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A Synergistic Situation
Husband and wife share teaching position at Calvin

by Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

It's a formula which has caused only positive reaction from all of the elements involved.

"I see it as a win-win situation," said Roger DeKock, Calvin professor of chemistry.

"It is a creative way to fill both their needs and ours," added chemistry professor Ken Piers.

The situation both DeKock and Piers are speaking of is a unique job-sharing position for the husband and wife duo of Mark and Karen Muyskens.

Both of the Muyskens specialize in physical chemistry and applied to Calvin as a teaching team to fill one open position in that field in 1988.

"At the time we were looking for positions, we both wanted to teach at small colleges and we were both in physical chemistry. Well, most small colleges only have one position in physical chemistry and finding two colleges close by each other that would both have openings in physical chemistry didn't seem very likely," said Mark.

The idea of sharing a position came to Karen after she heard of a couple in sociology at another small college doing just this sort of thing. "It seemed like a really good option to me," she said. "Our goals were to both be active in professions as well as be able to be home with our children and this would allow us to do both."

Although an unusual proposition, the chemistry department was quite open to the pair's application.

"We had not heard of anything like this before, but we were intrigued by the possibility," recalled Piers, who was chair of the departmentat the time. "Given the interest that the college has in faculty having both a healthy family life and an active professional life, this seemed like a creative solution."

At the time of their hiring, the Muyskens, who were married in 1988, did not yet have children.

"We really ended up getting more than one person. It was a good deal for us," said DeKock. "They were both here almost all of the time and we had to be careful we didn't take advantage of them."

Department chair Arie Leegwater agreed: "Initially, it was a case where two halves made much more than a whole."

"We both wanted to be involved in professional life," said Karen. "At the beginning it was no problem to be here all of the time. We were each only teaching half of the classes, though."

That has changed with the addition of John, 4, and Carolyn, 19 months. Now each of them are at Calvin half-time and at home the other half of the time.

"Looking back on it, this is the part I really love," said Mark. "I get the chance to do drawing and reading and fun things with the kids. I remember in graduate school one of my colleagues lamenting about not having more opportunity to spend time with his wife and young daughter. I was concerned abou that happening to me."

So on a given day Mark can first be found in the laboratory studying the decomposition products produced from the exposure of small molecules in the gas phase to ultraviolet laser light and later at home coloring with his two children. Karen might be doing the same thing...only in reverse order.

At the beginning of each semester the Muyskens are given their class assignments and the couple then divides up the teaching load. "It usually divides pretty evenly," said Karen. When it doesn't, one person just takes on more home responsibilities.

Mark is in charge of laundry while Karen does more of the other cleaning; and whoever is home with the kids makes dinner.

"Good communication is essential for our work at home and at Calvin to run smoothly," said Karen. "We each have our own time blocks for being at Calvin and we work to preserve them."

Each of the Muyskens has their own office and tries to be as accessible to students as possible.

"We try to make students very aware of when they will find us on campus," said Karen. "We also give out our home number and we do have some evening office hours as well."

DeKock added, "I see a lot of women students visit Karen's office and I appreciate the fact that this gives them a role model that we would otherwise not have in this department." For Karen having the opportunity to stay in the field and not take a break to raise their children full-time was a factor in their decision.

"It is not very practical for someone in the field to take significant time off," she said. "You need to stay up on the techniques and latest advances in the field."

The Muyskens do this by cooperating on their research project as well. They are co-principal investigators on their grants.

"We each have different strengths in the lab and we take advantage of this," said Karen. "We also work together on data analysis and writing. We spend a lot of time batting ideas back and forth. This is a time when two heads are definitely better than twice as much time from one."

The Muyskens use that same philosophy in teaching. "Because we are both physical chemists, we can consult with each other on lab and lecture course ideas," said Karen "We often tell each other, ‘That's a good idea, but what about modifying it this way.' This kind of feedback would be much more limited if I were the only physical chemist in the department."

But like in most situations, not everything has been positive for the Muyskens.

"Because we are both part time, we do miss out on some of the informal conversations with colleagues," said Karen. "A lot of things get talked about in the hallway."

Department meetings, which both attend, can also be a problem.

"We need daycare at non-evening times every once in while," said Mark. "We've been known to have students babysit them here or at home or sometimes we can entertain them here with coloring or books or something."

Another potential problem the Muyskens faced was what if their teaching abilities were not the same? That was a potential hurdle the department had discussed as well.

"From the very beginning we made it clear that each of them would have to satisfy the requirements for tenure and be active, contributing people to the department," said Piers.

The department did not have to face any such problem as both officially received tenure this spring.

"The department has always been very supportive of us," said Mark. "We both have full privileges to attend conferences; we both have a full vote in the department; and we have never been seen as being not totally committed to chemistry or been treated as a half-time colleague."

"People treat us as full colleagues," added Karen. "Although we have chosen not be full-time, I haven't perceived any lessening of ourselves in their eyes for that decision. I wouldn't take that for granted at all schools. It is a positive feature of Calvin."

While the Muyskens would recommend their solution to other couples, it would be difficult to find other couples in the exact same situation.

"What makes this so attractive here is that first of all Grand Rapids is a place where you can afford to live on one income," said Mark. "In certain areas of the country this is much easier to do than in others."

A second consideration is finding a couple where both are not only in the field of chemistry, but also in the same subdiscipline.

"It would not have worked out well in our department if we had had an opening for a physical chemist and only one of the them was interested in that particular subdiscipline," said Piers. "I think this situation is relatively rare, but there could be others out there who have actually met in the laboratory. I think their situation could be a model for others looking to do the same thing. It has worked out very well here."


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