“Modern American Civilization,” a class co-taught by Binghamton’s historic pair of Leigh Ann Wheeler and Donald Nieman, has become a family affair at Binghamton University.
Wheeler, a history professor, and Nieman, provost and vice president for academic affairs, have been married since 2001, but have known each other since Wheeler was a freshman in Nieman’s U.S. history class at Kansas State University in 1986.
Wheeler said Nieman was oblivious to her infatuation with him at the time.
“When I was an undergraduate, I did have a huge crush on him, and he had no clue,” she said. “In fact, one time we were talking about it, during my first year of teaching, and I asked Don, ‘So what do you do when a student has a crush on you?’ because I had a student who had a crush on me and I was trying to figure out how to deal with that, and he said, ‘I don’t think anyone’s ever had a crush on me.’ I mean, he’s kind of clueless about these things so he had no clue.”
Nieman and Wheeler approach co-teaching their class as a team effort, in which both take equal responsibility in planning and lecturing.
“The night before class, we prepare together, and we create the whole lesson for the next day,” Nieman said. “We come up with the PowerPoint slides, the images, the script, and then decide who’s going to do what.”
While the prospect of working professionally with a significant other may sound like a recipe for disaster, Nieman and Wheeler say that they use the opportunity to turn their differences into teaching opportunities.
“We will modify what each other says, and some things we disagree on,” Wheeler said. “One thing we try to do is represent for the students the fact that history as a discipline is full of interpretation, and we interpret things differently, just as the historians who we assign interpret things differently.”
Nieman agreed that working together as husband and wife gives them the opportunity to enrich the classroom environment with different opinions.
“If we have something to say…” Nieman began.
“ — we’ll interject, interrupt, contradict and correct each other,” Wheeler added, interrupting him.
Teaching is truly a family affair on days when school is cancelled for Wheeler and Nieman’s 9-year-old son, as the two will often bring him to class at BU.
“Actually, on days when he’s out of school for whatever reason, weather or holidays, his preference is to come to campus with us,” Wheeler said. “He likes to hang out in the office, he likes to come to class. For class on Monday, he’s going to do the reading and participate, he wants to take the quiz.”
According to Nieman, their son loves eating lunch at Chenango Champlain Collegiate Center Dining Hall, but will no longer be seen around campus in a bow tie to match his father’s.
“It’s interesting, three years ago, he loved to do that,” Nieman said. “Now he doesn’t particularly love to wear a tie and a jacket.”
“He prefers to pair his blazers with a t-shirt,” Wheeler added.
Wheeler and Nieman both came to BU from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
“In 2007, Leigh Ann was contacted by the history department, because she’d been nominated for a position that the history department was looking for, and she wrote back and said, ‘I’d be really interested in applying for the job, but I’m not very mobile right now, my husband’s a dean,’” Nieman said. “And the chair of the search committee … wrote back to Leigh Ann and said ‘We have a dean’s position open, why don’t you have him apply? So Leigh Ann applied for the history position, and I applied for the dean of Harpur College, and she actually came for her interview before I interviewed for the dean’s position, and she was actually offered a job before I was, which meant that when I came here to interview, it was a very high-stakes interview.”
As far as advice for college couples looking to balance their romance and studies this Valentine’s Day, both Nieman and Wheeler stressed mutual appreciation between partners.
“People have to respect one another, and what their partner is doing, and be able to make sacrifices — its a two-way street,” Nieman said.
Wheeler cautioned young women against diving into a long-term relationship without discussing career ambitions first.
“I think that a lot of people plunge into marriage with the big romantic wedding, they don’t think about the reality of are you choosing someone who is going to support your ambitions and do their half of all of the work that it takes to keep a family alive so that you can do your work too,” Wheeler said. “I couldn’t do what I do if he weren’t a full partner, he does all the stuff that people think ‘Oh, he’s provost,” but no, he does laundry, he cooks, he does grocery shopping, he does child care, he sets up play dates — often, he does more of that stuff than I do.”
After 12 years of marriage and nine years of parenthood, mutual respect seems to be working well for the Wheeler-Nieman household.
“Leigh Ann is still my Valentine,” Nieman said. “And she is the smartest, funniest, most caring and most beautiful person I know.”
“And Don is a fantastic partner,” Wheeler added. “And if all of my female friends could have a partner as supportive and wonderful as he is, they’d be much more happy.”
Correction: Feb. 15, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the location of Bowling Green State University. It is in Ohio, not Kentucky. Additionally, the article stated that both Wheeler and Nieman both taught at Bowling Green State University for eight years. While Wheeler did indeed teach there for eight years, Nieman had been there longer.