At 50: Not Full by Fifty

I turn 50 this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. After all, a half-century doing stuff feels like it should mean something, right? So I decided to do some little blog essays mostly to reflect on my professional (and occasional personal) life at 50.

A few years ago, people in the humanities were celebrating their professional accomplishments using a #Fullby50 hash tag on Twitter. Apparently this was based on a #FullBy40 hashtag that became popular in fields where people tended to find tenure track jobs earlier in their lives and progress more quickly. Folks in the humanities tend to take a bit more time in graduate school and have a bit less pressure to go up for promotion.

I’m not bothered much by these little efforts to share professional milestones on Twitter and it doesn’t even really bother me that these kinds of milestones create some playful (or at least alliterative) professional expectations. In an era of 45-year-old quarterbacks and 20 year NBA careers, it’s only becoming easier to say shit like “age is just a number.” 

That all said, I will admit that I do think about promotion and haven’t quite been able to escape the feeling that the entire process is … distasteful. First, I don’t really relish the paperwork and procedures associated with promotion. Having served on the college tenure, retention, and promotion committee (and even a term as chair), I was a bit aghast (and not a little intimidated!) at the size of the promotion packets. On a very basic level it looked like a lot of work to prepare these packets and at the risk of sounding arrogant, I found myself wondering whether there were better ways to spend my time.  

Taking nothing away from the quality of my colleagues, I also found myself sort of bothered by the need for self-aggrandizement and have started to wonder whether the process itself contributes or at very least reinforces the sometimes less than healthy attitude occasionally displayed by faculty (myself included!) who feel the need to regard their own research or teaching as the basis for comparison and even competition with other faculty. To be clear, at my institution, promotion is not a zero sum game. In my years on the committee we approved nearly all those faculty who have sought promotion, and from what I can tell, departments seem to support promotion as well (although these processes are not as transparent). This makes the time consuming and anxiety inducing self-promotion process feel inefficient, unnecessary, and perhaps even deleterious to the institution. 

This is compounded by the fact that the only real benefit conferred by promotion is more money (and, I suppose, a rank). And even this is weird to me. It’s not like a faculty member with the rank of Professor does more (or something different) than one at the rank of Associate or even Assistant (generally pre-tenure) Professor. In fact, one might even argue that Associate and Assistant Professors do MORE than Professors since despite the pointlessness of the process, it might nevertheless incentivize certain behaviors or they feel more susceptible to pressure to take on more responsibilities in order to prove themselves worthy of promotion. I wonder if this is particularly true in the humanities where grant writing, which might benefit most directly from seniority or the achievements associated with promotion, plays a far less prominent role in our work on campus.

In some ways, the very existence of promotion creates inequalities of pay and work on campus that exacerbate feeling of alienation especially among Assistant and Associate Professors, complicates collaboration across ranks, and creates “intergenerational” tension between faculty. (Of course, I write this acknowledging that I’m compensated pretty fairly on my campus and, as a result, promotion won’t serve to correct a compressed salary or gender or disciplinary disparities in salaries.)  

Anyway, this view of things has lingered over my decision to apply for promotion or even really to pursue a career path that would result in promotion should I apply. I suspect this is not what the administration hoped the promotion process would induce in faculty, and it doesn’t make me think less of individuals who seek promotion or to view their motives with skepticism. Everyone has to do their own thing.

But as I watch the cohort who entered UND at the same time as I did largely get promoted, I feel less and less motivated to even consider it. Maybe approaching 50 has combined with the pandemic, a hectic few years, and a sense of peace with my place on campus and academic rank to sap me of any motivation to be #FullBy51. I also know that things might change in the future.

One Comment

  1. wish we had occasion to talk about things like this, here and there. we’re more or less having exactly the same observations.

    Reply

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