Love on campus

Dr. Alexandra King and Dr. Nicolas Bommarito talk about their journey from graduate student couple to securing jobs at the same university

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A selfie taken by Dr. Alexandra King on the right with Dr. Nicolas Bommarito on the left with mountains in the background.
Both professors have been together for 13 years. PHOTO: Alexandra King

By: Gurleen Aujla, Peak Associate

Editors’ note: answers have been edited for concision and clarity. 

The Peak sat down to interview Dr. Alexandra King and Dr. Nicolas Bommarito, two SFU philosophy professors proving love still exists on the incredibly grey Burnaby campus. Dr. King is an associate professor specialising in ethics and the philosophy of art. Dr. Bommarito is an assistant professor teaching ethics and Buddhist and Tibetan philosophy. Both professors began teaching in 2014 and joined SFU’s philosophy department in Fall 2020. 

How did you end up at SFU? 

King: We got pretty lucky in that, right out of graduate school, we both got job offers. You can negotiate spousal hires or partner hires, so we were able to negotiate a dual hire at our first job at the University at Buffalo in New York.

I was up for tenure two years ago at Buffalo. When you’re up for tenure, you’re generally applying for jobs. So both of us applied for a bunch of different jobs at that time, and SFU offered us jobs and we took them.

What’s your favourite memory at SFU together? 

Bommarito: That’s such a funny question because we moved during the pandemic so most of the time [we’ve worked] online. We had to quarantine for two weeks together and that just felt like such a strong bonding experience of being together in a small space. There were also big wildfires while we quarantined. We had booked a place with a balcony with the thought that we could be outside, and then there was all this smoke, so we were stuck in this tiny space. I felt like we were close before that, and this just made us much closer. 

K: It’s tough because we haven’t had a lot of time on campus, together. I redid my office last semester — I was on teaching leave and Nic was teaching. I would come to campus with him on days when he was teaching and I would just work on getting my office set up.

What are the best parts about working together? 

B: With a job like the ones we have, you’re pretty invested in it. I think a barrier for a lot of people that I know is they don’t understand what academic life is like or they don’t understand what philosophy is all about. To be able to share that with my partner, I don’t have to explain those parts of my life. It’s nice and it helps to feel closer.

I don’t have to explain to her what I like about philosophy, or what I’m interested in, or what the challenges and rewards are of academic life because she knows all those things. 

K: I agree with what Nic said about the best parts being if you had something stressful happen or if you’re under certain kinds of pressures that are work-related, you don’t have to do all this explaining. It’s a way we can relate to each other, in which it’s harder to relate to close friends who are not academics.

It’s also nice to be able to understand successes and share in those. To an outsider, all of the things can sort of look the same, like you published a paper or you gave a good lecture today, and it sort of feels undifferentiated. Whereas, because we both work in the same field [ . . . ]  there’s just so much you can share and discuss that is very valuable.

Do you have a favourite date spot on campus? 

K and B: Biercraft. 

B: We usually stop at Starbucks when we first get there. Depending on how long the day is, we’ll stop and get some food on the way back. 

K: The Circle K at Production Way we sometimes stop at because we don’t drive to campus, we commute. 

Do you have any plans for Valentine’s Day? 

K: We don’t really celebrate. 

B: We just try to enjoy daily life together instead of making specific times to enjoy time together.

K: One thing that is nice about working together in this kind of job is that we spend a lot of time together; I think much more than other couples who have different careers.

I think part of the Valentine’s Day ritual is, “make sure to set aside time to spend with your partner,” and the reality for us is we just don’t have to make time to spend with each other. We just basically spend all our time together by default.

Is there a never-ending philosophical debate on a specific topic between you two? 

B: I feel like so many. I feel like there used to be more. If you talk to the same person for a long time, you get to know that person’s outlook in a certain way and then you understand their point of view. 

K: With two philosophers, any conversation, if you have it long enough, will turn into a philosophical conversation. Any argument you have about anything will eventually turn into a philosophical argument.

B: I think because we’re both in philosophy, we’ve absorbed the same technical vocabulary and that kind of creeps into your everyday talk. But since it’s the same for us, we have the same kind of way of working out or thinking about those issues. It makes it easier to resolve the issue because we have the same way of conceptualizing it.

K: I think for me, that’s actually the best part about having a partner who’s a philosopher. You learn to disagree in a way that’s not offensive or unproductive. You learn to understand other views and [ . . . ] learn a kind of way to talk about those things. I think we’re getting very good at disagreeing with each other.

I’ve come to think that a lot of doing philosophy well is about communication, and that’s also a lot about what having a good relationship is about. Since we have, because of our careers, really similar communication styles and we are good at understanding and diagnosing the source of disagreements that we have, we can navigate those more productively.

What’s your favourite memory with each other? 

B: I kind of want to explain why I find [this question] hard. Graduate school is a really weird time. Moving and starting a job in a new place is a really weird time. Moving in a pandemic to start a new job in a new country is a really weird time. The amount of different experiences that we’ve had together is kind of mind-blowing and it feels like we’ve shared different lives. We had a grad school life together. Now we have this life together and so it’s just so much that we went through, real huge life changesthe only person I went through it with is Alex. 

K: Almost 13 years, we’ve been together.  There are so many different kinds of experiences and kinds of things [we’ve] gone through together.

We used to go twice a week to a diner that was in downtown Providence, which is the city that Brown [University] is in. It was off-campus, so it felt like a little bit of an escape to go there. We would walk 15 minutes to this diner after morning class or after working in the library for a while. 

The waitresses knew us and we had regular orders and they’d be like, “Oh, is it the usual?” It was the first time I had been somebody for whom there would be a “the usual,” and that was just really fun. I just really enjoyed being able to take that break. We did that for a year.