We Met in Graduate School

Brian Taylor

September 23, 2012

I had never considered Kenny Loggins an instigator of reflection until I watched several generations of academics and their relatives gyrate to "Footloose" at a recent wedding reception.

My wife and I, American historians and tenured at the University of Notre Dame, bounced vigorously on arthritic knees and rickety ankles, glad that the music hid our creaks. Next to us, several twenty-somethings boogied with a fervor born of cake, beer, and the special innocence that comes from not having been alive when people actually danced to "Footloose" with a straight face. My 8-year-old daughter completed the age-group tableau, pinballing through the crowd doing twirls and a move that resembled an impact lawn sprinkler.

My thought? In an atmosphere of extreme peril for those seeking academic employment, two of my graduate students had gone and upped the level of difficulty by getting married. As we perspired through our gowns and sports coats, my mind kept returning to fires and frying pans.

The couple didn't consult me when they got engaged, and they haven't asked for my guidance since. They are Midwesterners, and together they radiate a niceness that almost burns your skin. They might consider inquiries about their marital and academic status too forward; or maybe they suspect that my advice might bring them down.

Their romance is really none of my business. Still, I can't help being intrigued by the trend they seem to represent. In the past eight years, I've witnessed more than a dozen graduate students take a similar plunge. The marriage rate in our department rivals our placement record. If an alien landed and surveyed our program, the creature might assume that we were operating a dating service or a fertility clinic. What's gotten into the youth of today?

The same randy optimism that got into me? I know the leap from iffy to snowball's chance. My partner and I met and married in graduate school in the mid-1990s. The job market was better then, but not by much, and we proceeded with a vague understanding that we had launched our marriage and our careers along a treacherous course. When we announced our engagement, my father took Annie aside and assured her that I "could work at any time." Occasionally we contemplated saner alternatives, like opening a "fried breads of the world" emporium in a remote Rocky Mountain town. If scholarship and teaching wouldn't pay us, maybe doughnuts, beignets, zeppoles, and sopaipillas would.

But we didn't bet our future on simple carbohydrates at high altitude, in part because we knew people who had solved the "dual-body problem" in academe. We saw professors in equitable marriages with other professors as well as with architects, lawyers, business executives, and artists. We mimicked the expectations of the generation immediately ahead of us, which came of age in the 1960s and 70s and earned Ph.D.'s in the early 1980s. That group remade the meaning of "spouse" from a female helpmeet to a partner of either gender with his or her own career goals.

This revolutionary change came with heightened anxiety. Professors altered their aspirations at the same moment as the post-World War II expansion in higher education slowed. People expected more from their work and their partnerships, in an institutional setting that offered less.

For as long as the job market has stunk, graduate students have been holding their noses with one hand and clasping each other with their free mitt. This clinging behavior seems counterintuitive. In times of scarcity, shouldn't unions be delayed until stable employment is found and resources squirreled away for the future? In colonial New England, young people waited to marry until they could afford a farm. Perhaps I should have assigned more early American social history to instill a sense of doom in my graduate students. Nothing stifles hookups like a Puritan with a pitchfork.

Scaring people single, however, is difficult when your own marriage suggests that things might work out. Just as we did, my students see many dual-career academics whose partnerships function, for better or worse. They see the survivors, the ones who ran the gantlet of endless dissertation revisions, tricky job searches, and nerve-racking tenure decisions.

They don't see the trailing spouses who never got hired, or the couples who divorced and moved on, or the full-time/half-time arrangements that collapsed, or the adjunct professors who worked so many jobs they had scant time to be a couple. They don't see the partnerships torn apart by publishing demands, asymmetrical career prospects, or odious commutes. The casualties simply aren't around to instruct them.

But even if the mangled came back and clawed at them like a zombie horde, I doubt the youngsters would scatter. My partner and I certainly wouldn't have paid any heed. We came together after a whirlwind courtship and imagined ourselves safe in the eye of the storm well into our life together.

Our first tough job-related decision came near our second anniversary. Annie, who was several years ahead of me in graduate school, was offered a tenure-track position in Texas. I had just started a doctoral program in a university on the East Coast after receiving a master's degree at the institution where we'd met. Staring at a lengthy separation, we felt squeezed by our desire to stay in physical proximity and the knowledge that another job offer might not soon come around.

Annie's advisers urged her to take the job. We sought additional advice from a dual-career veteran. He told us his story, an on-the-road epic that started after graduate school with him drawing a 100-mile radius around his and his partner's home and limiting his job searching to that area. He commuted to a gig on the edge of the circle for decades before finding a position closer to home.

His advice boiled down to this: "If your partnership thrives on daily contact, then putting a Texas-to-Connecticut gap between you might not work. It's OK to put your marriage first." Annie passed on the job.

Our story unfolded from there. It's a tale filled with blue books and moving vans, commutes and babies, risks taken, and opportunities that slipped by. It's a story I'll tell my graduate students someday, if they ask.

We gave the newly married couple glassware as a wedding present, but I'll slip them a rain check for a conversation in the future.

Telling our stories might be the best gift our generation could hand down to the next. Indeed, an archive of our weird, inspirational, and tragic sagas would serve posterity well—as long as we adhere to some rules.

First rule: No varnishing. I am a firm believer in converting traumatic episodes into instructive anecdotes, but in the heat of battle, I often lashed out like a berserk toddler rather than a placid sage when news arrived that I didn't want to hear.

When I tell our story, I try to remember the embarrassing details: the emptied tequila bottles, the Christmas lawn ornaments destroyed in fits of rage, and the gloomy, end-of-the-world pronouncements that things would never, ever get better. Wisdom might emerge from pain, but it does so in time. We shouldn't leap quickly over our sufferings to reach the teachable moments.

Neither should we dwell excessively on the gloom. Second rule: Be honest about the good stuff as well as the bad. Stories that begin with a phrase like "You think you have it tough ..." should be cut off. I don't know how to win a psychological-wound competition, and we should count (and communicate) our blessings as well as show our scars.

Third rule: No pretending that we know how the stories will end—theirs or ours. Life mocks "ever after," happy or not. We edge into the dark with every inhalation. Given our blindness, hanging on to one another seems appropriate. Helping others hang on seems right, too.

Jon T. Coleman is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.