Last fall, Kerry Ann Rockquemore, a professional academic mentor who writes an advice column, answered a question about “posttenure depression,” as the letter-writer put it. First, Rockquemore advised avoiding that term altogether, to avoid trivializing depression itself — and I agree with that advice. Turning to the substance of the letter, she noted that “anytime we move from one rank to another, there will be a period of transition in our status, identity, expectations and workload” (emphasis added). She continued: "You already experienced this when you transitioned from graduate student to professor, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the transition from pretenure to posttenure will also involve a shift in how others see you, how you see yourself” (emphasis added).
The issue, Rockquemore observed, was how you and your institution respond to the transition: "Some faculty members adapt quickly and happily, others have a lengthier transition that is marked with confusion and uncertainty, and some struggle with disappointment and disengagement. The idea of posttenure depression is grounded in the negative end of this adaptive spectrum."
Rockquemore provided excellent advice for how to deal with the transition after tenure, and I recommend you read her column. But I want to talk about a similar transition — one I’m dubbing “post-promotion clarity” — that some contingent faculty experience. That clarity might be accompanied by sadness, disappointment, and some of the other emotions that Rockquemore describes. But the negative emotions arise from another place altogether than the posttenure blues — namely, from the realization that the work you do as a contingent academic, that you have done for years, might well have been meaningless to your career.
Birth, Death, and Sadness
The first and last time I received a promotion in an academic position occurred on an auspicious day. It was the fifth of December, 2013. I’ll never forget it. I was at a coffee shop, writing on my laptop, waiting to hear the results of the vote of the tenured faculty. But I was also waiting to hear from my sister. At the time, she was living many states away from me, and she was giving birth to my niece.
As I waited to hear, both from the head of my division and from my sister, other news came across my Twitter feed: Nelson Mandela had died.
Then came the first phone call: My niece had arrived in the world. Big, beautiful, with a head full of curly black hair. I wished I could hold her, like I’d held her siblings when they’d been born. But I couldn’t. I wasn’t there with my sister who lived far away. I was unable to travel, because the job I worked took 80 hours a week to handle, even though it was only a contingent position, relatively low-paid, and definitely undervalued. My 80-hour weeks continued throughout the winter break. While tenured faculty in my division traveled to Italy during their break, I prepared the curriculum for the spring semester. I thought that extra work was what I had to do to get promoted.
As I waited for the second phone call of the day, I read news stories and eulogies about Mandela. For me, the most important eulogy came from the mouth of Mandela himself (as reported by The Independent on the day of his death): “Mandela himself offered a glimpse into his personal war. ‘To be the father of a nation is a great honour, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy. But it was a joy I had far too little of,’ he said in April 1992, announcing his separation from Winnie Madikizela. It was the end of his second marriage.” From terrorist, to prisoner, to prisoner of conscience, to father of a nation, he’d lived the life cycle of a freedom fighter. His accomplishments were vast. But even Nelson Mandela had had regrets.
The phone rang again. This time, it was the head of my division. He was so happy to inform me of my promotion. Congratulations. How delighted I must be.
After hanging up, I left my belongings unguarded on the table, ran to the back of the coffeeshop to the bathroom, and cried. I cried with happiness for the birth of my niece, and sadness that I hadn’t been there with my sister. I cried that the world had lost a leader, and that we still lived in such dark days of racial hatred. And I cried because I’d been promoted.
My promotion threw my work into a stark, stark light. Suddenly, I had clarity.
From Sadness to Anger
I thought about the 80-hour weeks I’d spent at a job I did not love — or even like. But I also remembered how much I used to like it. I used to be the very best at it. But gradually my days had become filled with managing the nonsense of thoughtless, even mean, tenured faculty who saw me, my position, and my “lesser” status as a way to get their bidding done. Some viewed me a handy target for their anger, someone to stomp on just to make themselves feel better.
I realized I had 50 bosses and none of them knew where my office was. Sure they’d voted to promote me. Who wouldn’t promote someone who worked 80 hours a week so that others could go home early and take vacations to Italy?
I realized I wasn’t just sad, I was angry.
I thought about how the work I did was, at best, 50 percent thankless. I thought about how even though I was ostensibly being “promoted” to “associate professor,” there was the important word “clinical” in front of that title — representing not only my lack of tenure but also my untenurable status. My 50 bosses were never going to let me in their club. I was tainted by my work as a writing teacher.
I thought about a discussion on the law professor blog The Faculty Lounge on the “very important pecking order in the law school environment.” One commenter accurately noted: "Status seems to be a major preoccupation of law profs, with an obsessive and seemingly endless focus on ranking themselves and others.” The commenter nailed it with a satire of the titles bestowed in law schools, titles similar to mine: “Ever more precise labels are devised to distinguish the ‘lessers’ from the tenured faculty — e.g., 'Visiting Acting Asst. Clinical Adjunct Instructor from Practice Who Is Definitely Not One of Us Despite the Same Credentials But Expected to Do Everything We Do and Just As Well With Fewer Resources, Less Compensation and Zero Respect From Us.’” The discussion on the blog was about, in particular, legal writing professors, the very kind of professor that I was.
“Clinical Associate Professor of Law.” I’d gotten promoted, but I hadn’t even been given a raise. Literally nothing had changed beyond my title. Nothing. I had worked so hard. For what? For what?
And now I realized I was only angry at myself.
Birth. Death. Family. The fight for justice. And what? What was I doing with my degrees and 80 hours a week?
Sometimes the Transition Brings the Unexpected
I received email congratulations from colleagues in my division and across the larger campus community. Each one of the congratulations hit me like a dart from a gun. Just a little more poison. What, I wanted to ask, are you congratulating me for? For being a good puppy and letting myself get kicked? For obeying all the rules? For overworking myself and keeping my kids in school and daycare for 12 hours a day? For hoping that, one day, my 50 bosses would let me in the tenure club?
I didn’t even get a raise. I felt like such a chump.
I understand what Rockquemore is talking about in her article — especially the part about how, after promotion, you might feel "a shift in how others see you, how you see yourself.” I realized that, after my “promotion,” my 50 bosses saw me in exactly the same way. But I saw myself differently. It took getting promoted, after 11 years in academia, to show me that the goals I’d thought were important weren’t so important — to me — after all. I had a reckoning to face, one I’d been able to ignore by focusing on earning that promotion. With the promotion out of the way, all that was left was the reckoning.
And the reckoning brought clarity.
I think, perhaps, those who work hard for tenure experience that clarity as well. You work hard for what you think you want, for what others tell you you are supposed to want, for what you think is the right thing to want, and then you get it. And the getting of it forces you to look back and assess — to reckon — with what you’ve sacrificed for this goal of yours. For many, the sacrifices were worth it, and will continue to be worth it.
Others, like me, will realize something else. You realize you don’t want what you’ve worked for after all. Not only do you not want it, but this thing that you’ve dedicated years of your life to achieving is actually bad for you. It is making you heartsick, if not actually sick. (After all, contingency can be bad for your mental health.) And when that’s the case, the best thing to do is to do the unexpected: to look at your promotion as a source of clarity, and, if you can, walk away.