How to Avoid the Associate-Professor Trap

Full vitae came for adjuncts full bleed

Image: Harry Campbell for The Chronicle

By Carolyn Dever and George Justice

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that associate professors, newly promoted to the ranks of the tenured, find themselves saddled with more — and sometimes unconscionably more — administrative and service work. It is a truth often remarked in private that new associate professors, having spent all they had and more to grab the golden ring of tenure, hit a wall, struggle with disillusion or even depression: Future decades of professional existence loom, stripped bare of guideposts, goals, and landmarks.

The precarity of the early midcareer moment is a truth also recognized by nearly all senior administrators; particularly those drawn from the faculty ranks. As deans, provosts, and presidents will tell you, the question of how best to support associate professors is on the radar, widely known as something our institutions do not do well.

After all, what sense does it make to commit a lifetime contract to emergent scholars and teachers, the most charismatic and cutting edge in their fields, and then crush their spirits through neglect at best, mendacity at worst? Yet there is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting midcareer professors. Consider disciplinary differences alone: associate professors in chemistry, economics, classics, and studio art have distinctive professional-development needs. Education, business, law, engineering, public policy, and medicine, even more so. Faculty governance languishes, to the detriment of all, while “service” — also known as the work that helps us deliver on our mission as educators — is the eternal hot potato.

In her recent Chronicle Review essay, “The Associate-Professor Trap,” Paula Rabinowitz describes the excess service load borne by tenured associate professors. She’s not quite right about the problem, nor about the most effective responses.

The associate professors in Rabinowitz’s rather melodramatic telling are “a damaged species,” “long forgotten,” “ghosts,” martyrs to the grunt work that universities need to sustain themselves. Indeed, there’s no doubt that survivor’s guilt haunts many newly tenured faculty members in the pandemic era, given the near-disappearance of entry-level faculty positions that offer any hope of tenure.

Let us add a new observation to the mix, however — one that we have experienced ourselves and witnessed in others, but that we have never seen taken up as a way of thinking about the “trap” of midcareer faculty development. This involves a new orientation to how colleges work.

The premise is simple: The job of an associate professor after tenure is almost entirely different from the job of a tenure-track assistant professor. We are wrong to treat the two as identical, or even on a simple continuum. Instead, support for associate professors should be tailored to the new opportunities afforded to tenured faculty members in research, in service, and in teaching. While there are useful reasons to see associate professors as one large category, we might also dig deeper, to find the ways that these newly empowered academic citizens might come into their own as they build their careers.

For example, for many faculty members, the early career research agenda is highly scaffolded: Perhaps a dissertation emerges from graduate-school mentoring and later turns into a book; or a research question and methods emerge from a postdoctoral lab. For many professors, a successful tenure review validates the quality and quantity of first-stage research. But to conceive, fund, and execute research after tenure is not to do the same thing again, nor still. How does the conversation differ when we understand the next stage as a new kind of work? What changes if we observe our false starts, even expect them, and discuss them openly, not as failures but as developmental opportunities?

When it comes to service, Rabinowitz is right that some associate professors take on extensive responsibilities. For some, it’s a burden forced on them. But for others, the ability to do more good for their institutions represents an exciting opportunity. We need better ways to support both those reluctant burden-carriers and those who find joy and fulfillment in their institutional labor. But it’s important to distinguish between the reluctant and the willing. Academics are rarely generous in their capacity to see service as a form of expertise. Why not recalibrate service accordingly? Service specialties — what interests me? What am I good at? How can the institution support faculty — especially Black, Indigenous, and other faculty of color, and women — for a more realistic set of achievements in service to the academic mission? In the end, what is the difference, or is there a difference at all, between service and leadership?

This is just the start. Consider a wholesale reimagining of faculty careers. A reimagining that accounts for the importance of faculty development within the full complexity of our campuses, our professions, and our lives.

The real trap is the collective attachment to the belief that everyone’s career needs to look the same. It goes like this: If we are lucky, we scramble onto the tenure track and into the tenure review. Success! — and … then what? More of the same?

Stop and imagine instead a career in its full length and breadth, developing over decades. Think about a professional life as one with phases, opportunities, and interests that build on one another, that evolve — and, who knows? even change with growth. Imagine that each of us undertakes a thoughtful self-inventory about accomplishments and aspirations, framed in the institutional complexity of research, teaching, and faculty governance. And in the context of real human lives.

Different kinds of work have different seasons. Academic institutions need, desperately, faculty citizens who are skilled in many different forms of expertise. Imagine, then, that standards for professional success or advancement, or for status, promotions, or even (gasp!) raises follow achievement in the diverse forms of expertise, including service, that an institution needs. Given the choice between martyrdom and thoughtful engagement with our institutional roles, we will choose engagement every time.

Carolyn Dever is a professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College and formerly its provost, and  George Justice is a professor of English at Arizona State University and formerly the university’s dean of humanities.

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