Winter 2020

In the Middle

A Position at the University: A Report to an Academy

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, Asylums

It may seem counterintuitive, but there is a connection between the administrative university and its push toward hiring contingent labor, now approximately seventy percent of college instructors (Betensky), 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, likely to result in promotion. If I recall, the dirty secret of 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. And the entire system of tenure is under attack because of the casualization of academic labor.

Departments that depend on contingent labor—graduate students, postdocs, adjunct instructors, and so forth—cannot presume that these already overworked and underpaid educators will take on roles involving mentorship, administration, and committee work (though they often do, and sometimes want to do more of this labor, despite its remaining unpaid or underpaid). At the same time, those 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—seek to extricate themselves from such responsibilities and concentrate their time instead on their work as senior scholars and teachers. Thus, associate professors become mired in an administrative trap for which they are often unprotected and unprepared. If they are good academic citizens, aware of just how many senior faculty members have contributed to their position, they commit to taking on the work. It’s how the system sustains itself: scholars labor to peer-review journal articles and books for presses, serve on editorial boards, organize conferences, advise graduate students, and assume administrative posts. Such types of work are done for the profession, for themselves, their colleagues, and graduate students—the future.

This long apprenticeship may appear cultlike to some—to those, for instance, who perceive that power resides in an embodied person not in the institution and its culture—but the system of academia is premised on paying back by paying forward, by helping the next generation of scholars (Marzoni). This requires maintaining the institution itself through service. Yet this unspoken system fails to outline how one moves from associate professor 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.

Academia, after all, operates much like the many restaurants I worked in before graduate school: there is the obvious work to be done . . . and there is the hidden labor behind the front end.

In Lydia Davis’s marvelous one-paragraph take on academia, “A Position at the University,” the narrator succinctly reveals this process of self-identification as a crucial, if somewhat soul-killing, aspect of institutional practices. 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 there is the hidden labor behind the front end. This includes immaterial relationships developed with customers, with coworkers, even with the food. But it also entails 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, 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. Rarely does one think of oneself as a waiter, or solely as a waiter, and for most, this is not usually a long-term job. As in Louis Malle’s 1980 film Atlantic City, where Susan Sarandon’s character squeezes lemons across her torso and arms to wash off the stink of the hundreds of oysters she’s shucked at the casino where she works while studying to become a blackjack dealer, planning to escape to Monte Carlo, this service work often supports another underpaid dream gig: artist, writer, musician, actor. But who knows, who knows this other life?—you’re working tables, and that’s what matters when someone orders. You serve.

Davis’s narrator comments, “I think I know what sort of person I am.” And obviously, this sort of person, despite appearances, is not the sort who holds “a position at the university” or serves food to strangers. The narrator clarifies, “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” (299). Davis’s narrator is describing the condition of Erving Goffman’s “total institution” (4), where one’s sensibility is shaped by the routines and behaviors of the place. However, the university is a slippery example of such an institution: it 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.

Thus, like me as a waitress struggling, at the time, to become a poet—of course, one’s life is always a cliché!—and Davis’s narrator with a position at the university, appearance and reality might not match up. And yet, given how stereotypical my story is, and how prevalent the so-called impostor syndrome is among academics, perhaps they align perfectly. Both situations are amalgams of individual psychology and the vicissitudes of one’s life, on the one hand, and the institutional settings in which one exists, while striving to make a living and make a mark, on the other. I realize that intellectual labor is not the same as slinging hash and that a university is a privileged site within late capitalist democracies, but the daily slog of researching, writing, speaking, revising, submitting, more revising, editing, and proofreading—the unglamorous and tedious work beyond glorious thinking that goes into making something happen with words—still resonates. We sometimes resent doing this type of work, but it must be done, by someone, by ourselves, in the case of the person with the “position at the university.” This contortion remakes time and identity.

Davis’s meditation on surface and depth, self and university, is an update of Franz Kafka’s 1917 story “A Report to an Academy,” in which the narrator, once an ape, who during the course of five years has become a bourgeois scholar, explains that he has transformed “at full speed . . . more or less accompanied by excellent mentors, good advice, applause, and orchestral music, yet essentially alone” (245). This period of five years—almost exactly 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 one to convey not only the energy but also the pathos accompanying the transformation from ape to academic, from neophyte to senior scholar. This transformation entails forgetting and alienation as well as dogged effort.

Kafka’s story allegorizes the process of acculturation, even indoctrination—a kind of Stockholm syndrome—the academy demands of its members. Once you decide to leave your past (as an ape) and enter the halls of the human(itie)s, the doorway narrows, sending you irresistibly ahead. The ape becomes adept at the “artistic performance” of drinking and utters a first “Hallo!” Imitation was the vehicle of escape, “a way out” (253). 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 (254). This achievement, pretensions to a bourgeois life, comes at a brutal and brutalizing cost that cannot be completely registered and can never be forgotten.

Literary history is replete with academic novels—it’s a mini-genre—but, to my mind, these two short stories offer more insight into the psychic processes by which one makes oneself into a professor than other, longer narratives. Both Kafka and Davis understand the intricacies of survival and abasement entailed in claiming a professional identity, of subsumption into an institution, beyond captivity or conversion narratives. A self submits, both willingly and unwillingly, to the organization, or rather an organization—an academy, 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. One holds a position at the university for life. So why the reluctance or reticence or resistance or whatever it is that holds one back . . . if that is what is happening?

Kafka’s story allegorizes the process of acculturation, even indoctrination—a kind of Stockholm syndrome—the academy demands of its members.


More than a decade ago, when I was on the MLA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, we initiated the Associates 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 mid-career. 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 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—seventy-five percent were women, fifty percent were people of color, and all were long overdue to become full professors. Why they had not done so before was complicated and telling: for one, they felt that there was no financial incentive. Because of this, I pushed the dean to drastically increase the pay bump for promotion. These professors also felt, as I had (but with the opposite result as I hurried to be promoted four years after getting tenure), 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. Finally, nobody had suggested to them that they might seek promotion. They had reasoned there was little to be gained from imitation. None was a careerist; all were massively accomplished. Helping these individuals become full professors was among the best things I achieved as chair.

In preparation for this brief, I interviewed a terribly unscientific group of associate professors about their professional situations and about what they might want to see done for them if they were to move into more senior roles.1 Men and women, single and partnered, parents and not, gay and straight, people of color and not, ranging in age from their thirties to their sixties. 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, ranging from A-list to C- (or worse). Each echoed the thoughts of those I had helped shepherd into full professorships. They wondered, Was there a point to enduring the process? There is something still wrong institutionally. Blame needs to fall in part at the feet of overstretched department chairs who must give priority to other pressing cases—that is, 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 modified total institution that orders the backstory of the academy now.

One newly minted associate professor commented on the pressures and fears 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—and, more crucially, the anxieties about being responsible for someone else’s career. Up to this point, as a graduate student, a postdoc, and an assistant professor, all that was really necessary was for one to focus on one’s own work and to make sure this work was of the highest caliber to land a job and get tenure. 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, it seems unfathomable that anyone would want to proceed further—doing so would only mean getting bogged down in even more administration, taking on even more responsibilities for others. The payoff, even at an elite private university, does not seem worth it. Unlike the ape, this associate professor was content to remain facing the wooden locker—or, having made it out of the cage, to bide time among accumulating books and papers, preferring not to go further. Moreover, if one has young children, advising work can feel like an extension of domestic labor, creating a confluence of emotions that can feel overwhelming when, for instance, one is caring for both a sick child and one’s advisees. This is even more acutely felt now under coronavirus lockdown. Many, like Bartleby, would prefer not to.

While rereading Capital for a course on Marxist cultural criticism, another recently promoted associate professor at a small liberal arts college was stunned to realize that the concepts of absolute and relative surplus value, especially as these values are created through the “productiveness” and “intensity” of labor, meant that the institution was not a metaphoric machine but rather an actual industry under capitalism. 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, which would eventually become fodder for one’s promotion case, meant that doing what was supposed to be what one entered the academy for—researching, writing, and creating ideas—was another form of alienated labor (508–09). Because going further, getting promoted, means aligning one’s labor with that of the institution, as the addendum to Susan Briante’s remarkable volume of poems about labor—productive, nonproductive, and reproductive—in an age of decline, The Market Wonders, indicates: “For weeks after weaning, my breasts sting. I spend the day poem counting. One book gets you a job, two get you tenure. The poem machine turns factory” (81). So much of academic labor is a form of Marx’s “primitive accumulation” (713)—instead of counting poems, for instance, we counted turds for our faculty activity reports, or FAR(T)s, as I used to call our yearly ritualized debasement of merit review, which resulted in pittance raises often less than the cost-of-living adjustments to social security checks. This is the form of self-promotion one must master.

This attitude of futility is pervasive and suggests that the drive to administer knowledge in the neoliberal academy is pushing away those who might assume position away. People become professors, like they become waiters, in part because they vehemently refuse to sit still in an office and churn out memos. But that is what is demanded of those who, as good academic citizens, find themselves supporting the institutions that support them. If one is a decent person who recognizes the ways that the system has enabled one to attain a certain status, it’s an offer one can’t refuse. You must pay back those who came before you and guided your success by helping steer others who come after you; that’s the implicit bargain.

Some just plod through the mire because they love their work and because they 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 only happens 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 of research spurred by current scholarly or classroom discussions; 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. What is the point after the burnout experienced while undergoing promotion and tenure that discounted more than fifty percent of one professor’s work because it was deemed beyond the area designated when this professor was hired? And the six years minimum between promotion to associate professor and promotion to full professor? Thus, full professors become an endangered species. One associate professor commented that “success seems disgusting. I’m repulsed by the thought of giving in the article for a pay raise.” As productivity becomes increasingly commodified and quantifiable, the long stretch of time needed to think and write evaporates. Another associate professor observed that, in the neoliberal academy, “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 (or compound-complex: sentence grammar, for example), and [of] the attendant right to be bored, or even depressed, let alone out- and enraged” disappears. 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 being “passionate about knowing—the very meaning of study” 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 literature had been promoted in the previous ten years. Since the implementation of that policy, no others have been promoted either, because there is “[n]o consideration of promotion unless the associate proves they have the full number of publications and gets an OK from the full professors to move forward. Obviously no real weight to teaching, service, etc. So planning a month-long road trip on the west coast for next summer! Ha!” (Clearly this plan is now out the window.) The open, though unpaid, summer months were once seen as a welcoming expanse of time for research and writing; now, this unpaid labor seems pointless as the writing “machine turns factory.”

Associate professors are now assuming senior posts, such as chair, but must negotiate how to advance through 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 of navigating new and more stringent requirements. As much as I despise the term mentoring—and the concept, which represents a mode of institutional infantilization—promotion also depends 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, alongside the slow attrition of full professors, who even without mandatory retirement do eventually move on, 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” (22). The straightway was lost somewhere in the middle of one’s journey—and Virgil is not stepping in to guide us out of this, our life.

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 who they see as riding on the backs of energetic associate professors now given enormous departmental and programmatic responsibilities. So, 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—while they are still young enough to look forward to years of working under conditions of their own making.

Rarely, though, are humanities associate professors part of departments where the administrative load includes running an institute connected to their research. Instead, administrative responsibilities frequently consist of fulfilling departmental responsibilities, often as director of graduate studies 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 of service. “In the neo-liberal 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. Many see this situation as highly gendered because if you have the type of personality that enabled you to become a professor at the university in the first place, you are probably the sort who will step up, if only out of guilt. 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 stance looks good. 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 fights within a department full of enemies. In departments fraught with infighting (and, realistically, which one isn’t?), achieving tenure and promotion can mean pressure to choose sides in long-standing interdepartmental conflicts. Who wants to repeat this?

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 at 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—deadwood. As one associate professor put it, “associate professors are running the show plus doing all the administrative work . . . running twenty-two programs, hiring, staffing, advertising, curriculum. The ones who can leave, leave . . . and those who remain, become ghosts.” Even so, the security of tenure makes a palpable difference for associate professors who can choose with whom to collaborate or whom to mentor and thus contribute to shaping the next generation of scholars in ways they may have been reluctant to do as assistant professors. These professors in the early and middle stages of their careers know they entered the academy at a moment of diminishing resources and status and they know, despite complaints, that they are the lucky ones in this cutthroat ecosphere.

Acquiescence 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.

A final word on the administrative contortions that characterize the working life of associate professors at small colleges, from an associate professor in the later stages of their career. This story completes the sense expressed by others I interviewed who are decades younger—that the whole system needs a wrench thrown into its machinery:

I’ve always considered myself an academic outlier. Promotion means nothing to me. Would I ever go up at this late date in my career? Very doubtful, but if I do, it will only be if I have a slam-dunk case. Teaching: check. Service: check check check. Publication: no book. I am like my colleagues; most earned their full-professor promotions through conference presentations, edited collections, and service service service. The full professor mark is just the final hoop—but it signifies nothing.

However, our tenure and promotions committee likes to pretend the standard academic expectations still apply. The pretense leads to insecurity and paranoia. I’ve seen the portfolios of those who have asked me for letters: the absurd overdocumentation of service; the overstatement of every little on-campus talk, the level of slightly ashamed self-promotion—all to mask the fact that the candidate’s publication record is not ever on the level one would expect from a full-professor candidate at a major academic institution. The masquerade is exhausting for all concerned.

I have bitterness about this college, but the full-professor dance is not part of that bitterness. I took the sinecure—and was lucky to get it, all things considered. But it was not a good move for me if intellectual and creative productivity was a significant consideration.

What does this poignant revelation of how the academy has become a total institution say about a job, a career, a profession, to invoke this journal’s title, that is still among the most desirable and fulfilling work to be found in late capitalism? Like Kafka’s ape, I offer no verdict: “I am only imparting knowledge. I am only making a report. To you also, honored Members of the Academy, I have only made a report” (254–55).

Note

1 I have promised anonymity to all who graciously disclosed to me their experiences as associate professors. This essay was researched and written in fall 2019, a lifetime ago, and its concerns are hardly those of this moment, in spring 2020, when the novel coronavirus has remade every facet of life and death on the planet, including the academy.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno. Translated by John D. Sinclair, Oxford UP, 1968.

Berg, Maggie, and Barbara K. Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. U of Toronto P, 2016.

Betensky, Carolyn. “Exclusion of NTT Faculty from Scholarly Research and Travel Funding.” Academe Blog, 23 Oct. 2019, academeblog.org/2019/10/23/exclusion-of-ntt-faculty-from-scholarly-research-and-travel-funding/.

Briante, Susan. The Market Wonders. Ahsata Press, 2016.

Davis, Lydia. “A Position at the University.” The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Picador, 2010, p. 299.

Goffman, Erving. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Anchor Books, 1961.

Kafka, Franz. “A Report to an Academy.” Translated by Willa and Edmond Muir. The Basic Kafka, Washington Square Press, 1979, pp. 245–55.

Marx, Karl. A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Edited by Frederick Engels, translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, International Publishers, 1963. Vol. 1 of Capital.

Marzoni, Andrew. “Academia Is a Cult.” The Washington Post, 1 Nov. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/academia-is-a-cult/2018/10/31/eea787a0-bd08-11e8-b7d2-0773aa1e33da_story.html?noredirect=on.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Paula Rabinowitz is professor emerita of English at the University of Minnesota and editor in chief of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. The author or editor of eleven books, including American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street, she lives in Queens, NY.

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