Friday, September 11, 2015

More like mid-career MAGNIFICENCE

A friend who's also a savvy and pro-active department chair recently set up a fund to encourage associate professors to keep building their careers beyond whatever competencies helped them get tenure. Monies wouldn't be awarded just to go to a conference or deliver a paper; the idea was to encourage faculty to think about what else they might like to do: invite speakers to campus, organize a symposium, participate in a summer seminar or master class.

When I heard about this, I thought, now that's a guy who knows what it is to be an associate professor.

Moving jobs means I haven't yet succumbed to mid-career malaise. Since everything is new--all the applications, all the processes, all the funding sources--I've also been more attuned to new opportunities; right now my brain is whirring with professional-development ideas. Still, I can see and even feel how easy it is to get into a groove that becomes a rut, doing what's worked before, and no longer bothering to try new things, especially if they've been discouraged or denied in the past. So when my friend mentioned that applications to this new fund had been underwhelming, I kinda got it.

But for those of us who aren't in a rut and don't want to be, I'm interested in thinking through what it means to be at mid-career, and how we can conceive of this as a distinct stage with new goals and opportunities. Because the reality for most of us is that there aren't that many truly new things to do. To get tenure, most people have been publishing, going to conferences, applying for grants and fellowships, and doing some amount of professional service. Maybe you haven't yet published in that journal, so it remains a goal, or you got a small fellowship and now are hoping for a big one. But the game remains the same.

For me, then, the easiest way to conceive of mid-career as a distinct stage is by connecting it to Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development (which Cosimo is obsessed with). After stages that are mostly about finding oneself and developing a sense of mastery and security comes the midlife stage, which, according to Erikson, should be marked by "generativity" rather than "stagnation." By "generativity" he doesn't mean an individual's personal productivity, but her contribution to her profession and society at large.

I like that. And in thinking about what the next level entails and what I want to achieve on my way to full professor, I'm trying to look outward more than inward, focusing on making connections and expanding my range rather than obsessing over my C.V. and what might be missing or look good there. If before I was pleased to get a request to review a book because hey! free book! line on the vita! And someone knows I exist!, I'm trying now to think about where I can be a useful reviewer, and hopefully a generous one. Being at mid-career means having obligations to others, but feeling good about them: I want to give professional acquaintances feedback on their book proposals, to write tenure and job-market letters, and put in a good word for them with someone more senior.

Now, I still feel a certain amount of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have things I was still eager to get on my C.V. or wasn't haunted by a sense that if Book Two isn't done by X date I'll have fallen behind. But being at midcareer means I know that none of those things is urgent; that for now my career is what it is; and that nothing much rides on whether I do A a year earlier or later--or change my mind and do B.

Still, if I had access to those mid-career faculty funds, I have about six things I'd spend that money on toot-sweet.


Anonymous said...

I am mid-career and I when I look around at my mid-career friends and colleagues what I see is a group of people desperately trying to get out. I see disappointment, exhaustion, depression ... the mid-career malaise you've written about before. I see people taking up hobbies and trying to re-train themselves so that they have other options. The people I know who have tried to do what you describe here -- to be good citizens of the profession, to give back to their institutions, to develop new areas of interest -- are almost always crushed under the weight of uncompensated and unacknowledged service. There are very few positive role models, so I hope that you will continue to document your experiences -- which I hope will be magnificent.

Withywindle said...

Also, mid-career moxie and mojo. But I dibs the mid-career mallomars.

Flavia said...


Yes, I see a lot of that, too, and I know I'm lucky not to be experiencing it yet (one of the unexpected bonuses of switching jobs is that I have a temporary reprieve in service--no one knows me yet, so they're not asking me to do anything!). But my new institution is more service-hungry than my previous one, because it's seen a real shrinkage in TT and even FT lines, so we'll see if I can persist in this attitude.


I could sign on for any or all three of those. Mmmm. Mallomars.

Contingent Cassandra said...

And such a fund would be even more useful to mid-career inhabitants of the emerging non-tenure-track track (which is still being defined, if its existence is acknowledged at all, in most places, including mine). Part of the challenge of the contingent track is that it doesn't clearly go anywhere, i.e. there are no increased/changing responsibilities, or opportunities for more influential service -- which is definitely a burden, especially in the circumstances you describe, but also of course a privilege -- a chance to have some say, however small and often thwarted/frustrating, in institutional processes.

One interesting observation from the above: most critics of tenure would probably say that tenure promotes stagnation; admittedly looking over the fence with a bit of a grass-is-greener perspective (but also enough awareness of my TT colleagues' struggles to know that it really isn't, or at least not so much so as it might look from a distance), I'd argue that the contingent track, at least as currently constituted, is even more likely to lead to stagnation, malaise, etc. One could pick another handy target and argue that career tracks with a true sense of development and purpose are increasingly being reserved for those able/willing to make the jump to administration not long after tenure, but I suspect that's only partly true, if at all, too. I can say, from my own experience, that looking around for other/additional options at mid-career partly out of worry that one's present job will not last until one is financially ready to retire (and that one's employability is fast diminishing) is not a particularly pleasant or productive perspective from which to address the problem stagnation, and probably does not lead, as some critics of tenure would insist, to generativity. Job security *plus* support for looking around for opportunities for continued growth sounds like a much better formula to me.

Flavia said...


Yes, absolutely! Part of the problem, for both TT and other FT faculty (non-FT have a different set of problems) is lack of mobility, whether inside one's current institution or outside of it. And being content with exactly the same job description, for years on end, requires opportunities that usually cost money--whether that's developing an innovative new course, doing new kinds of research, pursuing different kinds of networking, etc. And where those opportunities exist, they're usually limited to TT faculty.

My previous employer did award merit pay to non-TT faculty (it wasn't big money, but both TT and non-TT faculty were eligible for exactly the same amount), and there were some modest professional-development funds available, too. But access to competitive research funds was limited to TT faculty, and the same is true at my new employer (actually, it's further restricted: only those with graduate-faculty status can apply).

Maybe it's time to start getting active in the union. . .

Contingent Cassandra said...

We, too, are eligible for merit pay (though my biggest pay increases have come when the university said "aargh! we can't pay people with Ph.D.s this little and stay competitive in our metropolitan area/not run afoul of the accrediting agency," and instituted new minimum salaries for people at various stages, bumping a bunch of us up to the same new minimum in the process), and for some faculty-development funds (course-development in the case of NTT faculty, since we're officially teaching-only; we do get travel funds for presenting at conferences, however, just no credit or support for publication). The main obstacle I'm seeing, as I look for sources of outside funding that might stand in for the sabbatical for which I'm not eligible, is the replace-half-of-pay structure of many fellowships. My chair is willing to ask for that half (there's prestige in fellowships, after all), but, unlike with TT faculty, there's no assumption that, all things being equal (e.g. the faculty member hasn't been away on fellowship for the past year or more already), the answer would be yes. It's also unclear whether non-TT faculty are really eligible for university nomination for summer NEH fellowships (in theory, we pretty much have to be, since that's the only way those of us on multiple-year contracts could apply; in practice, the university has no incentive to bestow one of its very limited nominations on us). As with many other things pertaining to the ever-growing permanent contingent class, it's pretty clear that nobody has really thought through what an actual career spent in this status would/should look like. Personally, I'd prefer to see the creation of a teaching tenure track (or an expansion of tenure-track positions in places where the tenure track is already teaching-intensive), but I don't have many hopes that that will actually happen.

Union activity definitely sounds like a worthwhile activity, where possible (I'm in a right-to-work state, where there are some attempts at union organizing among faculty, but it's very unclear what real effect such efforts might have).