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Q&A: Married professors discuss working at same university


Jason Keeler (left) and Jordan Watts (right) after their courthouse wedding in Boulder, CO. September 22, 2016

Jordan Watts and Jason Keeler have both taught at CMU for three years now. 

But Keeler and Watts aren't just colleagues. Unbeknownst to many of their students, Keeler and Watts are married.

Watts teaches math; usually graduate-level topology classes, but he also teaches differential equations and linear algebra classes. Keeler teaches meteorology classes about meteorological instruments and severe weather.

They've been married for almost five years now, since September 2016. 

Keeler and Watts met on 'Ok Cupid'. At the time, Keeler was finishing his doctorate degree at the University of Illinois, and Watts was working there as a post-doc.

CM Life met with Keeler and Watts to talk to them about what it's like, being married and working at the same university.

How did you guys meet?

Keeler: "So we just a dating website. So, I spent a year in Colorado in the middle of my Ph.D., and I was single, and I knew I was going to be moving back to Illinois to finish writing my dissertation. So I made an 'OkCupid' profile, and we just started talking in January of 2014, before I had even moved back to Illinois. So once I moved back we decided to meet."

How did your first couple of dates go?

Keeler: "So, a week before our first date, it was Valentine's Day. I was single, I wanted to feel good about myself, so I went to the gym on campus, worked out, went back home, and decided to get dressed up before going into my office. I was wearing dress shoes, and it was snowing, and there was this pothole that must have filled up with water and froze over. The fresh snow covered up the ice, and so I wiped out on the ice. I saved my cup of coffee, but caught my fall with my left arm, and proceeded to fracture my elbow. So yeah, showed up to our first date with a broken elbow.

But, within a few weeks of dating, I had him helping me out at a community garden patch, that I had a part-time job managing. I was like the TA for the garden. But Jordan helped me put my fence around the garden while I was in a sling. And so I found a nerd who appreciated that I liked gardening, we did talk about math. Probably talked about giant pumpkins within the first half-hour with each other probably."

Watts: "For me, being in math, all I ever did was sit around in an office, and write on a chalkboard, and sit in front of a computer screen. So actually getting out into a garden and doing something real, that really was nice. I actually enjoyed it."

Keeler: "So I guess it worked out, you know, where we appreciated each other being nerds. He was having fun doing something different, gardening, and I was just appreciating that he was helping me out when I had just injured myself like that."

Who proposed and how?

Watts: "I proposed. So, we aren't too much into engagement rings and stuff like that. We have wedding rings, but not engagement rings. So that said, I still wanted to propose with something. So I started thinking, 'Okay, what's something I can propose with?' And I wanted something that is similar to a ring but wasn't a ring. So being a mathematician, especially a topologist, I wanted something that, if a ring was made of Playdough, I could deform it without tearing it apart into something else. And what I chose was these little Nautilus shells. These fossils that kind of spiral around, but they have holes through the center, and it had fossilized into pyrite or fools gold. So it's actually pretty cool looking, and I got a couple of those, and that's what I used instead of a ring. So if you're a topologist we call these 'homeomorphic' to a ring, and you can continuously deform one into a ring. So it's kind of like a ring."

Keeler: "So he proposed with those, which, I mean, I just thought they were really cool, but the symbolism behind it was really nice too. So it was on the two-year anniversary of our first date that Jordan proposed.

Jason Keeler (left) and Jordan Watts (right) on the day Watts received his green card.

How long have you been married?

Watts: "Since 2016 technically. So I proposed in February 2016. And we had planned to get married in summer 2017, in July. And then I found out that I couldn't get married, because I'm a Canadian citizen. And while technically that doesn't stop me from getting married, at the time I was on a very special type of visa, that allowed me to work in the US, but with the stipulation that I would be returning to Canada. 

So we had already started planning our wedding when I realized, my visa expires two or three months before that wedding. And I realized how I'm not going to be able to renew that visa and tell them I plan on leaving and going back to Canada when I'm getting married to an American citizen. They will see that as immigration fraud. So Jason and I contacted an immigration lawyer, and they agreed. They said 'Get married now, that's immigration fraud."

Keeler: "That was August of 2016. And they said, 'Yeah, get married in the next few weeks, and then we'll start the process on your green card.' And so we rushed. We had already booked and paid a non-refundable deposit at the venue, had a photographer, we were already along in the planning process. And so we rushed, went to the courthouse, convinced our photographer to switch an engagement session to a courthouse wedding session. The whole wedding we planned within a week. And just quick, got that done. 

So these are our $20 wedding rings that we picked up at this random shop in Boulder because we needed to have something. And we said 'Yeah, we'll replace them with something else for the wedding.' But by the time we had our ceremony in July of 2017, we had become so attached to them that we didn't want to get other wedding rings."

Watts: "And then we did have our wedding ceremony."

Keeler: "Yeah, we did have the ceremony. Once Jordan had his green card, and we knew he wasn't going to get deported, or jailed."

Did you do anything special at the reception?

Keeler: "So, this is also part of why we work out so well. I'm the goofy one and he's the serious one, most of the time. So when we were dating there was this one bar in Champagne, Illinois, that had like a big disco night once per year. And we would go to that because it was different and it was fun. And we decided as a surprise for our wedding guests we were going to have our DJ for the last hour of the wedding, we decided that we were going to disappear, put on these 70s era suits that we had, and show back up to the dance floor, and have it be a disco for the rest of the night. So I had this white leisure suit, with this like, bright green sequin shirt, with huge lapels for under it."

Watts: "I had a very light blue ruffled shirt. And then I had a beige sports jacket and matching pants."

Keeler: "And so we just showed up, and there was a bit of miscommunication with the DJ. I think we had picked out some other song that was supposed to be played. And the DJ had their own idea of what was the right song, and they played Its Raining Men as the first disco song."

What's it like working at the same university?

Keeler: "So this is something you see a lot of, that if you're crazy enough to get a Ph.D., you end up marrying someone who's crazy enough to get a Ph.D. because they understand you a little bit more. So you run into this problem of you both want jobs in the same location...For us, I like that what we're experts in complement each other, but that it's not the same thing. So we can appreciate what the other person does, but we still are able to have some of our own independent space work-wise. When we're on campus, our offices are on different sides of campus. So when we want we can go get a cup of coffee, but I think that it's important that we're not in the same department, sharing an office, and being back home. It's nice to work at the same place, but it's also nice to have that independence.

Watts: "As Jason said, we work in two different buildings, two different departments. So there isn't a whole lot of interaction. We can talk about various policies at the university. We drive in together, obviously. So we try to work around each other's schedules, and we meet people in each other's departments."

Keeler: "I mean, we have a nice group from both departments together that will go out for lunch sometimes. And so it's nice to have that connection between the departments on campus. But as Jordan said, it's nice. It's convenient to commute together. We both wanted to be professors, and we were just happy to find a university that it worked out for both of us."

What's it been like with both of you working from home?

Keeler: "There is no work home separation."

Watts: "We have separate offices. That's really important. I have my office, he has his, and it's really important when we're teaching at the same time. Otherwise, it would be very difficult to do. So in that sense, we are able to maintain a little bit of separation. We see each other at lunch during the day."

Keeler: "I'm in my office most of the day, he's in his office most of the day. So it's not too different. But I am glad that we were able to have our own offices. Otherwise, the last year would have been a challenge."

What are obstacles you've had to overcome as a same-sex couple, both in general, but also in academia?

Jordan Watts (left) and Jason Keeler (right) in Miami Beach, celebrating getting jobs at CMU.

Keeler: "There are things that you don't necessarily think about. Things you always have to decide when you meet someone. You ask yourself, 'am I going to come out to this person, or not?' It doesn't sound like much, until you realize that every single person you meet in your entire life, you have to make that decision. 'What are the risks of coming out? What are the damages of not?' For us, coming to CMU, I made it a point where I was upfront during the interview, I didn't want a workplace where that was an awkward thing. So we felt welcome here in that sense. 

I guess there have been some situations where we don't always feel completely safe. We don't hold hands in public, just because we feel like it's a safety risk. We went on vacation to Miami to celebrate getting these jobs together. The day before we got there, there was actually an attack on a couple a few hundred feet from our hotel. That's something that's always there. Just as any person in a marginalized community, you just need to be aware."

Watts: "I'll add that even with students, I tend to be very private anyway. I don't usually talk about my personal life. But one thing that does enter my mind is 'I'm in front of a classroom. Am I really going to come out to these students?' I don't know if I would want to do that. A couple of years ago there were some issues on campus, do I really want to have something happen to me? Probably nothing would happen, but you still think of these things. It's sort of abnormal."

Keeler: "Well, I guess the way that I thought of that feeling is that, as professors, being in this relatively safe position, I felt responsible to be visibly out on campus. Because students see this. I think that whether a student is part of the community or not, and whether they're out or not, I think that by us being visible, and hopefully by doing things like this, it helps other people. I realized in my first semester at CMU, I was initially not out, for the first few weeks, and I felt like I was being inauthentic. I felt like I was being very rigid, very serious, and that's not me. And so I actually realized that 'This is affecting my ability to do my job, by not coming out. 

And so I found a way to casually slip it in. I never directly said it, but I found some way that I was able. One time, it was Canadian Thanksgiving, and I mentioned how great it was being married to a Canadian, or that it was great that my husband was Canadian, because I get two Thanksgivings. And so I just very casually worked it in there, and I never had to say it directly, but it was known."

Watts: "I'm a bit more different, as I said. I'm a bit more private, and I just don't talk about my personal life anyway, I talk about the math. That's all that's important to me, is the math. So I guess we're just two different people in that way, which is fine. At the same time, what Jason said about responsibility, I also feel that. I feel like I do need to balance my privacy with the fact that there need to be more role models for all of these groups, such as LGBTQ+. And now that I'm in this position, there is a slight responsibility, that I should be a little more out and so on than I probably am. So here we are."