The Secrets of Our Success?

May 03, 2007

Well, we did it. My spouse and I are now tenured associate professors at the same public university.

Coming out of our second-tier graduate programs in the late 90s and faced with absolutely terrifying job prospects in our disciplines of literature and philosophy, we nevertheless got married, promising to love, honor, and never live apart -- no matter how great the job offer.

Numerous friends and colleagues started out just as we did. For most of them, something had to be abandoned along the way: either the relationship itself, the promise to live together, or one partner's (guess which? hint: the decision usually postdates the arrival of the first child) pursuit of a tenure-track job.

Yet here I am with a fine job teaching philosophy in a place I want to live, with good-natured colleagues, a cohabitational marriage that is entering its second decade, and no complaints about any of it.

Still, ever since we were tenured, a lyric from the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime" keeps popping into my head: "And you may ask yourself -- Well, how did I get here?"

Inquiring minds seem to want to know. I often get e-mail messages from grad students at my alma mater asking for advice on negotiating the "two-body problem" in their job searches. And colleagues will sometimes direct new hires and their "trailing" partners to my office to discover the secrets of our success.

The thing is, there are none.

I got the idea for writing this essay while reading one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books with my son. I had devoured them as a child and was delighted to find them back in print. For the uninitiated, the books are multiple-choice narratives in which you are the main character. Depending on your choices, dozens of different scenarios will play out, with endings that range from dreadful to supremely satisfying.

Returning to those books as an adult, I found myself frustrated with having to make choices under conditions of extreme uncertainty, not to mention the arbitrary way in which one event followed another. (Read: I got killed a lot.)

Then it hit me: Getting to the end of one of those books felt a lot like the last nine years of my life.

When I chat with new faculty members, I find myself talking about "what happened" rather than "what we did," or, in philosophical terms, about "events" rather than "actions." And while our few identifiable choices turned out eventually to be good ones, we made them with fear and trepidation.

Our first job hunt out of the gate was mine, and I had two offers on the table, both from state universities. One, from a Northern university, boasted a great location but a heavy teaching load in a shrinking department. The other, from a university in the West, was basically the inverse.

Of the first offer, my adviser wrote, "Unless you have twice my energy, this will be your first and last academic position."

Hmm, every ounce of my energy would fit neatly into her multitasking pinkie finger. "But what about the distance from our loved ones?" I asked.

Ever the hand-holder, she replied: "This is what airplanes and telephones are for."

Eventually I went for the position out West because that university was more likely to find a job for my spouse. Almost immediately, of course, the governor of the Northern state announced a plan to pump large sums of money, and several new hires, into the departments that we coulda, shoulda, woulda -- if only we had known -- called home.

Still, the Western university seemed promising. It was growing rapidly and had a lot of junior faculty members as well as a department that, improbably, combined our two disciplines. The department offered my partner a full-time visiting position in English, and then things fell apart. Not my marriage. The department.

Midyear, the department had an acrimonious split. I would have been truly entertained at the Khrushchev-like vehemence with which one apoplectic professor pounded her fist on the table demanding the "independence" of her 16-member English unit from our apparently tyrannical five-member philosophy group if I hadn't seen our dream of two secure jobs dispersing like so much dust.

That same year, my spouse went on the market with no luck -- by which I mean he wasn't offered any jobs he wanted. You could say we were arrogant, or stupid, for turning down the offers he did get. But I prefer to say that we always viewed academic employment as one part of a good life, and we weren't willing to sacrifice all of the other parts in its pursuit.

I embarked on a stationary job search, as I was heavily pregnant at the time, and managed to get an offer. (My other telephone interview didn't pan out. I'm thinking it was my attempt to conduct it while my son was about to be ritually circumcised in the next room. Tip: Sometimes it really is a good idea to say "no" when the head of a search committee asks, "Is this a good time?")

The job was marginally superior to the one I had but was in a more desirable location, with better, although not assured, prospects for my spouse.

A few short months later, we moved to the other side of the country for job No. 2. At a cocktail hour for new hires, I sidled over and warmly introduced myself to a fellow female newcomer in the sociology department. Smiling back at me, she put her hand on the arm of the man next to her and asked, "Have you met my partner, John? He's in the English department -- just a visitor this year but we're keeping our fingers crossed."

You don't say.

Seven years later, my husband and I are still here, newly tenured and promoted.

How, exactly, did my partner manage to get on the tenure track? Well, it happened in the spring of our first year on the campus and it required about 4,927 serendipitously converging events (not an exact count), the top four of which I shall enumerate here:

  • I was the only woman in a department that had lost two women in recent years to the two-body problem.

  • A senior English professor split midyear for greener pastures, leaving the chair nervously guarding an unclaimed salary against a covetous dean.

  • The ghosts of nonreplaced faculty members attended every department meeting, serving as constant reminders that an "opportunity hire" in the hand was worth more than an IOU for a national search next year.

  • And, not least, my dear spouse secured an offer from a better institution, to which I, with much sighing and hand-wringing straight out of the Myrna Loy playbook, faxed my CV. Nothing like your spouse getting a job offer elsewhere to get your university to pony up.

OK, but what did we, as academics, contribute to our university? Well, to use my students' lingo, we didn't suck. But we weren't exactly stars either. Most of our friends and colleagues who haven't gotten two tenure-track jobs within spitting distance of one another are as good or better than we are.

(And, heck, maybe we haven't really succeeded either. According to the most widely read blog in my discipline, a job like mine, with a 3-3 teaching load and no graduate courses, at a mediocre public university, is the job-search equivalent of one of those dreaded outcomes in a Choose Your Own Adventure book.)

The academic couples we know who didn't "succeed" were also hemmed in by circumstances, and made decisions, based on incomplete information, that seemed like the best idea at the time. They can no more be blamed for the outcome of their choices than we can be praised for ours.

I've been reading columns like this one for years, so I'm aware that I need to conclude with a "take home" message. I'm not sure what lesson can be distilled from my own topsy-turvy experience, except maybe an endorsement of equanimity.

Luckily -- and this point is likely to irritate some folks, inviting as it does accusations of a kind of indifference that only smug tenureds can enjoy -- not all that much seems to hang on the outcome. Viewed from outside the academic bubble, there's very little difference between our lives and the lives of our friends who did not solve the two-body problem the way we did. They had kids, traveled (often to academic conferences), studied tai chi, bought fixer-uppers, painted still lifes, served as hospice volunteers or Big Sisters, protested the war in Iraq, taught and did research in their disciplines, ran 5Ks, attended too many committee meetings, and wasted too much time online.

Would it be better to do all of that with the imprimatur and potential security of two tenure-track jobs? Yes, of course.

I just wish I could tell you how.

Jane Cook is the pseudonym of an associate professor of philosophy at a state university in the East.