Continued …

As one associate professor said of administrative work, “I’m good at it … I like it, but it almost killed me.”

Some plod through the mire because they love their work and know that, at the end of a project, they will have produced new research and gained satisfaction from it. If they are lucky enough to work at an institution that recognizes the dynamic nature of scholarship — how thinking provokes new areas of interest and how research and theory breed new avenues of analysis — then this absorption in one’s own work can eventually lead to promotion. But often this happens only if one has a chair or at least a senior colleague who is willing to push for it.

Some colleges actually restrict what can count toward promotion: It must be a book, and it must be a book in the field in which the scholar was originally hired. Such restrictions preclude the branching out of a curious mind into new areas; they also fail to consider that without the infrastructure needed to conduct research — without free time in the form of teaching reductions, sabbaticals, graders, and so on — writing a book is nearly impossible.

As productivity becomes increasingly commodified, the long stretch of time needed to think and write evaporates. One associate professor observed that the neoliberal academy has seen:

The elimination of any pockets of slowness, meditation, or deep learning — of languages, of history, of reading, all of which require investments of time-money, of sleep, of off-screen time, of anything complex … and [of] the attendant right to be bored, or even depressed, let alone out- and en-raged.

This is not the call for self-help implied in Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor, but instead a fierce acknowledgment of the attenuation of passion about knowledge in the corporate university.

Another associate professor explained that some years ago, the policy of their English department was to double the college recommendation for research requirements for promotion to full professor, even though no one in the department had been promoted in the previous 10 years. Since that policy was adopted, no others have been promoted either. In such a context, dedicating one’s summer months to writing and research seemed pointless — the professor was hoping to take a monthlong road trip to the West Coast instead (this was pre-coronavirus).

Associate professors are now assuming senior posts, including department chair, but must negotiate a mire of requirements that were often instituted by the very same full professors who feel they have already performed their service obligations yet are reluctant to assist those left in the middle. As much as I despise the term mentoring — and the concept, which represents a mode of institutional infantilization — promotion does depend on the guidance of senior faculty members.

As the ranks of assistant professors shrink as a result of the casualization of labor in humanities departments, and the slow attrition of full professors continues, the number of associate professors expands. Unless chairs (many of whom are associate professors themselves), deans, and provosts attend to this growing cohort’s situation, full professors able to vote to promote associates will become a rarity. The pathways to the first promotion (and tenure) are relatively clear, but as Dante foresaw, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / che la dirrita via era smarrita.” In other words, the straightway was lost somewhere in the middle of one’s journey — and Virgil is not stepping in to guide us out of this.

This story is not universal. Some newly tenured and promoted associate professors, many of them female, do feel the surge of liberation that job security and respect bring. They can relax and enjoy their status as scholars who have had an impact on their fields and who have been recognized for their contributions as teachers and researchers. They no longer feel beholden to an increasingly remote set of senior scholars whom they see as riding on the backs of energetic associate professors now given enormous departmental and programmatic responsibilities. Where some feel exploited by serving as directors of programs or being charged with revising the curriculum, others exult in the freedom to affect institutions, especially if they are still young enough to look forward to years of working under conditions of their own making.

Rarely, though, do humanities associate professors find themselves in such happy situations. Their administrative responsibilities frequently consist of fulfilling departmental responsibilities, often as directors of graduate or undergraduate studies, an apprenticeship and prelude to eventually becoming chair. As one associate professor said of administrative work, “I’m good at it … I like it, but it almost killed me.”

Many who are newly tenured — and thus highly successful at garnering grants and leaves — are given a huge service load seemingly out of resentment. Service shirkers increase the scope and burdens placed on others. “In the neoliberal university, associates get the shaft — you’re still a bit frightened … and if you are competent, you are punished because you then do the work others who pretend incompetence or actually fail to follow through on their work don’t do,” commented one associate professor.

In the eyes of associate professors, full professors appear either to have checked out or to be overly immersed in the bureaucratic and advising tasks required of them. Neither is attractive. These conditions foster a desire to leave rather than get promoted, because the consequent raise is not big enough and it is harder to find another job as a full professor. Moreover, promotion requires being in the middle of potential internal fights. In departments fraught with infighting (and whose isn’t?), achieving tenure and promotion can mean pressure to choose sides in longstanding conflicts. Who wants that?

The ones who can leave, leave … and those who remain become ghosts.

The feeling of having to choose sides or of being trapped resounds among newer associate professors who are still trying to stake out their careers, especially as teaching and advising loads increase when these scholars attempt to move from liberal-arts colleges to research institutions. Few at these larger universities understand the enormous amount of teaching, advising, and administrative work required of associate professors by smaller departments and colleges, so these energetic scholars feel stuck, despite their accomplishments.

Paradoxically, remaining an associate professor might improve one’s chances of being hired by another, more suitable, institution — because one is cheaper to employ. But one cannot remain an associate professor for too long, either, because then one appears stale, old news, dead wood. As one associate professor put it, “Associate professors are running the show plus doing all the administrative work … running 22 programs, hiring, staffing, advertising, curriculum. The ones who can leave, leave … and those who remain become ghosts.”

The process needs a wrench thrown into its machinery. Acquiescence to it only occurs, as one associate professor described it, “under the cover of a learned hypocrisy inculcated for decades: We support a broken system which pretends that all professors at all institutions have the same kinds of job,” and that compensation across institutions and disciplines is similar even when the conditions of labor are radically different. As another associate professor in the later stages of their career put it: “The full professor mark is just the final hoop — but it signifies nothing … The masquerade is exhausting for all concerned.”

A longer version of this essay previously appeared in the MLA journal Profession. The author notes that she wrote this essay before the pandemic brought death, disease, and economic destruction and with it wreaked havoc on education at all levels. One bright note: One of her informants will become a full professor in the fall of 2021.

A version of this article appeared in the February 5, 2021, issue.


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