Composition and Cookies

Terry Caesar considers the relationship between the traditional role of faculty wife and the role of today's adjunct.
January 22, 2008

Whatever happened to faculty wives? A one-word explanation might be: feminism. But this is complicated. A social category does not necessarily cease once its institutionalization does. Another one-word explanation for whatever happened to faculty wives might be: adjuncts.

This is even more complicated, especially when the bad new vocational category can be seen as in part having arisen from the ashes of a troublesome old social category, which itself, in the meantime, has not in fact been extinguished.

A Web page from the library archives of Northeastern University gives a standard narrative about faculty wives. Its N.U. Faculty Wives Club was formed in 1941. Purpose? “To promote acquaintance and sociability” among its members, which included, along with all faculty wives, the wife of the president of the university. Bimonthly meetings, annual elections,
spring luncheon, scholarship funds for young women. Membership had already begun to decline in 1965, when a survey was taken to compare the similar clubs of other Boston area universities, and the organization was disbanded in 1970.

It might seem that faculty wives clubs are now mostly disbanded. As the example of Northeastern suggests, not necessarily so. A quick Google reveals all sorts of such clubs very much alive -- ranging from the LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans Faculty Wives, the organization known as “Old Dominion University Faculty, Wives, and Friends,” to the “University Section Club” of no less than the University of California at Berkeley, which dates its inception from 1927.

What rich history is contained in each of these organizations! Although the social accent might not be the same for all, and all might not be so careful now, as Berkeley is, to refer to “spouses” rather than “wives,” each one appears to share both the same broad service mandate (helping international students, raising funds for charities) as well as the felt need to foster “community.” All members would surely agree that just because the era of hand-delivered invitations or women-only teas is over is no reason to disband an organization that has its origins from a time when women derived their identity from their husbands. “More than ever,” “the ‘club historian’ of the Berkeley group is quoted as saying, “we need to belong to a community.”

Who can argue?

Well for starters, faculty wives themselves! The social category is not its institutionalized or organizational form! In a site for “independent brides” a woman -- a librarian between jobs -- tells of her husband’s new position in which he has to submit his syllabi to the department chair for review. The chair finds a typo, prompting her -- a woman[!] -- to remark to the husband that it was good the mistake was caught, “otherwise your wife would have to bake cookies for the class, while you apologize.” Excuse me, the wife writes, and she also has another complaint about the “teas” -- so called -- of the “Women Newcomers Club,” advertised during orientation.

One can only read of such an example and exclaim in despair at how difficult it is simply to characterize a representative narrative for anything to do with faculty wives. How many such women (more on the situation of men in a moment) balk at this identity’s fossilized local institutional circumstances? The university (unnamed) above is not Berkeley. It’s not even Old Dominion. How many universities today are like this one, for whom it might as well still be 1941, or even 1927? And insofar as younger, less confident, and still inexperienced women might be considered, there is the example of the grad student from the Female Science Professor blog, who mentions how uncomfortable she is talking to the wife of her advisor. It seems the whole notion of a “faculty wife” confuses the grad student greatly.

Presumably the student does not bake cookies.

In effect, she has inherited the residue of the whole social history comprehending faculty wives without not only having any lived experience of this history but without knowing it even exists. At least somewhat older women faculty members can be expected to have such knowledge, and even to have had some such experience. No wonder, though, that they might well react with even more amusement or disgust at the very idea of “faculty wives.” Never mind that, as professionals, faculty women face their own imperatives, especially during tenure review, to join in the mantra of “community.” In a very real sense, everything about the stereotype of a “faculty wife” is exactly the opposite of what a faculty member takes herself to be.

On campus, however, the twin figures of faculty wife and female faculty member were never directly opposed. Indeed, one characteristic of a “faculty wife” is that she was, and is, never a “player”; her role is decorative rather than instrumental to the campus community, at least insofar as its politics are concerned. To take a recent film example, the Julia Roberts vehicle, Mona Lisa Smile, set in Wellesley College in 1953, includes no faculty wives -- when in fact their role was still alive and well, and is in fact represented here in displaced form by the professor who instructs her students about the niceties of table setting.

Why not? Might a real example have troubled the students -- if not the narrative -- who are all being educated to become wives of some sort? (Not to say, Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. More on her in a minute.) Or is our present feminist-driven idea of an academic fiction so thin that even when it presumes to be historical only single women professors need be considered?

Whither the faculty wife? My guess is, she has one of two contemporary fates. Either she is left to fend for herself on and off campus as an individual figure -- so good luck both to the above woman of her husband’s syllabus and to the confused graduate student, especially if she marries one of her classmates and he gets a job but not her. Or the faculty wife is comprehended organizationally, but now as part of some sort of expansive “Faculty Auxiliary” (that of the University of Washington provides an excellent example) rather than a narrowly conceived “Faculty Wives” club. Good luck to her here too, especially if what she really needs is the social experience, exactly, of other spouses, whose role in the careers of their husbands can be decisive, for better or worse.

The finest faculty wife I’ve ever known never spoke of herself in this way. Arguably, she was more brilliant than her husband, to whose own career, nonetheless, she had long ago decided to subordinate herself. Not without some irony or pain. Once he was considered for the position of dean of liberal arts at one of the most prestigious small colleges in the Midwest. He and she seemed to be doing wonderfully during the campus visit, until, driving around the town on Sunday morning, listening to the church bells, the wife of the president asked the couple which church they would attend. Joan and Ron were Jewish. Joan told the truth. Ron didn’t get the job. I’m not sure the two of them ever quite made their peace with this loss.

By the time I got to know Joan she was an adjunct. (And no longer technically a “faculty wife,” since by then Ron had lost his academic position.) The term, “adjunct,” was just beginning to come into widespread use, although the term, “part-timer,” may still have been the more prevalent. ("Contingent faculty" was in the unimaginable future.) Before then, in my experience nobody used the term, “faculty wife” to refer to “part-timers,” even when the two were identical, as in fact they were in the case of the first part-timer I knew. Her husband taught in the chemistry department. I don’t remember why she came to teach composition in the English department, but I do recall that one thing she liked to do in class is serve cookies that she had baked. Did she take her employment to be in fact some sort of extension of her social role? Perhaps the rest of us in the department did, for I certainly recall that nobody took this woman to be “serious” -- not serious as Joan, years later, although in Joan’s case the “seriousness” only made her more suspicious to the department, because, as everyone knew adjuncts/part-timers/faculty wives do not have, whatever, else, aspirations to publish scholarly articles.

Otherwise, they may as well be professors! As Nina Baym describes her experience -- upon receipt in 2000 of the prestigious Hubbell Medal from the Modern Language Association -- such articles were precisely what eventually got her onto the tenure track, after she started out off it because, as the wife of a physics professor, she was subject to the “nepotism rule,” and so only eligible in 1963 to be an “instructor.” Instructors were not called “adjuncts” at this time. They were called . . . “faculty wives.” To someone who knows only both the nomenclature and the horizons of current adjunct positions, such knowledge may come as surprising, and this leads me to a final turn of the faculty wife screw.

Of course today adjuncts come in all sizes, colors, and genders. Gone are the days when “adjunct” and “faculty wife” are equivalent terms, for reasons ranging from the fact that institutions need more adjuncts than the pool of local spouses can provide to the fact that spouses need more employment than the entire national range of institutions can provide. And yet insofar as their employment is concerned, many adjuncts -- whether male or female, whether their spouses are academics or not -- remain more or less lodged in the old degraded category of faculty wives. That is, their scholarship continues to be ignored (who needs it for first-year or developmental courses?), and their aspirations to tenure-track status continue to be variously and intricately denied.

More to the point, even the social potential of adjuncts is marginal at best. They are obliged to have office hours. Their employers are not obliged to provide them with offices. They are required to have names on their syllabi. Their colleagues are not obliged to learn their names. Who can get to know someone who can be gone next semester? Who even has the opportunity?

In these as so many other respects, a “faculty wife” was, or on many campuses still is, better off than an adjunct. Granted, the faculty wife doesn’t have a job. But she does have a position. Stereotyped it may be. (Most memorably by whiny Honey and bitchy Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) Yet, arguably, even some sort of space is better than none. Furthermore, at least faculty wives have always been free to organize and thereby gain the consolation as well as the company of their own.

In contrast, adjuncts who organize unions not just clubs constitute a perceived threat to the institution. Better to “work through established channels,” and so on, and even the very word, “union,” will “send the wrong message” to the dean. In fact, adjuncts, although slowly being unionized, typically have no collective existence. To this day, though, even the most idly cookie-baking of faculty wives at least knows herself to be a “faculty wife.” Once again, it’s easy to disparage this knowledge, just as it’s hard to recover its history, including its present manifestations. Perhaps the knowledge may do us all some good if we begin simply to recognize (with some irony) how the most degraded of today’s academic categories -- that of “adjunct” -- could be better as well as worse.


Terry Caesar's last column was about the assumptions academics make about one another.


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