a four-year institution to take this job. Like the female graduate students described in a recent study, I aborted a permanent academic career for family reasons. I'm far happier in my current position than in my last one. The role of the new faculty wife (and more rarely, the faculty husband) exists because it adequately meets people's needs. So let's pause a moment to consider its pros and cons.

At the head of the list of positives: location, location, location. Unlike tenure-track positions, adjunct jobs are plentiful, and a well-qualified candidate can pick and choose. You can work where you want (or where your spouse wants), and you never face a two-body problem.

Then there's the schedule: How many positions have hours that are friendly to child rearing? How many offer working parents the summer off? Now and then I consider going into another line of work: I could make far more money if I got a full-time job outside of academe, even if I stayed in the nonprofit sector. But I would spend half my pay increase on day care — and miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be my child's full-time caregiver.

There are other domestic pluses. The faculty wife gets a decent family income, and the faculty member gets someone to mind the kids and put dinner together. Like their predecessors in earlier decades, the new faculty couple observes a division of labor. There may be more occasional role-swapping than in the past (she does earn a limited paycheck; he does pick up the groceries on his way home). But there are advantages now, as there have always been, to having someone in charge at the house as well as at work.

It's true that the new faculty wife differs from the old in that she has a day job, no matter how limited. Some of us enjoy a regular intellectual exchange with adults, or near-adults. We aren't necessarily just teaching for the money.

Then again, a Ph.D. program is not a finishing school. The new faculty wife didn't bargain for the indignities of an adjunct's life, or for financial dependence on someone else. There's a sense of wasted years and skills: As one professor said of his wife's doctorate, "It seemed like a good idea at the time." It takes a lot of ego-sacrifice for the smartest kid in the class to accept that she's grown up to be primarily valued as a wife and a mother — particularly when she was raised (rightly or not) to believe she should aspire to more. Faculty wives aren't certain whether we're heroes or dupes. It's a difficult uncertainty to live with.

There's also the old-fashioned alienation that comes from not getting credit for the work you do. Faculty wives past and present are academe's unacknowledged enablers. As a tenure-track faculty member, my husband is expected to bring in speakers from out of town. We may play host to them together, but the effort goes on his service record, not mine. Nor do other faculty wives get credit when they care for their children, freeing up those husbands for scholarship that adjunct instructors aren't required to complete and don't get credit for if they do.

If you're a faculty wife, it's unlikely that you're boosting your professional credentials. (And why would you want to? Where would you go without leaving your family behind?) The faculty wife's career has no more future than the unmarried adjunct's — unless she's one of the fortunate who doesn't fall prey to the divorce rate.

Then again, if you're going to play the odds, recent data on the faculty job market suggest that marriage is a far better gamble than academe (see Thomas H. Benton's recent column, "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go"). So take heart, all you academics awash in nostalgia for the 50s. I'm betting the faculty wife is here to stay.

Marie Smith is the pseudonym of an adjunct faculty member in the humanities at a public university in the West.