Why are the years after academics have ‘made it’ so gloomy for so many?
Iknow about two dozen academics who were tenured and promoted to associate professor last year. They traverse the spectrum of the academy, from engineers to language scholars to sociologists. They work at community colleges, research universities, and small liberal-arts colleges. They range in personality type from the quiet and studious to the brash and outspoken.
None of them are visibly happy.
I mean the kind of career-related elation thatwe’re familiar with in popular culture and in the lives of nonacademics: the giddy joy of football players doing back flips and high fives after winning a big game or, more equivalently, the champagne-popping business professional who has just gotten a major promotion. In contrast, most of the new associate professors I know were so low-key about their promotions that I found out only via a title change on their email or a Facebook status update (as in, “Hey Guys, got tenure, so now you are stuck with me. Haha.”)
The phenomenon of post-tenure dissatisfaction is not just an anecdotal observation. A few years ago, The Chronicle reported on a survey of college teachers showing that academics were “most upbeat at the beginning and at the end of their careers” (“A Midlife Crisis Hits College Campuses”). Another article, written by two historians, drew on different survey data to conclude that “associate professors were the most disaffected group in the history profession.” I don’t think the situation has changed much.
Why are the years just after we have “made it”—that is, achieved the often decades-long dream of getting tenure—so gloomy? And should, or can, anything be done about it?
Two quick answers for the first question come to mind.
First, joyless tenure is just an extension of the joyless tenure track. I havewritten before that the quest for tenure is particularly (and publicly) without mirth. Indeed, the workload expected of junior faculty members, especially at research institutions, has shot up drastically in the past few decades. As the competition for tenure-track positions has grown more and more fierce in some fields, the stakes have gotten higher than ever. And the pressure does not relent just because you have grabbed the brass ring. With tenure, the departmental and professional demands on your time will be greater than before.
There is a cultural component as well. Coming off as burdened and tense is almost a de rigueur part of modern tenure-track culture. There seems to be an “if you look happy, people might think you’re not working hard enough” assumption—which has more than a grain of truth.
Another major reason we don’t run down the Quad doing cartwheels after tenure was articulated by the lead character in the pilot episode of The Sopranos. The New Jersey mob boss sits with a psychiatrist and laments, “I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over. … I think about my father. He never reached the heights like me. But in a lot of ways he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. They had pride. Today, what do we got?”
Academe is not quite as rough as the mob, but some part of that analogy is useful. I think a meta- reason for associate-professor doldrums is that we all realize that academe is radically changing, and few of those changes seem to be for the better in terms of the status, prestige, job security, and autonomy of the professoriate. In some ways, the best of times are behind us.