Tuesday, 23 August 2011


From time to time, my husband and I have been been invited to be Visiting Professors (or Guest Professors or Visiting Scholars or various titles like that) at other institutions, for a sabbatical or for a shorter visit. Such invitations are always nice, of course, and we are fortunate to have some flexibility in how/when we arrange these visits. We are also fortunate to have a portable, adventurous daughter who is happy to visit new and distant places, as long as we eventually return to our home and our cats.

Some host institutions have money to pay visitors, some have funds to subsidize part of a visit, and some just have a stimulating environment (and a desk or two) to offer. If we have enough time to plan, we can usually raise (from grants and other awards) most or all of the money we need to offset the salary we are not getting from our home institution while we are away on a research leave. Particularly when visiting an extremely expensive (for us) place, however, it is great if there is at least subsidized visitor housing.

Some things you cannot plan for, though. Examples include MAJOR NATURAL DISASTERS (well, you can sort of plan, but you can't predict them) and MAJOR DECREASE IN THE VALUE OF THE DOLLAR (well, maybe you can also sort of plan for that, but not really).

Something else that I am never quite prepared for is how I am treated -- in an administrative way -- as a person who is both a visiting professor and the wife of another visiting professor. The first time we visited another institution as guest professors, I kept being surprised at how I was treated in some settings as an independent person and in others as a "dependent" -- that is, as someone not permitted to sign her own forms or make independent decisions in particular settings. I had never before had to sign forms on a special (lower) line labeled "Wife" before.

And now it's happening again, sort of. Although my husband and I are both invited to be visiting scholars with separate invitations to visit different research groups at a particular institution, I was recently surprised to find that I am listed as a "dependent" on an official university form. I only found this out when I was doing some paperwork, and this paperwork bounced back because I was not authorized to submit it on my own. Only my husband can submit this form on my behalf.

At least in this case, there is the possibility that one spouse (either one) is the primary person and the other is the dependent, so in theory I could be the primary filler-outer-of-paperwork, but we weren't asked what we preferred. The university decided that husband = primary.

Perhaps they are trying to save us all some paperwork by only processing one "family" form instead of separate forms for each of us. If these administrators knew us, however, they would put the more organized person as the "primary" applicant, and the person who hates all paperwork and who puts off any sort of administrative task as long as possible as the "dependent". But they didn't do that.

OK, so they don't know us, but it would have been nice if they had asked: which of you should be the primary form-filler-outer and which the so-called dependent? We make decisions like this all the time when there is a requirement that something be primarily in one name, with the other a co-signer. Sometimes I am the primary person and sometimes my husband is. For each situation, we discuss it and make a decision. But, as I said, we were not given this option in this case.

This is just an administrative detail, and unlikely to be an indicator of how I will be treated on a daily basis as a visiting scholar. I am sure that when I am interacting with my host research group, I will be treated as Me and not Mrs. Me. It's only when I have had to interact with government agencies and university administrative units that I have had to assume the role of Dependent. Designating this doesn't make it so, it just makes me annoyed that I can't be responsible for some (important) details of my own visit and appointment.

I hope that, someday, more of officialdom will recognize that some families have financially and otherwise equal members, and provide options for non-dependent (in a financial sense) partners to have equal responsibility for dealing with the wonderful world of bureaucracy.

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