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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 14 | Dec. 5, 2002

Professors, Married With Students

By Michelle Cook

Working alongside your spouse is not everyone’s ideal situation, but for academic couples, a campus is often their office and their home.

“There’s 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 it’s 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. She’s 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 and management.

“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 we’ve been able to develop projects that brought us together.”

Yet, there are downsides to sharing the same life’s work as your spouse.

“We’ve sometimes had differences of opinion in terms of how to deal with difficulties in a project,” says Yassi. “Sometimes it’s a good cop, bad cop scenario.”

But the upside, Spiegel adds, is that it’s 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.

“I’m not as orgasmic about Dante as Daniela is,” Testa laughs as his wife listens. “I like him but I think he’s overrated.”

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 they’ve worked together, they’ve never fought over research. Neuroscientists Edith and Patrick McGeer solve their differences of opinion by doing experiments, and seeing how they turn out.

Another worry for academic couples is that colleagues will see them as a single entity.

“It’s important not to be perceived as one person when you’re working in the same department. I think colleagues resent it if you’re 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 won’t go out to dinner with them unless they promise not to talk about work.

“We love what we do and we haven’t really wanted to separate work from private life,” says Yassi. “It means we never get away from it but that doesn’t really matter to us.”

While long hours on campus can take their toll, the couples interviewed for this article say they wouldn’t choose any other vocation. And retirement is out of the question for these lifelong study buddies.

Spiegel and Yassi can’t imagine a time when they won’t 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.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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