I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but–

The most dangerous person in academia is the stalled associate professor.  I’ve heard far too many stories lately of people with Ph.Ds of 40+ years vintage who are still at the associate rank terrorizing the assistant proffies and even new associates.  And I write this as someone who’s been a little stalled out lately, but who expects the new book to give her a little traction to get out of the stall imminently.

Discuss!

Hugs & kisses–

30 thoughts on “I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but–

    • HAhaha. Good point.

      But still: one can be burnt out/stalled and supportive of those in the hierarchy below one. Those who aren’t are the ones that chap my butt. (Having been treated very poorly by some frustrated Associate Professors, I know!)

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  1. A good opportunity perhaps to interrogate or even abandon the entire concept of “rank” as an academic phenomenon. A basically military tool in what is often held to be a uniquely antimilitaristic occupational culture. In most societal spaces, advancement to a new “rank,” or its functional bureaucratic equivalent in civilian terms, means goodbye parties, office-cleanouts, moves to a new floor, or building, or even state or country. New reporting relationships, the awkward relinquishment of casual felicities previously extended in non-hierarchical groupings, etc. What of that happens in academia, unless a deanship is involved? The same computer still boots too slowly. The same office door lock still resists the same tarnished key. The trudge down the same hallway leads to the same classrooms, and usually the same classes.

    You said it best in your _Junto_ interview last fall, Historiann: “… struggling with the realization that tenure and promotion wasn’t a ‘promotion’ at all, in the sense that the rest of the world understands. All it means is that we didn’t get fired…” Struggles of lesser existential moment have sent people off to join ISIS, so maybe the “terrorizing” part just follows naturally in some cases, although I haven’t seen a lot of that myself. Before I ever reached the track, in a minor administrative role, I canvassed three different buildings to find a copying machine that would execute a peculiarly complicated task. On the glass plate of the machine I found an abandoned memorandum from a law school dean, who claimed that a lot of their “peer” law schools had recently abolished the rank of associate professor, tenuring junior faculty and sending them straight to full professor in one swoop. (Where they could presumably hate the dozens of colleagues who held named chairs, I suppose). I sort of wish I had kept it, the thing had a lot of interesting data. Whether or not it was true then (a long time ago), or is still true, or made any difference at all in what is now called “climate” in academia, I don’t have any idea. But it might be a start in unleashing creative energies in the faculty ranks, or maybe quite the opposite, who can say? Or maybe just come up with some cool, colorful, outlandish rank insignia to adorn the apparel issued to faculty according to their administerially deemed merit.

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    • p.s. Misquote from the _Junto_ interview: should read “wasn’t a ‘promotion’ in the sense…” Delete “at all.” Apologies.

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  2. I admit to being stalled, and have been for some time. For me its mostly due to interventions from my personal life (kids, moves, navigating the two-body problem, etc) that have slowed down the pace of production. I would also argue that my department’s requirement of a second monograph for promotion while teaching a 3/3 load is a contributing factor. If anything I think my struggles make more sympathetic to junior faculty and the challenges they face.

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  3. I know the kind of person you’re discussing, and I’ve seen the same effects on junior faculty (and sometimes grad students and undergrads). But like some of the other commenters, I see mid-career malaise as a larger phenomenon, and one that can even continue into (or start at) the full-professor stage — and that probably afflicts full-time but NTT faculty too.

    Some of it has to do with having no momentum in one’s scholarship, which bleeds over into (and/or is caused by) unsatisfactory conditions in one’s teaching or service life, but IME a lot of it has to do with having, literally, no momentum, no major opportunities for movement or change.

    I’m lucky to have recently changed jobs, and though there are things that are not as good at my new institution, other things are better — and lots of things are different. So there’s a lot of stimulation just from figuring new things out. But how will I feel in five or ten years? I see a lot of people who keep themselves going through the hope that finishing the next book, or getting promoted, or whatever, will not just be satisfying in themselves, but will make them mobile or catapult them into a different level of professional consequence. And when that doesn’t happen, or isn’t enough . . . .!

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  4. “Terrorizing”?

    Rethink this. Unless you mean it. In which case, offer some backing evidence.

    To casually toss such a politically charged at colleagues seems irresponsible at this moment. People’s careers stall because there’s a lack of jobs, heavy teaching load, flat salaries. It can put a promotion to full professor out of reach.

    But people in stalled careers aren’t terrorists. Come on. This is call-out culture gone off the rails.

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    • I didn’t say they’re “terrorists.”

      People can do bad things, but not necessarily be categorically bad people. See the difference?

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    • Terrorist can be an apt description of someone who threatens to withhold or thwart a junior colleague’s tenure or promotion. Threatening a subordinate’s livelihood, especially in a situation where they have spent a decade earning a credential and then held the position of assistant for five years, is no small thing. We could also use words like bully, harass, and intimidate, but terrorize seems apt regardless of the person’s rank.

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  5. Do terminal associates (stalled, whatever) terrorize junior faculty more than full professors? Or do we just think they have less of a right to criticize (judge, evaluate, terrorize, whatever) junior faculty, because they are stalled and thus not successful? Or are their actions more visible than the full profs’?

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  6. If we are talking about associates who received their Ph.D.’s forty or more years ago, then we are talking about many people who would like to retire but cannot afford to. A bit of research online reveals that salaries for permanent associates in the humanities can be shockingly low.

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  7. In my experience, the most dangerous people are ambitious full professors with delusions of grandeur, who want to be chair, dean, provost, etc. but can’t quite pull it off and need to score some points. Some of my best mentors and kindest colleagues have been terminal associates. Maybe they don’t have great advice for getting promoted to full (lol), but they are heavily involved in the university, and have great advice on teaching and service. They are far more knowledgeable about the university than the full faculty. And that is probably not a coincidence — lots of service is not exactly conducive to promotion.

    I doubt I will ever be promoted, and have to say, I’m kind of offended by your original post.

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    • Sorry–that was glib.

      I too have known many generous and supportive colleagues of all ranks, on and off the tenure track. I was making a point about the people in my view who maximize their leverage over assistant profs because it’s the only time they’ll ever have power over others because their own careers are stalled. And because they’re stuck, they lash out.

      I guess this is what I get when I try to dash off a short post & don’t take the time to be more deliberate and more deliberative. I’m truly only talking about the jerks here–not all associate professors, and not even those who have been at rank for quite a while (as I have been, TBH.)

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      • I’m a little sensitive on the subject. There are jerks at every rank. But the terminal associates seem to get contempt from all sides. The administration and full faculty, but also the junior faculty who are sure that they’ll never become dead wood (assuming they get tenure). I must admit, I might have occasionally fallen into that trap before I had tenure.

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  8. I’m curious, H’ann–is this a gendered thing? Somehow I got that sense from the Twitter mentions, but it’s not here. Is it because more women are stalled at associate while their male colleagues get promoted? Or is this not the case at all?

    I’m grateful that I’ve never met or heard about any of these vicious associates but look forward to the next segment.

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  9. abuse of power is abuse no matter who it comes from.

    I think that rank is less important than frustrated ambition and egomania. I’ve seen this behavior in my own department, more often by full professors than associates. I’ve seen these senior colleagues pit the junior colleagues against one another. It is bullying in no uncertain terms.

    I think that a lot of the standards for academic promotion are misguided and outdated at best, or just relics of hazing and the old boys network at their worst. Demanding that someone write a book is easier to do than evaluating colleague’s teaching. You don’t even have to read the book, just look at their CV. This outsources evaluating your colleagues to some editor at a university press or a journal. Its a lot safer to think about our jobs as cranking out a book or journal article because that was what we learned how to do in grad school.

    If the metric for promotion was teaching we would actually have to see our colleagues in action and try to figure out if they are helping the students in the Gen Ed courses or making sure majors master the skills they need to be historians at the Bachelors level. That stuff is hard to measure and figure out. Plus, we might actually be held to the same standards ourselves. We all assume we are good teachers, but if push comes to shove we would be hard pressed to prove it.

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  10. I shouldn’t have published such a brief and abrasive post. But as a historian, I won’t delete it! I can only offer an apology for my thoughtlessness.

    In the comments here and in some off-blog communication with friends, it became clear to me that the issues of WHO is stalled at the associate level got crossed with HOW some stalled associates behave. I didn’t sufficiently untangle these, either.

    To be clear: I was writing not of all associate professors, but rather those who appear to spend more time playing petty politics than teaching or scholarship. I hear a lot of stories from readers–assistant professors and lecturers mostly–via email who complain about this. I’ve experienced it myself. I hope I haven’t perpetuated anything like this as a mid-career person myself.

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    • I don’t think you were thoughtless or intentionally singling people out. You were simply reflecting on your own experience and the experiences of friends and colleagues. My own response was not a criticism, but was supposed to be a “yes, and” type of comment. I can see how people might have taken offense, and in retrospect there was more ‘disentangling’ that needed to be done. So lets do that work.

      I think you have raised a valuable issue: what is the source of workplace bullying in academia? Is it particular to one group or personality type? Is is structural? (ie. a function of very limited mobility and opportunities for promotion?) Is it specific to the metrics we use to identify talent and to promote people in the profession?

      another great question is why do colleagues get stalled out at associate professor? is it the same as burnout? Or have they found other roles to play in their department or institution, roles that are ignored by the criteria was use to measure a “successful career” as a historian or academic?

      Finally, I liked Indyanna’s observation about “rank” in academia. What does rank mean? I had a junior colleague ask me this question recently. I can only answer that in our institution, it means a pay raise. But as Indyanna observed, we are still going to the same office, wrestling with the same IT gremlins, teaching a new group of students every semester. I do think that there is an emotional wage attached to rank. We have worked our way up through the K-12, bachelors and graduate programs in an environment where we are constantly in the position of being evaluated and told we are good. After tenure, those evaluations kind of stop, but the traits an behaviors that motivated us to climb to the top of the ant hill are still there. Promotion to Full is the last chance to say “evaluate me, grade me and tell me I am good.”

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  11. It’s funny, I think I missed your point partly because I can’t come up with a single direct experience with this phenomenon. I know plenty of stalled people, but none who take it out on others. I know plenty of people who take frustrations out on others, but it has never seemed connected to rank. I’m trying to figure out why our experiences might be so different.

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  12. I think that the biggest danger that sometimes is presented by very long-term associates is not as much their terrorizing other faculty as the tendency many of them have to encourage other faculty to do as they did. I remember a permanent associate twenty-four years ago at one of my universities whose message always seemed to be that scholarship was a frustrating and futile project that faculty would be best cutting themselves free of. He had failed, and so would you. Some members of the department had gotten close to him and only slowly realized what a bad influence he was having on them.

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