Gay, Christian, and Conservative

October 19, 2004

I really, really don't want to finish writing my dissertation. There it sits in the corner: a pile of books, notes, and meticulously labeled folders. It's big and imposing, a bit like an elephant, only elephants are cute and bring joy to millions. My dissertation is anything but cute, and it brings joy to no one -- least of all me.

But I have to finish it because the job market is upon us, and my dissertation is the last thing standing between me and the potential for gainful employment in English.

For the moment I choose not to stare at the hideous mess in that corner of the room and look instead to the opposite corner, where sits my partner, Jason, a philosopher with tenure whose dissertation is long since done, who has articles, chapters, and books to his credit, who has gainful employment, and yet who, for the love of me, is willing to brave the job market yet again.

Of course it's to be expected that any academic couple will have some difficulty in finding jobs in the same hemisphere, but perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking that our situation is especially difficult.

Spousal hiring is an elusive and often politically charged practice at most universities. Our current institution, a large research university in the Midwest, pretends to be responsive to the needs of academic couples. But in practice, decisions about whether a spouse should be hired are left (as perhaps they ought to be) to the department; and departments nearly always say no.

Jason's department objects to giving any weight at all to the happiness and general emotional well-being of its own members, let alone its members' spouses in other departments at the university. So on principle it will make no effort to press any other department to hire the spouse of even its most sought-after new hires.

If those new hires end up lonely and depressed, constantly casting about for any means of escaping their institutionalized solitude, so be it. At least the principle of strict meritocracy will have been preserved.

People in Jason's department are aware of our situation, and they would certainly hate to lose one of their best teachers and most productive researchers. But they would rather load the moving van for us than violate the sanctity of The Hiring Process.

So we can't count on Jason's department to lean on my department (English) -- and my department would no doubt resist being leaned on, since the prejudice against hiring one's own is so strong.

In all likelihood, then, we have to leave our comfortable, well-appointed house here in the Midwest. And it's not that we object to packing up our little gay life and setting up house somewhere else. It's that we worry about the likelihood of finding jobs in our respective fields at the same institution at the same time.

We're not highly ambitious people. Neither of us is wedded to an image of himself at an elite, high-powered research university.

Nor are we geographically demanding. We cringe when we hear academics routinely demean jobs in the South, for example, or in rural areas. We certainly don't insist on the bustle of an urban lifestyle or the prestige of the Ivy League. We want decent students, decent colleagues, and decent pay. It's not an unreasonable list of requirements.

When I'm not stressing out about that unfinished elephant in the corner, and when Jason's not complaining about the institutional politics that will require this dual search, we sit on the couch and plot strategy. Who will make the more attractive candidate, and who should be prepared to be the trailing spouse?

Jason has the long list of publications, but he's tenured and in a tiny subfield. I have a long list of grants and a couple of publications, and although I work in a much larger field, I toil away quietly at its margins. We both fantasize about opening our job lists and finding two openings at the same university, perfectly tailored to our interests, and targeted to our respective levels of seniority.

But (and here Jason breaks out the philosophy lingo) the antecedent probability of such a convergence is vanishingly low, and the further probability of our both being independently successful candidates for such jobs is lower still. So the sensible strategy, it seems, is for both of us to apply for jobs that we fit and find attractive, and hope that other institutions are more committed to the emotional well-being of their new hires than our own is.

The mechanism that most often opens the door for spousal hiring is diversity, and certainly as far as I'm concerned, we're diverse people. I mean, I've never met anyone quite like myself or my partner, so we are, by definition, different.

But in the calculus of diversity, our own differences don't add up to much. We're gay, we're white, we're male, we're Christian, we're political conservatives. And although oppressing others is a full-time job, we do occasionally find time for our academic work.

We try to avoid fretting over the worrisome fact that the institutions most likely to accommodate same-sex couples are often of an extremely liberal bent, where conservatives like us might find it difficult to fit in. We would feel perfectly at home in a more conservative, even a religious, institution -- the sorts of places that would never court a same-sex couple.

The biggest elephant in the room, dwarfing even my dissertation, is the question of what will happen if we can't find a university to accommodate our peculiar situation.

Having been in school for more than a decade, I'm not quite ready to throw in the towel and seek a nonacademic job. Jason has been a professor for that same decade and is perfectly willing to admit that he has no other usable skills or interests.

Last month, on the eve of this year's job-hunting season, we celebrated our sixth anniversary, and I'm just not ready to start dividing up the china and tchotchkes. Even though neither of us is ready to sacrifice his professional identity, we are even less ready to sacrifice our personal happiness. We are both nesters, homebodies, and a commuter or long-distance relationship strikes us as an oxymoron.

So our strategy sessions always end in the same place. We must, simply must, find jobs together; and there is absolutely no reason to suppose we will.

Graham Bennett is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in English and Jason Lindsey is the pen name of a tenured professor in philosophy at a public research university in the Midwest. They will chronicle their joint search for academic appointments this year.