The Associate Professor Blues

September 28, 2013, 7:10 pm

yeswelacanIn “Supporting the Second Book,” (Perspectives on History, September 2013), American Historical Association President Kenneth Pomeranz elaborates on a topic he launched in the previous issue. I thought it was great that Pomeranz came out last month about his post-tenure publishing delay: one of the things that I have learned on the #GraftonLine is that academics — particularly senior people — don’t talk about their difficulties enough, nor do we share strategies for changing the bad writing karma that can afflict anyone. No wonder people who are struggling with their writing don’t talk about it – it’s not allowed!!!!!

So good for you, Professor Pomeranz. Many people will feel their load lighten just a little bit from hearing your story, particularly those who work at institutions that require a second book just for tenure. But, as Pomeranz also points out, promotions to full professor in many one-book humanities departments are also now delayed until the second book appears. “On average,” Pomerantz writes, “historians now at full professor took longer to get from associate to full than from assistant to associate, and some never advance at all.”

But why is the second book so hard? In both essays, Pomeranz suggests that one’s late thirties to mid-forties are fraught with personal responsibilities that can make sustained work on a book difficult for both men and women. Children are born or require a different kind of attention; spousal careers take unexpected turns that create logistical problems; parents age out and require care; sometimes the scholar herself becomes ill. These difficulties reverberate into scholarship: the complexities of the middle decades make sustained writing difficult. Travel to archives becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile with domestic, child-care and dual work schedules.

I have often heard people suggest that this is a particular problem for those whose archives lie outside the United States, but I imagine it is similarly difficult for the historian of colonial New England who lives in Colorado or the political historian who lives in Seattle. Tell me in the comments if I am right: it strikes me as no less complex to move a family to the District of Columbia for a year than to transport the gang to London.

What are the solutions? Pomerantz turned to world history, where a capacious grasp of historiography can substitute for the intensive archive-based work that a second monograph requires. He also suggests that the close mentoring that the first book usually receives at the dissertation stage might be replicated for the second book in a way that it isn’t nowadays; that senior historians might be more open about how they executed a second project; and that cross-institutional mentoring might be improved for that medievalist or Africanist who is an only child in a department somewhere.

As someone who got caught in the vise of change, I think there are a couple other things to look at. The year I came up for promotion, members of my department suddenly — and without explanation — changed the rules to insist that a complete second book was the only path to my promotion to full professor. Although I did, in fact, produce a manuscript, and was promoted to full professor (eventually), the process was  so fraught and terrible, I was never able to see the project through to publication: currently it is sleeping on Drop Box, waiting for the kiss that will one day wake it.

So without further ado, here is how I would extend the suggestions in Pomerantz’s articles:

It is notable that, when the second book requirement appeared in many institutions, simultaneously education pundits and politicians began to assert that faculty were paid too much. I have never seen an argument for why a book — as opposed to a series of articles, an amazing web project, edited collections, spectacular grant writing, the creation of great institutional projects, or historical consulting — should be the gold standard for promotion to full. All require massive engagement with the profession and with emerging literature. When you combine this with the fact that the second book requirement has had the practical effect of  keeping more people at the associate level longer, and thus aiding in the project of compressing salaries at that rank, doesn’t it seem like the fix is in?

It most certainly does.

But doesn’t the second book create a carrot for what we really want, which is for faculty to remain active scholars? Yes it does, and I think when faculty are no longer engaged with the central debates in their fields, or are not challenged by new research, they become a drag on the intellectual and teaching life of the department. I think they become real stinkers in the hiring and tenure process, continually asserting things that aren’t so and demanding lengthy explanations of things they would know if only they read books and did research. I know this first hand, and I also know that these are the same people who are likely to argue vociferously in favor of the “standards” they have not met and, in some cases, have no intention of ever meeting.*

But why must the exercise of continued engagement result in a book? Don’t other aspects of a faculty member scholarly production demonstrate continued engagement and intellectual growth? Any of the things I suggested above might plausibly demonstrate this engagement, as they often do in fields like economics, political science and media studies — to name a few fields.

Being promoted to Associate Professor makes a scholar eligible for endless institutional labor. This has become even more the case since the standard for tenure became, in most places, a published book, or a book in press. This has shortened the tenure clock by as much as two years, effectively taking anyone below associate rank off the roster for institutional work in many places. Sure, we select a few duties that prove each assistant professor’s capacity to function in an institution, but we cap those to ensure that the book. Gets. Done. We protect the untenured from institutional overwork — but who protects the tenured? In this case, $hit has flowed uphill at the same time as it has, by tradition, flowed downhill. A few years ago, when I was on the job market for jobs at the rank of full professor, there was only one search committee that was chaired by a full professor.

The “raising of standards” for hose on tenure lines has been accompanied by accelerated adjunctification: thus, there are fewer full-time faculty at all ranks and they do more institutional work than they ever have done. More contingent labor means that the same number of committees have to be staffed, the same or more students have to be advised, the same curriculum has to be organized — but there are fewer people eligible for the work. In fact, one feature of contingent labor – whether it is per course, renewable contracts (meaning that each of these colleagues has to be reviewed every three to five years), or post docs — is that what is cheaper for the university is more costly in time for the full-time faculty who have to hire, supervise and review the adjunct army.

You can add this to the fact that online university systems now substitute for the pink and white collar workers who used to do a great deal of the administrative work and paper pushing of the university. Using the software provided by my university, it can take me up to an hour to process the charges for a research trip; using course platforms or online reserve systems to organize a class can now take up to three or four days; using “student success” software can be a time-suck of gargantuan proportions. This isn’t just true at the level of the university: applying for grants on line is a huge headache because each foundation has its own system, requires its own passwords, and has slightly different requirements (personal statement no longer than four pages/three pages/ 1000 words that is double-spaced/single-spaced/fits in the box below.)

No one has done the research, but I would stand by this assertion: associate profs are being asked to do more scholarship in less aggregate time because, in addition to everything else, they are now doing all their own secretarial and administrative work. Promotion standards need to take into account not just the lack of time, but what this does to the ability to sustain the continuing labor of writing a book – as opposed to articles.

What our current system does by raising expectations, raising the bar for promotion, and keeping pay flat, is to create a high level of burnout at the level of associate professor. This also affects people’s willingness to make the personal sacrifices necessary to complete a book. Repeated failure to overcome the obstacles can, in my experience, have the effect of causing colleagues to simply give up. Some prefer to make their peace with remaining at the rank of associate professor forever, rather than face the humiliation of continued failure to produce a book that is just as instrumental as the first book was. It will also, I suspect, create a generation of full professors who simply “drop out” of institutional work once they clear the final hurdle.

Readers, what are associate professors talking about at your university?


*Such people should appear, like Barry Bonds, on the department website with an asterisk next to their name, which would lead to a note at the bottom of the page: “Promoted to full before the two-book standard was in effect.” I am only partly kidding.



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