Other Two-Body Problems (guest post by Carol Hay & John Kaag)


The following is a guest post* by a couple of philosophers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell—Carol Hay, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of Gender Studies, and John Kaag, Professor of Philosophy—on being a couple of philosophers: not just in the same discipline, but in the same department.


Other Two-Body Problems
by Carol Hay and John Kaag

Three inches of drywall separate our offices.  We commute to and from campus together, teach at the same time, have office hours at the same time, go to meetings at the same time, and lunch, you guessed it, at the same time.  All this togetherness is a matter of choice, not necessity: we have tenured positions in the same small philosophy department.  Most days we marvel at having won the professional (and personal) lottery.

Over nearly a decade, our writing has converged.  John, who was brought up in a Continental department, now makes arguments.  He realized, thanks to dozens—no, hundreds—of conversations with Carol, that Continental philosophy, when you pare away the jargon, often amounts to a historically-grounded analytic approach that insists on asking existential questions.  The concessions haven’t been one-way.  Carol, the arch-Analytic, now writes like a human being.  She no longer has patience for philosophical disputes that occur in a vacuum, and has embraced non-ideal theory’s refusal to analyze the social and political world independently of actual people’s lives and experiences and injustices.

Partnerships—close, emotional, or romantic ones—have a long and storied history in philosophy.  Descartes and Princess Elizabeth, Nietzsche and Lou Salome, Sartre and Beauvoir: these couples worked and wrote in personal, if not always geographic, proximity, and the integration of their thinking produced something much richer that the philosophies that they might have produced in isolation.  These partnerships, however, had the tendency prioritize the philosophizing of one half of the couple over the other, and this inequality, all too often, emerged along gendered lines.  Beauvoir might have scored higher than Sartre on her examinations in philosophy, but today, most people recognize his name, not hers.

In many cases, it’s difficult to identify the root causes of this inequality.  Couples in philosophy come to be housed in the same department in a variety of ways that set the tone for the rest of their professional lives.  When spousal hires take place, they’re usually made on the presumption that one scholar is the all-star and the other a sidekick.  Similarly, when graduate students marry or date their professors—or when there is an obvious disparity in seniority—the gendered inequality can be masked by the ostensibly benign forces of age or experience in the profession.

In our case, however, there are none of these confounding factors: we were hired for the same job.  The exact same job.  There was one tenure-track line and when we applied the selection committee was split in their vote.  Magically, the Provost created two positions and both of us were hired.  We didn’t know each other before taking the jobs, and came in regarding each other as the presumptive competition.  These days, we like to say that we solved the two-body problem post hoc.  Getting here wasn’t entirely unproblematic (if you want the details you can read John’s American Philosophy: A Love Story, out with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in the fall) but it did lay a foundation of brute equality in our relationship.  And this equality has made our relationship a control study of inequality in the profession.  The findings aren’t particularly good.

Many times, colleagues simply assume that John was hired first, that Carol was the spousal hire.  (This, despite Carol being older and having spent more time in graduate school than John.)  Even more galling is the assumption that any new philosophical insight Carol might make is ultimately attributable to John.  Other times, colleagues assume that Carol’s professional persona is simply an extension of John’s, that she’ll automatically agree with his opinions, automatically vote the way he does on departmental matters, and automatically function as his secretary.  We know of couples in other departments who are so careful to avoid the appearance of being a voting bloc that they out-and-out refuse to discuss departmental issues at home.

In less than a decade, John’s base salary already significantly outstrips Carol’s.  (This, despite Carol’s work being more firmly entrenched in the mainstream of professional philosophy (having, e.g., recently won the APA’s Kavka prize).)  This financial disparity doesn’t reflect some explicitly diabolical plan on the part of the university administration—and, to be clear, both our paychecks are deposited into a single checking account—but it does highlight the structural factors that can lead to lasting inequality in our profession.  When our daughter was born four years ago, we were offered a single parental leave, which Carol took.  In hindsight, this was probably unwise; it delayed her tenure clock, which will, in turn, delay her going up for full professor.  John faced no such delays.  Again there’s nothing particularly pernicious about this, but what start off as small disparities can grow exponentially and become self-perpetuating.  As one partner makes more money for virtually the same amount of work, his or her work tends to be prioritized accordingly.  Success breeds success, and before you know it, the thankless service work gets diverted to the less productive partner, who also happens to have the gender-typical traits of organization and meticulousness.  Nietzsche said that his partner, Lou Salome, was “the smartest person [he’d] ever met.” But all too often she was described, as Freud called her, as “the great understander”—a foil, a receptacle, not a font of knowledge.  Despite our best efforts, and our explicitly feminist commitments, we still find ourselves having to fight to prevent our work-life balance from becoming a microcosm of the gender imbalances of the wider profession of philosophy.

In the discipline of philosophy’s “warre of all against all,” where publication is a zero-sum game and collaboration almost unheard of, we’re taught that we’re entitled to make the best possible argument, entitled to publish in the best possible journals, entitled to attend all of the best possible conferences, and to take no prisoners along the way.  We know, firsthand, that this is not the most conducive approach to forming lasting partnerships, collegial or otherwise.  Being a healthy couple in a shared department often means putting entitlement in check, forgoing what one once thought he or she was naturally entitled to.  It means “leaning out” of an argument, or publication opportunity, or speaking engagement, so that the other has the chance to “lean in.”  This is not an issue of pity, but of fairness.  Sometime we fail miserably.  And it’s never easy.  But it’s easier than living with resentment, that ruthless assassin of all flourishing relationships.

Merged cover art from Kantianism, Liberalism, and Feminism by Carol Hay and American Philosophy: a Love Story, by John Kaag

Merged cover art from Kantianism, Liberalism, and Feminism by Carol Hay and American Philosophy: a Love Story, by John Kaag

 

 

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Daniel Wodak
4 years ago

Thanks so much for writing this. My wife and I just got TT jobs at the same place, and it has been interesting seeing how some people react to this news. (It seems very important to some people that the original job listing was in my field. It doesn’t seem important to those people that my wife got more interviews, fly-outs, and TT offers than I did, despite being in a field that had far fewer postings this year.) There’s one positive suggestion I’d like to make apropos talking to couples in the same department: it’s worth being cautious about what information you ask for. Given the general climate issues in philosophy, if you try to gauge which party got offered the job initially you risk *sounding like* you’re trying to gauge which party is the “all-star” and which party is the “side-kick”, even if that isn’t your intention. Perhaps it’d be better to not ask at all, especially since it’s not clear why that information would be relevant. Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
4 years ago

I think this is a very insightful post: it emphasizes the need for corrective measures to ensure fairness within a discipline that is very unfair in many respects. I wholeheartedly think that broader change in the discipline starts with individuals, like Carol and John, taking it upon themselves to be concious of, account for, and correct inequalities. Kudos to them for setting an example and making the example that they set public; hopefully it ripples and lingers in the minds of others.

Regarding the Beauvoir and Sartre references, I’m inclined to say that things are (slowly) getting better in that Beauvoir is seeing a bit of a boost in popularity. As a relatively young white male, Beauvoir is one of the philosophers that I take most seriously (fun fact: the name in which I post under, Henri Perron, is a character in her semi-autobiographical novel The Mandarins who is very much inspired by Albert Camus). Part of the problem with people thinking of Sartre first and foremost whenever the two are brought up has to do with Beauvoir’s tendency to be overly modest and self-critical: she did things such as refer to Sartre as “the philosopher” of the two, downplaying her own philosophical contributions. I suspect a bigger part of the lack of recognition of her work in comparison to Sartre has to do with gender bias, though.

As a reader and fan of both, I personally take Beauvoir’s work to be much more practical and down-to-earth, whereas Sartre at times can seem to get a little carried away (perhaps it’s the amphetamines talking).

P.S. I found the “John, who was brought up in a Continental department, now makes arguments.” to be a bit of a lame misunderstanding. Just because continentals tend to write in a more stylistic or “human” fashion, it doesn’t follow that they don’t make arguments. Report

Ekpyrosis
Ekpyrosis
Reply to  Henri Perron
4 years ago

But you were OK with “Carol, the arch-Analytic, now writes like a human being.”? I assume the authors are being a bit lighthearted about the stereotypes of each of their approaches to philosophy. Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
Reply to  Ekpyrosis
4 years ago

You’re right to mention this.

I also don’t want to imply that I dogmatically subscribe to the stereotype which you mention that I left out; I know, respect, and enjoy the work of many philosophers working in the analytic tradition who “write like human beings.” Certainly I think that the stereotype has SOME merit (and, on the opposite note, I’ve come across “continental” work which read like opaque, didactic gospel… and that’s annoying, too.) I included the postscript in part because I think the stereotype regarding continental philosophy poses a greater threat by virtue of its being directed at an already marginalized group of philosophers. It also struck a bit of a nerve, given my interests, so it was a rather impulsive postscript (I’m a bit sensitive about this sort of thing!).

I hope I addressed your concern in a reasonable way, and hopefully one that is sufficient for a ‘ceasefire’. I was afraid when I wrote the postscript (and now I regret it) that it would spark something, and I sincerely believe that what the article is actually getting at is MUCH more important than the decomposing analytic/continental horse that is still beaten from time to time.Report

prime
prime
4 years ago

“When our daughter was born four years ago, we were offered a single parental leave….”
Is this unusual, within or outside academia in the States, except for the fact that the parents have the same employer? Whether the “single parental leave” was paid or unpaid might make a difference. (The Massachusetts statute: “Under the law, parents are eligible for 8 weeks of leave per child. If both parents work for the same employer, they shall only be entitled to 8 weeks of leave in the aggregate for the birth or adoption of the same child. Leave may be with or without pay ‘at the discretion of the employer.'”)

“Many times, colleagues simply assume that [he] was hired first, that [she] was the spousal hire.”
Well into an academic career, by the time each partner has become successful enough for concern to arise about which partner might come up earlier for full professor, wouldn’t “spousal hire” diminishment have been largely resolved on substantive grounds — say, the presumed sh’s “work being more firmly entrenched in the mainstream of professional philosophy (having, e.g., recently won the APA’s Kavka prize)”?

“Other times, colleagues assume that [her] professional persona is simply an extension of [his], that she’ll automatically agree with his opinions, automatically vote the way he does on departmental matters….”
Wouldn’t such gendered assumptions be strange to hold, even by philosophy profession standards, after both partners have been in a department for years? That is, wouldn’t department colleagues have a large enough sample size of experience to not readily make such assumptions in this couple’s (implied) case?

As one in a similar partnership, I don’t think we have experienced such ongoing “other two-body problems.” Our philosophy department is not particularly progressive. My partner and I feel fortunate to have our professional situation, despite occasions when working in the same department is personally difficult for us (changing offices to different floors helped).Report

Danny Weltman
Reply to  prime
4 years ago

Hi prime. Are your second, third, and fourth questions (about spousal hires and professional personae) meant to suggest that the phenomena described in the article aren’t actually occurring, or don’t matter? Since you mention being in a similar partnership without having experienced any of this, it seems like that’s the thrust of these questions, but it’s tough to tell. As someone with neither a spouse nor a hire, let alone a spousal hire, I can’t offer my own anecdotal evidence to help illuminate the general landscape, but I would not have thought that the claim here was that every couple experiences these issues and that the existence of any couple that doesn’t (like you and your spouse) would show these issues to be illusory. Rather, the claim is just that this couple in particular has experienced this sort of stuff. If your questions are rhetorical ones meant to question whether the very specific behavior reported in the piece really occurs, I’d be interested in knowing why you think the writers are so badly misconstruing the situation.

If your questions aren’t rhetorical, though, I think they have pretty easy answers. The “spousal hire” diminishment, although it ought not to have existed in the first place, ALSO ought to have been resolved on substantive grounds. Such gendered assumptions ARE very strange to hold after both partners have been in the department for years. The department colleagues probably DO have a large enough sample size of experience to not readily make such assumptions. Report

prime
prime
Reply to  Danny Weltman
4 years ago

Danny Weltman,
My questions regarding “spousal hires and professional personae” weren’t “rhetorical.” Since you’re concerned about their “thrust,” let me say this: Indeed, “not every couple experiences” the specific issues described. The basic thrust of my questions was that the department in question seems especially strange — given how professionally accomplished and independent the partners (self-reportedly) are and how many years they’ve been there. I certainly don’t doubt that there are especially strange philosophy departments.

Still, since you and others seem bothered about the general phenomenon of “spousal hire” diminishment, let me register a note of disagreement. I think it makes no sense to support (or expect others to support or tolerate) a policy that provides some direct benefit to individuals — e.g., spousal hires, affirmative action — then get offended when people tend to associate the policy with non-standard or less “merit” or (non-standardly) “preferential” treatment. The general purpose of such policies is…to enable things to happen that might well not happen otherwise. There should be no shame in acknowledging this, that is, when one supports such a policy.

Everyone knows that spousal hiring can be a thing: a school or department wants one partner significantly more than the other, enough that the other probably wouldn’t otherwise have been hired (or offered) at the same time. Under these circumstances, “diminishment” seems fairly neutral with regard gender, race, etc.

Why do I care about all this, apart from the nature of my own partnership? In general, it is indulgent to support a policy like spousal hiring and then complain about the social injustice of attitudes that initially might diminish professional “esteem” for apparent beneficiaries (presumed to have lower test scores, GPAs, IQs, quality publications, whatever). Years later, what substantively and professionally will matter most overall is what a person has done with the job.Report

About the Problem Which Is Not One (And Never Was)
About the Problem Which Is Not One (And Never Was)
Reply to  prime
4 years ago

Has the time finally arrived when philosophers will admit that “spousal hiring” unjustly advantages married people in their job searches? Report

prime
prime

There generally is no such advantage, let alone a distinctively unjust advantage. Unless one spouse is viewed by the hiring department as (relative to its ambitions) a star or rising star, there is a real two-body problem.

Why else would a department or school be motivated to invest in two hires to get the one it really wanted — particularly when, for that same investment, it could have made two independent hires of people it wanted? (Second-choice candidates, especially in this market, are usually viewed as being strong. Need, fit, taste, etc. often come into play, not some “merit” metric.)

Another scenario: A department would be very interested in hiring either of two spouses but, given their partnership, doesn’t bother pursuing either of them. This happens, with the department simply making assumptions about the dynamics and logistics of the partnership. The assumptions are understandable enough, though: too delicate a situation, too much trouble, too unlikely, other strong candidates for a single position.

A more common scenario: The spousal hire comes as a second-class department or school citizen via a non-tenure stream, time-limited, part-time, or significantly lower-paid position. Obviously, this goes beyond mere perceptions of respect.

A not distinctively unjust scenario: The “lead” spouse is viewed as a star or rising star that a department is determined to get. Then the school must be convinced to provide for the spousal hire. This is simply a case of the academic market setting an especially high value on the “star” hire — so high that the department/school is willing to take on a spousal hire of some kind. Maybe this value is inflated and the “star” hire isn’t plausibly worth the total cost. But we know that such inflation happens even in cases of solo “star” hires.

Hate the larger game, not the players.Report

Danny Weltman
Reply to  prime
4 years ago

prime, I’m not sure it would be correct to “register a note of disagreement,” at least with respect to me and to Hay and Kaag, to note that you think it’s inconsistent to both support spousal hires AND to think that people ought not to form negative judgments about the philosophical acumen of a spousal hire, because neither my post nor the post by Hay and Kaag, as near as I can tell, indicates any support (or lack thereof) for the policy of spousal hires. Indeed, Hay and Kaag note that neither of them was hired as a spousal hire – they weren’t even spouses when they were hired! All that they say on the topic is that there is a general assumption in spousal hires that one spouse is a superstar and that in their case this excuse cannot justify the disparity in the treatment each receives.

This feels a bit like mincing words to me – why bother noting that I think it’s odd for you to register disagreement when I think there are no grounds for assuming such disagreement exists? – but I guess I just didn’t want to let slide the possibility that (contrary to fact, it turns out) you were meaning to make a more general point about how often this sort of thing happens to philosophical couples.

Although, I must confess I’m still not QUITE sure about the general implication of your comments. I realize that saying that “the department in question seems especially strange” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s atypical, especially because you note that you “don’t doubt that there are especially strange philosophy departments,” but on the other hand, one might think that especially strange philosophy departments are probably in the minority of philosophy departments, so I’m still kind of unsure. It might help to phrase things more directly: are Hay and Kaag outliers, or do they face issues common to couples in philosophy? Are many departments especially strange like this? I don’t really have a horse in the race, because I don’t know enough about anything to come down on one side or the other, but I take it one place to locate a disagreement between you and Hay and Kaag would be about the degree to which this sort of thing happens in philosophy departments.

Similarly, your comment doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re suggesting that this sort of thing doesn’t happen except when the philosophers being treated like this bring it upon themselves by doing something wrong, and noting that Hay and Kaag are “self-reportedly” accomplished and independent might JUST be an odd irrelevant offhand comment rather than something meant to suggest that Hay and Kaag are in actuality less independent and accomplished than they take themselves to be, and that this explains the treatment they receive, but again it’s tough for me to get a read on what you’re saying. Some more directness here would be helpful: do you suspect the stuff Hay and Kaag report occurs not because of any sort of bias but because they’re deluding themselves about the respect they deserve from colleagues in light of their independent accomplishments? Disagreement about THAT for sure seems substantive and interesting, rather than mincing words (which is one reason I replied to you in the first place – it seemed to me possible that we had a substantive disagreement on our hands) but like I said, I’m still fuzzy on what claims are in the water, so to speak.Report

Michael Ventimiglia
Michael Ventimiglia
4 years ago

Great piece. I’ve witnessed both authors in action. This piece captures the tremendous mutual respect they really do share. While their personal relationship is of course a huge motive to maintain a genuine philosophical openness to each other’s ideas and traditions, they are a great model for those of us who might not be as charmed by the colleague on the other side of the drywall. Report

Alice Frye
Alice Frye
4 years ago

This is so useful, not just from the perspective of romantic partnerships but in considering deep collegial friendships and collaborations. Maintaining individuality and remaining genuinely connected at the department level over time is possibly the greatest challenge in a long academic career. Great colleagues and friends, like great partners, exchange differences and remain singular, applaud each other’s strengths and forgive one another’s weaknesses. They take the long view, invest, negotiate, and celebrate. John and Carol remind us in this essay that its the responsibility of the department and society at large to recognize that process and see it clearly, without making easy assumptions about underlying dynamics, and without ascribing status. Its something we can all learn to do better. Report

Bethany Henning
Bethany Henning
4 years ago

Thank you for writing this post. I love that John and Carol work so well collaboratively to foster one another’s intellectual growth, even if the climate, in philosophy and academia more generally, leaves something to be desired in the way of fecundity. I think your point about “leaning out” of opportunity so that the other can “lean in” is useful. I am a woman American Pragmatist/Continental philosopher, and my younger brother and best friend is trained in the analytic tradition. We have found ourselves making room in our arguments so that the other might be accommodated, even when we are separated by thousands of miles and several state lines. Still, despite the fact that I have made it further in graduate school than he, when we are together his voice is often taken more seriously.

I’m glad John and Carol are being outspoken about the differences in their base salaries, and the assumptions their philosophical couple-hood tends to draw. Those structural differences you note are indeed matters of the kind of “shadow work” that is often performed for free by women world over, and of course the unconscious attitudes we maintain about the kind of body that we expect to be suited for philosophical work. Report

Leamon Bazil
Leamon Bazil
4 years ago

Nice work Carol and John! Laying bare your souls and pointing out structural injustices along the lines of gender is profoundly important. I knew the two body problem was a conundrum for institutions of higher learning, but I never considered the kinds of problems it would create for the two bodies themselves. Good luck to the both of you. Now and in the future! Report

Marta
Marta
4 years ago

The policy of one parental leave per couple is sexist. Unless the university makes alternative provisions for a birth mother to recover from childbirth when her partner takes the leave, they are clearly assuming that birth parent = primary caretaker.Report

GS
GS
Reply to  Marta
4 years ago

It is definitely *not* sexist, but it is definitely inconsiderate. (Though, it is perhaps understandable given that it would be hard on the small University to deal with 2 missing profs.)Report

destoryingmarriagesince2010
destoryingmarriagesince2010
Reply to  GS
4 years ago

The policy described by Marta–allowing only one parental leave per couple AND not providing an alternative for the birthing partner to recover from delivery/surgery if her partner takes the leave–has obvious detrimental effects on women as a class compared to men as a class which sustain and contribute to women’s inequality. What conception of sexism do you have in mind such that this *wouldn’t* count? Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
4 years ago

“Hon, do we really have to plug your new trade book in the piece?”

“What? Of course! My agent would kill me if I didn’t. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Well, the whole piece is about how people always think you’re better than me even though I’m just as good and qualified, so….”

“Oh, come on, babe, don’t be like that.”Report