During one of his “Moralities of Everyday Life” lectures last term, psychology professor Paul Bloom cited research conducted on babies as a way of opening a discussion on the nature of human kindness. What few of the over 400 people in the class knew, however, is that for Bloom, the origins of this research were close to home — literally. Among the dozen academics whose work was presented in the course was Karen Wynn — notable infant researcher, Yale psychology professor and, as it turns out, Bloom’s wife.
“Karen is my favourite scientific collaborator,” said Bloom.
Bloom and Wynn are not the only Yale couple to have academia turn into romance. Under the eaves of the University’s Gothic structures, on the swing sets hung from lofty trees and by the spring-time flowers scattered across residential college courtyards, Yale has seen many a pair find and foster love within its storied walls. And in an institution where scholarship is valued above all, it is no surprise that Yale has attracted many married faculty members who work in the same academic disciplines.
What is it like to share a home with someone who works not only for the same university, but also within the same department? The professor couples interviewed told diverse stories about their romantic beginnings, but there is one thing all of them seem to agree upon: When it comes to marriage, there is nothing quite like having a spouse whose work complements your own.
In 1998, Yale hosted the International Congress of Assyriology & Near Eastern Archaeology. Held in a different city every year, the conference brings together Assyriology scholars from around the world. Two of the attendants were Kathryn Slanski and Eckhart Frahm, current members of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilization faculty at Yale.
At the time, Slanski and Frahm were just young scholars. They met for the first time at a reception in the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, where they exchanged pleasantries about each other’s work.
“I’m sure we talked about the papers that each of us gave,” Slanski said, “because I was impressed by him and he was impressed by me.”
After the conference, they went their separate ways, only having lunch together once at the Paris gathering the following year. They were living in different continents at the time, with Slanski having accepted her first academic post at Tel Aviv University and Frahm working as an assistant professor at Heidelberg University in Germany. Four years later, however, they met up again — this time in New Haven as finalists for an assistant professorship at Yale. Because Slanski is a native of Connecticut, she insisted on taking Frahm out to lunch, telling him that he could treat her to the next meal if he was chosen for the post.
“He’s been buying lunch ever since,” Slanski said in a New York Times article announcing the couple’s marriage at New Haven’s Lighthouse Point Park in September of 2006. They now work side by side at the University, where they are both teachers of Assyriology.
When two married professors apply for posts at Yale, department chairs often try to hire both partners, economics professor Benjamin Polak told the News in 2010.
While it is clear that the professors’ attraction to each other extends far beyond appreciation for one another’s work, other pairs interviewed agreed that mutual passion helped to create an initial spark. Philosophy professors Tamar Gendler and Zoltán Szabó, who also met at an academic conference, fell in love over pizza and Grice’s theory of implicature.
They met at the Harvard-MIT Graduate Student Philosophy Conference in the fall of 1992, Gendler said, when she was a graduate student at Harvard and he was a graduate student at MIT who had presented a paper at the event. Gendler said that Szabó helped her carry pizzas to the conference dinner, they started dating that weekend, and were engaged within 18 months. That summer, Szabó got his Ph.D., and they were married shortly afterwards.
Gendler said that she initially made conversation with Szabo because she was intrigued by his work.
“Part of the reason we liked each other in the first place was because we admired the way the other person thought,” Slanski agreed. “I think it’s a real privilege to have someone who can appreciate the work that you do.”
One of the challenges facing academic couples working in the same field of study is preventing their work from consuming their personal lives. When asked whether she and Szabó talked about their work often at home, Gendler said that they used to discuss philosophy at the dinner table when their older son Laszlo, 14, was a toddler. It might have been “too much,” Gendler said, when they realized that one of Laszlo’s first words was “counterexample.”
“We don’t have sharp boundaries between home and work. We spend a lot of time outside Yale, for instance, talking about research and ideas,” Bloom said. “I suppose this has its pros and cons, but I’m very happy with this sort of life.”
Most couples interviewed said that while they often talk about their work , they seldom argue. This is the case with psychology professors Marvin Chun and Woo-kyoung Ahn, who both specialize in cognitive science but have distinct research interests.
For others, being married to an academic within the same field can create ideal opportunities for close collaboration. This is the case with Slanski and Frahm, who have worked together on a variety of projects, such as leading an Assyriology summer program for Iraqi students and scholars. In 2003, following the United States’ invasion of Iraq, the two of them also drafted a petition to protect the artifacts that had been ransacked from the National Museum in Baghdad. The petition was signed by more than 700 scholars from around the world and presented to the United Nations Security Council.
“We value each other’s work highly. I’m not sure that you could expect that from a partner who wasn’t an academic and couldn’t understand what it’s like to be in academia,” said Slanski.
Many of the couples have been immersed in their fields of study for so long that it seems only natural to be married to someone who shares their passion. As Slanski noted, “[Being married to an academic in the same field] is so normal to us that we don’t think about it.”
These professors’ attachment to scholarship goes beyond their commitment to one another, extending to their close social circles. In describing the series of events that led her and Szabó to Yale, Gendler remarked on all the encounters she had with Yale academic couples even before her and her husband became members of the faculty. She noted, for instance, that she and Szabó spent the 2003-’04 academic year on sabbatical in Hungary, where Szabo’s family resides. In the summer of 2004, Bloom and Wynn lived in the same apartment building as Gendler and Szabó in Budapest. As it turned out, Bloom and Wynn played a large role in compelling Gendler and Szabó to consider positions at Yale.
The scholarly connections have extended to the professors’ children as well. The son of Bob Frank and Rafaella Zannuttini, both Linguistics professors, plays in a classical guitar quartet with Laszlo Szabó. When he was in the sixth grade, Laszlo attended Cold Spring School with Zach Bloom as well as the children of three other Yale professors (including the son of professors Michael Della Rocca and Christine Hayes).
“It’s a small town …,” Gendler mused.
Overall, professors said that their experiences as academic couples have been rewarding. It is comforting to be married to someone who can appreciate the challenges of academia, Chun said.
“Being able to communicate and understand each other is a huge plus,” said Chun. “For example, we don’t have to explain the stress involved with having a grant proposal deadline or receiving a rejection letter from a journal or grant agency.”
Slanski agreed. “I find [my husband’s] work very creative and exciting,” she said. “It’s a privilege that I don’t take for granted.”