The Associate-Professor Trap

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Image: Harry Campbell for The Chronicle

By Paula Rabinowitz

“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 cultlike 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.

Depending on the restaurant, one might take some pride in the quality of the food served, or in the elegant gestures required to deliver dishes to multiple tables at once, clear places for the lunch or dinner rush, and smooth the pace of labor. But there is also always the hidden psychic and physical strain of maintaining this system, avoiding catastrophes, and keeping one’s dignity in the face of lecherous members of the kitchen staff and creepy customers.

“I think I know what sort of person I am,” Davis’s narrator comments, before clarifying, “I know I am not the sort of person I imagine when I hear that a person has a position at the university.” The “problem,” as the narrator sees it, is that “when others describe me this way, they appear to describe me completely,” but this presumption fails to register “truths that seem quite incompatible with the fact that I have a position at the university.”

Davis’s narrator is describing the condition of Erving Goffman’s “total institution,” where one’s sensibility is shaped by the routines and behaviors of the place and its system. The university is at once a physical workplace and an institution, like a monastery, that assumes those who enter into its halls will submit willingly to its precepts and endure the long apprenticeship required of them.

Intellectual labor is not the same as slinging hash, of course, and the university is a privileged site within late capitalist democracies, but there is also the daily slog of researching, writing, speaking, revising, submitting, more revising, editing, and proofreading, not to mention teaching and advising. We sometimes resent the unglamorous work beyond the glorious thinking that goes into making something happen with words, but it must be done, by someone, by ourselves, in the case of the person with the “position at the university.”

Davis’s meditation on surface and depth, self and university, is an update of Franz Kafka’s 1917 short story “A Report to an Academy,” in which the narrator, once an ape, has become a bourgeois scholar over the course of five years. The narrator explains that he has transformed “at full speed … more or less accompanied by excellent mentors, good advice, applause, and orchestral music, yet essentially alone.” This period of five years — almost matching the length of most graduate programs, tenure clocks, and the ideal interval between promotion to associate professor and promotion to full professor — offers enough distance from one’s past identity to the present. The line conveys not only the energy but also the pathos accompanying the transformation from ape to academic, or from neophyte to senior scholar. This transformation entails dogged effort as well as forgetting and alienation.

Kafka’s story allegorizes the process of acculturation and indoctrination that the academy demands of its members. Once you decide to leave your past (as an ape) and enter the halls of the human(ities), the doorway narrows, sending you irresistibly ahead. The ape becomes adept at the “artistic” performance of drinking and utters a first “Hallo!” The learned behavior brings “a success that could hardly be increased,” but this success is trailed by the “insane look of the bewildered half-broken animal” clouding the eyes of a “half-trained little chimpanzee,” a mate who waits at home. This achievement, pretensions to a bourgeois life, comes at a cost that cannot be completely registered or forgotten.

Both Kafka and Davis understand the intricacies of survival and abasement entailed in claiming a professional identity, of subsuming yourself into an institution. One submits, both willingly and unwillingly, to the university. Definite and indefinite articles slide through these tales, almost interchangeably, so that it becomes difficult to differentiate between a self and the institution. And that is the point.

By the time one moves from assistant professor to associate professor and then to full professor, there is no going back. If all goes as planned, one holds a position at the university for life. So why the reluctance or resistance or whatever it is that holds one back, if that is what is happening?

More than a decade ago, when I was on the MLA Committee on the Status of Women in the Professionwe initiated the Associate Professor Project to investigate whether women were disproportionately getting stuck at the associate-professor level. It turned out, however, that almost everyone — no matter the gender — was stalling midcareer. One thing we learned back then was that funding often began to dry up and did not get restored until one became quite senior, and perhaps earned an endowed professorship. Another was that service was thrust upon people almost immediately after promotion to associate, and with little training.

Shortly after the report was published, I became chair of my department, and as a result of the committee’s findings, I pushed a number of associate professors into promotion — 75 percent were women, 50 percent were people of color, and all were long overdue to become full professors. Why they had not already been promoted was complicated and telling: For one, they felt that there was little financial incentive. Because of this, I pushed the dean to drastically increase the pay bump for promotion.

These professors also felt, as I had, that at this stage in their lives they did not want to submit to a process that appeared to be degrading at worst, time-consuming at best. They were just too jaded. Nobody had suggested to them that they might seek promotion. It seemed there was little to be gained. None was a careerist; all were vastly accomplished. Helping these individuals become full professors was among the best things I achieved as chair.

In preparation for this essay, I interviewed a terribly unscientific group of associate professors about what they might want to see done for them if they were to move into more senior roles. Men and women, single and partnered, parents and not, gay and straight, people of color and not, ranging in age from their 30s to their 60s. They came from institutions across the country. Some worked in the humanities, others in the social sciences or STEM. Some worked at large, prestigious research universities, both private and public, while others held positions at small liberal-arts colleges of all types.

Each person in this diverse bunch echoed the thoughts of those I had helped shepherd into full professorships. They wondered: Was there a point to enduring the process? Blame must fall in part at the feet of overstretched department chairs who (understandably) give priority to other pressing tasks, like tenure and hiring, budgets, staffing, curriculum, and so on. But of course, these departmental chores — ever expanding as bureaucracy bulges — derive from the same endless administrative bloat (another strategic plan!) fueled by deans and provosts and vice presidents that has resulted in the enormous increase in contingent faculty. This is the state of the academy today.

One newly minted associate professor at an elite private university (I promised anonymity to all who graciously spoke with me) commented on the pressures connected with promotion to associate professor — the endless time commitments, the countless urgent e-mails demanding immediate responses that come with being thrust unprepared into administrative and advising positions.

That professor also spoke about the anxieties of being responsible for someone else’s career. Up to this point, as a graduate student, a postdoc, and an assistant professor, one needed to focus only on one’s own work. Now, as a mentor to assistant professors, graduate students, postdocs, and undergraduates, and as an administrator trying to juggle advocating for these individuals and dealing with administrators beyond the department, proceeding further seemed unfathomable. Doing so would only mean getting bogged down in even more administration. The payoff, for this professor, did not seem worth it. The person was content to bide their time accumulating books and papers.

Another recently promoted associate professor, this one at a small liberal-arts college, had an epiphany while rereading Das Kapital for a course on Marxist cultural criticism. The concepts of absolute and relative surplus value, especially as these values are created through the “productiveness” and “intensity” of labor, changed how this professor viewed their workload. They grew disenchanted with the expectation that after all the teaching and advising accomplished during the academic year, one’s unpaid summertime would be made productive by writing articles. In this light, researching, writing, and creating ideas were just more forms of alienated labor. Getting promoted meant aligning one’s labor with that of the institution.

People become professors in part because they vehemently refuse to sit still in an office and churn out memos. But that is what is demanded of those of us who, as good academic citizens, find ourselves supporting our institutions. We toil over faculty activity reports, or FAR(T)s, as I used to call our yearly ritualized debasement of merit review. In exchange for polishing our scholarly bona fides/turds, we get pittance raises, often less than cost-of-living adjustments. This is the form of self-promotion one must master.

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 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.

Paula Rabinowitz is a professor emerita of English at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and editor in chief of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.

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