Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Two-Body Problem

Really, it's a problem in classical mechanics.... something about two particles in motion interacting with each other. I clearly should have looked it up. What I mean here, though, is the code-phrase in academia for "what do we do with two career families?" How can a hiring committee entice the one partner to come to their institution when there's no position in the community or the university for the partner? Or can they work a deal where there's an instructor position in another department, so that they get hot-shot-professor-person? (The less hot-shot person then becomes known as "the trailing spouse". How flattering.) Can two people share one position? What might the department offer to make the fact of living 1000 miles apart impossible to refuse?

And those are the problems the university has -which I care about, but only tangentially. We've been busy, as you know, trying to figure this out from the other side of the table. I had previously thought the two-body problem mostly affected young academics, particularly those searching for their first post-PhD jobs. My mistake.

As I've whined about repeatedly, Math-Man and I are living apart until August. He's on sabbatical -a sabbatical he deserved, needed, and, truth be told, kind of demanded. Moreover, he intended to travel for this sabbatical. I couldn't uproot my life here, so we're living apart and figuring it out.

I'm struck by a few things. It stinks. Oh wait. I think I've mentioned that already, and you might have guessed it, anyway. While I completely support the practice of sabbaticals, particularly when there's a research requirement for the faculty, I'm also struck by the throw-back feel to it. Traveling for sabbatical isn't, strictly speaking, required. But, understanding the universe (the task of the academic life, as I understand it) is necessarily a cooperative venture. If one wants to work with someone to push back the intellectual frontiers, it's just good manners to go where that person is. That traveling, then, either assumes the person is single or has a family willing to temporarily uproot themselves.

By the time you get to be my age (well past the traditional newly-minted PhD age), you've met plenty of academic families. And some have traveled here, there, and everywhere, with and without the children. "We home-schooled the kids that year because we were living in a tent in the mountains of Chile." "That was the year we spent in Thailand." Immediately, though, you notice that the traveling family has a non-academic partner whose job is either unusually flexible or comparatively unimportant in the family value system. S/he could quit it, travel with the family on sabbatical, and then find another job upon return. I don't have that kind of job, and I'm grateful for that. But I can't have it both ways.

Maybe my existential angst is just a consequence of my personal choices rather than of a slightly neanderthal sabbatical system. I continue, though, to chafe at a situation -whoever or whatever caused it- that requires us to live apart if we are both to take our life-paths seriously. Is this really our best effort at supporting both family and intellectual curiosity?

Secondly, I'm struck by the male/female differences I'm noticing in our little experiment of one. I'm a feminist married to a feminist, just to get that out there. Nonetheless, Dave decided the sabbatical was going to happen, and that it was going to involve travel on his part. He clearly couldn't decide how I was going to spend my time, but he was going to be gone. The family just needed to work around that. When I've been faced with a similar decision, I've found 1000 reasons why I shouldn't go, almost talked myself out of traveling many a time, and needed to be convinced to do it almost every time. It's not that I'm a timid traveler at all. It's that I don't want to burden the family with the consequences of my choices -even when they're clearly saying that they're not burdened and I should get the heck out of Dodge.

Nobody has put me in this second quandary but myself. It's just interesting that after all this time and all this thought and all this intention towards equality, we still come at these "family or work first" questions differently. Is our sense of entitlement different? Does it have anything at all to do with gender, or is it just a consequence of our different personalities?

I have no answers. I know, though, that I'm grateful that the situation isn't worse yet. We could well be one of those families who has to live apart for years, until jobs in each of the partner's fields become open in the same geographical area. How badly would that stink???

131 days left, but who's counting? Oh, that would be me.


breadchick said...

Andrea, until recently I had sympathy for you and Math Boy (and still do!) but little "real world" understanding of the problem. Remember above, I said until recently! 2 weeks ago I started a new job that required me to move from our home in Boston to the NYC area M-F with commutes home on the weekend. And while it is only a little under 200 miles apart vs 1000 and I do get to see MBH on the weekends, this living apart stuff SUX. Period and no way around it. You got my utmost respect doing it 1000 miles apart and no weekend visits...

Andrea Rusin said...

I saw on your blog that this had happened. Congratulations on the new job, but.... crap about the long-distance relationship :( I'll actually be in NYC in June. We should have coffee!

Renee said...

You should consider submitting a version of this to the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

Andrea Rusin said...

Ya think?

Renee said...

I do! A lot of their "two body problem" articles relate to finding jobs--they don't ever deal with sabbaticals and the toll those can take.

breadchick said...

Andrea DEFINITELY!! Let me know when via email and we'll figure out a schedule for coffee

Leslie said...


I completely agree with Renee about your submitting some version of this essay to the Chron. I've been searching its archives looking for any insights on the sabbatical "problem" and there is nothing. I'm actually a mid-level administrator at the university where my husband is a professor and had just figured out the maternity leave situation for this coming fall when he said "you know, hon, we're up for sabbatical in fall 2008." And that scared me more than the first-child maternity thing. While he could do a sabbatical here in town, it would make much more sense professionally for him to do it on another continent or on the opposite coast. When it was just the two of us, I figured I could fly out a week every month and it would be just fine. But now, with what will be a one-year-old in the picture, it seems impossible without my quitting my job.

I do think there needs to be a larger discourse about this in the higher ed community (if only to make us realize that there are others thinking about the same things). I thought you were right on the money at every turn. Thanks for putting everything I've been thinking down on electronic paper.

Andrea Rusin said...

My goodness.... okay, I will take this as an indication that such an article needs to be written. I have no answers, though.