You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

I read this piece on academic nepotism with a great amount of interest, being a trailing spouse and all. It’s a topic that comes up over and over and over again (and usually inspires bile and ire in the comments). We want academia to be a meritocracy, even though we know full well it isn’t. We can use who our supervisor was, who was our external, who we know in the department, etc., to our advantage, but when it comes to who our partner is? Nope, can’t use that piece of networking.

And then we read about how there is a penalty that women suffer for getting married and having kids in academia, as well as the challenges we face. The numbers don’t lie: women have to choose between having an academic career or having a family. Recently, Professor Katherine D. Harris did her own inventory of time and resources and came to the conclusion that it would be impossible for her to have children based on her salary, cost-of-living expenses, and job demands.

(I realize that these are hetero-normative examples, but when I say “spouse” I mean whatever partner you have chosen to spend your life with. I also understand that these situations are often even more difficult to maneuver than traditional ones, given the nebulous legal status of these relationships depending on what state you find yourself employed.)

Higher education is one of the only industries (I know, there are others, I watched Friday Night Lights) where we are expected to live in the middle of nowhere, in towns with little-to-no other industry except the university. Our own small, economically depressed town has the university and the hospital. That’s it. I know a lot of college towns that don’t even have a hospital. Conversely, as Dr. Harris’ example highlights, we are also expected (in the name of public good) to work at institutions in high-cost areas for pay that is lower-than-scale. Couple that with an increasing number of PhDs who have high student loans and other debts to repay…

Academic families, for the most part, can’t function as one-income households if both members of the pairing have student-loan debt. We lose any number of high-quality faculty members at our institution because their partners cannot find work and the university doesn’t do anything to help. That the trailing spouse is usually (but not exclusively) female and thus still expected to either a) earn less and be happy about it or b) stay home and support the family are prevalent attitudes. This further justifies lower pay for adjuncts and instructors because we are prisoners of geography, happy to be working at all.

But I think the most galling implication in the piece (and most discussions surrounding the idea of spousal appointments) is that all trailing spouses are somehow less-than and nothing by trouble. I’m sure people have been burned with a spousal appointment, but so too have departments been burned by the people they chose to hire. We don’t throw out the entire process because sometimes we’ve made poor choices. But that it is (again) largely women who are trailing spouses, it is an incredibly sexist response to a very real problem in academia. And it turns into a vicious cycle of less-than status: the trailing spouse is perhaps given an adjunct position, which after a period of time disqualifies them from the TT market. Pay stays low because of the lesser-status and the cycle continues.

This also further fuels the exploitation of contingent labor who are trailing spouses: the need to prove oneself outside of the confines of the relationship. It wasn’t until I read the piece that I realized that one of the reasons I do so much, even though I technically don’t have to, is because I want to make sure that I am seen as a successful academic in my own right, not just an appendage to my husband and his career. If (and it’s not likely) a tenure-track position becomes available, I want to have earned the position.

But at the end of the day, all of the resentment and contentious attitudes towards spousal appointments stems from the fact that there are too few tenure-track positions. Departments compete for positions within the institutions. Hundreds of applicants compete for what few positions are out there. Rather than be a community of scholars looking to grow and flourish by nurturing and supporting the resources we can access in a sustainable way, we are hoarding and exploiting, shaming and blaming, and (as shown above) often excluding an entire generation of academics who happened to be born a certain gender. 

Next Story