Friday, September 22, 2006

Identity whiplash--and trailing spouses

This morning I sat on a panel on work-life balance for new grad student orientation week. To my right was a 2004 ecology graduate who decided he'd rather not teach or conduct research and thus went into student services instead. To my left was a 3rd-year student (in ecology as well?) who had just completed an Ironman triathlon. To her left was--and this is the kicker--my former therapist from student counseling and psychological services. Ha!

I was on the panel because I had a baby and finished a dissertation in the same year. However, since the guy in student services talked about being married to a grad student, I talked a bit about being married to someone who is decidedly NOT a graduate student. In case you're unaware of it, Mr. Trillwing has only a high school education; he took one semester of college before realizing it wasn't really his scene. I've thought a lot about what it means to be the trailing spouse to a graduate student (a sad role, isn't it?). Mr. Trillwing is an intensely bright man and a creative spirit, and over the past few years, I think he's come to feel others (and maybe me) see his work as less valuable than mine. I believe he's doing important work, but it's tough to tell others about it because he sees many of his projects as for private consumption only, even though he's an amazing writer. His last project was a 900-page screenplay on the 18th dynasty in ancient Egypt, and one of his current projects involves Captain America; the other is under wraps, though I will say it involves Jesus. Mr. Trillwing, he likes the epics. I'm glad to be finished with my dissertation so that we can prioritize his creative efforts and time.

Anyway, from the panel I scurried over to another part of campus to catch the last couple of hours of an American Studies faculty retreat. The faculty were talking about pedagogy, current classes and new ones. It was all really quite interesting, but what stuck with me was the chair's lament that the English department here rarely offers lower-division American lit surveys and that the American Studies majors aren't reading enough American literature. Accordingly, I've spent part of this evening rethinking my syllabus for this fall's intro class. Looks like my students will get to experience a bit o' 19th- and 20th-century American poetry as well as some other "classic" texts. John Winthrop, anyone? I'm all about the Puritans.

The faculty retreat helped me realize that although I've been teaching my own courses (as well as TAing) since 1999, I'm finally making the transition in others' eyes to professional status. Making this transition awkward is that good friends from my graduate program will be my TAs this coming year. Even more awkward? As I contemplated this today, one of my fall quarter TAs was babysitting my son (paid work, of course!).

I always understood why humanities programs don't tend to hire their own graduates--intellectual incest and all--but it's just now hitting me that the boundary between the personal and the professional, which has always seemed blurred to me in academia, is particularly troubled when one hangs around for an extra year or two.

What about you? What were your experiences negotiating this transition, if you've made it? And how many of you are in relationships with other academics, and how many are married to/partnered with people outside the academy? How does this affect your relationships?


betty said...

i'm single, so i can't speak to the second part of what you're asking about. but i did have weird TA situations. i quit grad school in my 5th year and then stayed 3 more years after i got hired as a lecturer/program coordinator at the same school in the same department. the first year i taught my lab course, the guy who was my TA was actually the guy who was my TA when i was a student my FIRST year of grad school. he was an awesome TA and he actually knew a lot more about the subect than me since he'd be around longer than me and had actually worked with the system we were using before (whereas i hadn't and only had one month to learn everything). it was a little hard to tell him what to do to help me and i failed miserably. i didn't think he should have to listen to me when he knew more than me. the second year my TA was someone i knew socially but he was younger than me. i know age doesn't matter, but that helped a bit. still i had a hard time giving him tasks. by the third year i was able to let my TA help me even though she was also someone i knew peripherally from department events. it's hard, but it taught me a lot about managing people. now i'm able to tell them what i need and feel ok with that.

Dr. Peters said...

My husband is a restaurant manager and does not have a college degree. He frequently feels inferior because of that fact, especially since most of our friends are academics. It is difficult for me when I imagine others judging him, as I know they do, without understanding what a smart and creative person he is. I find right now that most people in our family, who are not academics, value his career as more productive than mine, as I continue going to school, not doing a "real job"--despite the admittedly meager but still existent paycheck every month. But the other side of the coin is that my career does take precedence because of the nature of the job market--and before that, as we moved where we are now for my school. Also, along the way I have picked up these degrees, and I will have one really nice Ph.D. one day, which is easy to consider as more valuable and deserving more respect than his work. It's easy even for me to think "I have been working all this time and look at what I have accomplished" while neglecting the fact that he has also been working all these years and accomplishing things and advancing in his career. I think, at least for some, it is harder when the wife is the one who is more educated. Even now, especially where we're from, there is the notion that the husband's career is more important and that he should be more educated and make more money than his wife. There is so much I could say on this topic--lots of things that are hard for me or for him or for those outside our relationship to understand about the negotiations that must happen. I'd like to hear what you have to say (or what you said at the panel).

Kate C. said...

I am a Ph.D. whose boyfriend returned to graduate school this fall. We met just after I finished my degree, so he never knew me in the crazed days of finishing my dissertation. I'm realizing this is really a new stage of our relationship--after being in boring a 9-5 job, he is working endless hours, but much happier. I'm proud of him, but have to keep reminding myself that I have to be sympathetic and supportive--the way I wish the boyfriend I did have in graduate school had been. It is strange to be on the other side of the equation.

As for the transition from graduate student to professor, I never taught at my graduate school after I received my degree. However, I do remember being freaked out when my advisor when to hug me after my defense. He said "It's ok--we're colleagues now." All I could think was, "Since when ddo colleagues hug?"