UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 14 | Dec.
Professors, Married With Students
By Michelle Cook
Working alongside your spouse is not everyones ideal
situation, but for academic couples, a campus is often their
office and their home.
Theres a lot of mystery and lack of clarity about
spouses working together, says Philosophy professor
Catherine Wilson, who adds that teaching and researching alongside
her husband Mohan Matthen, the head of the Philosophy Dept.
is similar to running a mom-and-pop grocery store. They share
the same profession and help each other out, but their opinions
and academic strengths remain separate.
Other UBC faculty couples say there are lots of benefits
to working with your partner. You can double your professional
contacts, help each other with classes, share the ride to
work, and its always easier to take constructive criticism
on academic papers from a loved one.
Another plus to joint academic appointments is the opportunity
to pursue professional passions together.
Annalee Yassi is a Canada Research Chair and director of
the Institute for Health Promotion Research. Shes married
to Jerry Spiegel, director of Global Health at the Liu Institute
for Global Issues. Both have been collaborating on international
health projects since their student days at McGill. They came
to UBC in 2001 because its interdisciplinary opportunities
offered them the chance to broaden their interactions with
people from many academic areas, and collaborate on several
initiatives, including a five-year project to help Cubans
strengthen their teaching of environmental health risks assessments
Community health in general is a good field for couples
because no matter what your disciplinary background is, there
is common ground, Yassi says. I could have stayed
in medicine and Jerry could have stayed in social development,
but weve been able to develop projects that brought
Yet, there are downsides to sharing the same lifes
work as your spouse.
Weve sometimes had differences of opinion in
terms of how to deal with difficulties in a project,
says Yassi. Sometimes its a good cop, bad cop
But the upside, Spiegel adds, is that its good to bring
different perspectives to a project.
Respecting intellectual preferences is another delicate matter.
Daniela Boccassini and Carlo Testa both teach Italian Studies
but they maintain decidedly different academic tastes.
Im not as orgasmic about Dante as Daniela is,
Testa laughs as his wife listens. I like him but I think
Turf, professional jealousy and competitiveness are other
potential pitfalls that academic couples must sidestep.
Promotions can come at different times, Boccassini
says. When I was promoted earlier, it was a disappointment
for both of us but I never felt he (Testa) resented it. You
take the good or the bad as a team.
Another campus couple says that, in the 40 years theyve
worked together, theyve never fought over research.
Neuroscientists Edith and Patrick McGeer solve their differences
of opinion by doing experiments, and seeing how they turn
Another worry for academic couples is that colleagues will
see them as a single entity.
Its important not to be perceived as one person
when youre working in the same department. I think colleagues
resent it if youre seen as a block vote, Matthen
says, adding that he and his wife often disagree publicly
in departmental meetings.
The biggest challenge by far, all couples say, is leaving
their work at the office. Edith McGeer says her three adult
children still complain that the only thing they talked about
at the dinner table was the human brain.
Yassi and Spiegel admit that their endless intellectual discussions
do frustrate those around them. They were once scolded on
a ski chairlift for discussing a project, and their two children
wont go out to dinner with them unless they promise
not to talk about work.
We love what we do and we havent really wanted
to separate work from private life, says Yassi. It
means we never get away from it but that doesnt really
matter to us.
While long hours on campus can take their toll, the couples
interviewed for this article say they wouldnt choose
any other vocation. And retirement is out of the question
for these lifelong study buddies.
Spiegel and Yassi cant imagine a time when they wont
be doing either research, teaching or writing about their
fields of interest together. The McGeers say they intend to
die with their lab coats on.