Moving up the ladder means dealing with endless bureaucracy.
For many, it’s not worth it.

By Paula Rabinowitz. Republished with permission from The Chronicle.

“Sustained rejection of a total institution often requires sustained orientation to its formal organization, and hence, paradoxically, a deep kind of involvement in the establishment.”

—Erving Goffman

It may seem counterintuitive, but there is a connection between the administrative university’s push toward hiring contingent labor (now approximately 70 percent of college instructors) and the status of a damaged species: associate professors. Long forgotten, these tenured professors find themselves burdened with extensive service and administrative tasks and with little guidance and few incentives to seek promotion.

The pathway to tenure for an assistant professor, while onerous and fraught, is also fairly consistent, obvious, and, despite the inflationary model that requires one to have more and more accomplishments to succeed, achievable. The dirty secret about tenure at all but the most elite universities is that almost everyone who seeks it gets rewarded — the weeding-out process occurs earlier in one’s career.

Departments that depend on contingent labor — graduate students, postdocs, adjunct instructors, and so forth — cannot presume that these already overworked and underpaid educators will also take on mentorship, administration, and committee work. At the same time, the full professors who have held these positions — as department chairs, directors of graduate or undergraduate programs, and committee members further up the administrative food chain — want to extricate themselves from such duties and concentrate instead on research and teaching.

Thus, associate professors are mired in an administrative trap for which they are often unprepared. If they are good academic citizens, they take on the work. That’s how the system sustains itself: Scholars labor to peer-review journal articles and books for presses, serve on editorial boards, organize conferences, advise students, and assume administrative posts. This work is done for the profession and for one’s colleagues and graduate students.

This long apprenticeship may appear cult-like to some (to those, for instance, who perceive that power resides in people rather than in their institution and its culture), but our system is premised on paying back by paying forward, by helping the next generation of scholars. This requires maintaining the institution itself through service. Yet this unspoken process fails to outline how one moves from associate to full professor. And the longer one lingers at the associate level, the harder it seems to move past it. Overcoming this hurdle takes a number of things, among them imagination — seeing oneself differently, as someone who is fully accomplished — as well as a senior colleague or chair who also takes time to help make this transition happen.

In Lydia Davis’s marvelous one-paragraph take on academia, “A Position at the University,” the narrator reveals this process of self-identification as a crucial, if somewhat soul-killing, institutional practice. Academia, after all, operates much like the many restaurants I worked in before graduate school: There is the obvious work to be done — making and serving food and cleaning up afterward — and then there is other, hidden labor. This latter category, at a restaurant, entails relationships developed with customers and co-workers. But it also includes the extra work necessary to keep the system running: filling salt and pepper shakers, scouring coffee pots, replenishing napkins.

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