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A joint proposal: married to teaching, teaching while married

Falling in love with your work occasionally takes on a whole new meaning for academics.

Married professors are not a rarity, said Kevin McLaughlin P’12, dean of the faculty. “It happens a lot.”

“Sometimes I’m surprised and will learn couples are married in places such as holiday parties,” said McLaughlin, whose wife teaches at Boston College and who has spent 15 years commuting from Boston.

Married academics often face a “two-body problem”: Teaching positions at universities are not often a package deal, and multiple opportunities at the same institution can be scarce.

Moving schools and advancing in academia become complicated when there are two people looking for professorships, and these situations often require them to commute, move and make hard decisions. But many faculty members at Brown have learned to balance marriages with individual academic pursuits.

‘A pretty good deal’

Pamela Foa, senior fellow in gender studies, and Paul Guyer, professor of philosophy and humanities, were both young professors of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh when they “fell in love and married,” Foa said.  The story began one fall weekend when they decided to carpool to New York, and all the leaves were turning. “He and I spent six hours arguing about why leaves change their colors in the fall. Neither of us would budge the whole ride,” she said.

Foa said though she does not remember what position she took in the debate, “neither of us has forgotten that ride.” Recently, they were in the car again on another beautiful fall weekend, and they learned that their theories both “have some basis,” while listening to a National Public Radio story.

“Marrying an academic is a pretty good deal,” Foa said, especially “if you want to have a family.” As a former federal prosecutor, Foa relied on her husband to pick up their daughter from daycare, due to her “much longer, incompatible hours.”

Guyer came to Brown in 2012, and after finishing up several cases in Philadelphia, Foa joined the Pembroke Center a year later. 

Patricia Barbeito, professor of American literatures at the Rhode Island School of Design and Vangelis Calotychos, visiting associate professor of comparative literature at Brown, met while studying comparative literature in graduate school at Harvard. Barbeito and Calotychos both teach literature, but since their primary focuses do not overlap, they have never vied for the same position at a university. “People say that sometimes it’s better for your partner to be in some other field, but I love sharing this,” Barbeito said. “In some ways we have all the benefits without what can get strange and competitive.”

They have collaborated on projects in the past, such as translating a book from Greek to English together, she said. “It’s a blessing. It’s a benefit.”

Moving up and holding on

Balancing professional opportunities with those of one’s spouse is a significant challenge for many academics.

The University sometimes attempts to recruit a married couple, but often recruitment at the full professor level does not include any personal information until the candidate is already selected, McLaughlin said. He added that this issue was “one of the largest challenges of recruitment.”

Vacancies in both of the spouses’ departments are a rare occurrence, and it is “very hard to commute,” he said. Some candidates turn down positions at Brown because of spouses, and others leave the University altogether.

University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson and Stephen Nelson, associate professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University and a senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown, have been at the University for 25 years, longer than they have stayed at any other institution. Before coming to Brown, the couple had already made three moves together for professional reasons — decisions that often led to working at separate universities in the Northeast. “We were commuting weekends and summers. It’s a pretty crazy world that goes on all the time in universities for couples and families,” Cooper Nelson said.

Immediately prior to Cooper Nelson’s appointment at the University, both she and her husband were working in New York, he at Bard College and she at Vassar College. “We were happily ensconced in one house,” she said. Yet they decided the best professional decision was to move to Providence when the University offered her a job in 1990. “He would say he was the person who followed Janet to Brown,” she said, adding that it is wonderful to have a partner who supports her career choices.

“He’s the best valentine,” Cooper Nelson said. “Valentines have to stick together.”

Barbeito and Calotychos are teaching in the same city for the first time in their married careers. Calotychos has taught at Harvard, New York University and Columbia and commuted to work from Providence until the couple moved to New York City, at which point Barbeito had to take on the longer commute. The couple never ventured to Providence until Barbeito received a job offer from RISD in 1998.

“It has been challenging finding a job in the same place,” she said. Though they both currently teach in Providence, they commute from New York, where they live with their two children, who attend middle school there. “We spend most of the week up here, but take turns” going home, she added.

Work is where the heart is

For faculty members lucky enough to secure posts at the same institution, there are many benefits and few downsides.

“It’s a long journey to Brown,” said John Tyler P’12 P’16, professor of education, economics and public policy and associate dean of the graduate school. Tyler met his wife, Elizabeth Tobin-Tyler P’12 P’16, assistant professor of family medicine and health services, policy and practice, while working as a farmer and teaching at her father's school. The couple came to Rhode Island in 1998 through a joint decision about what would be best for them, he said. They have three children, one of whom graduated from Brown in 2012. The second is a member of the Class of  2016, and the third is in high school.

Sometimes they guest lecture in each other’s classes, Tobin-Tyler said, adding that getting lunch on campus together is another nice perk of teaching in close quarters.

Working at the same institution, especially one with such an intellectual scholarly environment is “fodder for interesting discussions at the dinner table,” she said.

Luther and Kathryn Spoehr met in graduate school at Stanford University, where they began their “interdisciplinary romance,” said Luther Spoehr, senior lecturer in education and history. Kathryn Spoehr ’69, professor of cognitive, liguistic and psychological sciences and public policy, attended New Trier Township High School in Illinois before coming to Brown. Incidentally, one of Luther Spoehr’s high school teachers had lauded New Trier as better and more rigorous than his high school, and the lesson stuck. “Kathy was the first New Trier graduate I had ever met, and so I figured that I had better marry her,” he joked, adding that he decided to “undermine generalizations” and marry a woman who is smarter than he is.

Luther Spoehr taught history at the Lincoln School between 1977 and 1996, after two years at the University of Rhode Island. Almost 20 years after they had moved to Rhode Island, there was an opening in the Brown education department, and Luther Spoehr joined the faculty.

While the Spoehrs do not often overlap in strictly academic settings, they do serve together as the academic advisers and liaisons for the men’s basketball team.

Quoting Mark Twain, Luther Spoehr said his wife “knows all that can be known, and I know the rest.”

— With additional reporting by Emma Harris

A previous version of this article misstated that John Tyler P’12 P’16, professor of education, economics and public policy and associate dean of the graduate school, met his wife while working on her father’s farm. In fact, Tyler met his wife while working as a farmer and teaching at her father's school. The Herald regrets the error.

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