Relationships and Grad School: Part 1 – The background

Or, the grad student’s wife and the grad student wife.

This post is massively overdue, but I had things on my mind and then there were things to do, and now I’m just like, “okay need to get in the habit of writing despite things.” So here’s a post. It’s also massive, so this is part 1 of 3.

A few weeks ago, I came across a tweet that linked this post about graduate students’ wives as a category of gendered labor. The whole post is worth reading, and the author breaks down all sorts of historic examples of how wives of graduate students are bound to the institution by their relationship with the student, and how the institution knows this and can exploit it for “low-skilled” clerical labor.

The other component of this “gendered labor” is the wife’s duties in the household, as she is often also responsible for the student’s material comfort. In it, the author, Zach, explicitly admits his interest in

the ways in which these women were often working for the university in the formal sphere of clerical and other forms of waged labor, and in the informal sphere of reproductive labor as unpaid workers often making possible both the subsistence of both the household and the reproduction of the academic labor force.

– “Graduate students’ wives as a gendered labor category,” Weapons of Class Instruction, 5 Sept. 2013

This post also links to an article from the late 1980s by Michele Scheinkman on “graduate student marriages.”  In this article, Scheinkman identifies a framework for understanding the unique difficulties of graduate student marriages, whether this is two graduate students, a working wife, or a working husband. She also identifies major threats to the stability of this marriage, but her focus is primarily on how to help these couples in therapy.

Scheinkman explicitly avoids discussing gender as a defining category for these relationships, claiming that

As will be discussed in the following section, gender indeed defines differently the meaning of the inequality and the ways in which men and women experience their respective roles of “dependent student” and “working spouse.” Nevertheless, the central contention of this article is that the major problem of graduate student marriages is not only one of gender. It is the asymmetrical organization itself that, in a sociocultural context of egalitarian values and/or dual-career expectations, is inherently problematic and preconditions graduate-student couples to being especially vulnerable and at risk.

-Scheinkman, “Graduate Student Marriages: An Organizational/Interactional View,” 1988.

As a kind of central theme in this article, she indeed focuses on the asymmetry in relationships, defined over a variety of fields (e.g. difference in schedules, difference in ability to focus on housework, etc.). For Scheinkman, the most important factor is for couples to recognize the transience of this imbalance, and not to ascribe the imbalance to intractable personality factors. I found this paper to be accurate even today, and useful not just for romantic relationships but for all kinds of interpersonal relationships; in short, read it. I very much agree with her general assessment of the problem, based on my personal experiences of balancing relationships and grad school. But I think gender is a huge part of the asymmetry, due to the expectations placed upon differently-gendered members of a (cis, het) couple.

…to be continued…

Part 2 – The personal shit

Part 3 – The response


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