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I am a stereotype: the “stalled female associate professor” for whom a second book that persistently resists completion translates into a scarlet letter F for failure to fulfill the potential upon which tenure was granted.  Although I have not been branded, after 13 years at the same rank—with no opportunity for promotion, in a field in which jobs at other institutions are virtually nonexistent—I feel that sense of failure every day. And yet I know that I am good at my job, deeply engaged in academic work. And despite it all, I love what I do.

I am not alone. There are many of us, at institutions across the United States, mostly (but not all) women, stuck well beyond the seven-year horizon that it’s supposed to take to reach the rank of full professor. Many of us are unfailingly committed to our departments, colleges, universities and the students in our classrooms. We are engaged in often ground-breaking research. We have international reputations and serve on adjudication committees for national and international fellowships and awards and on editorial boards for flagship journals in our fields. We are actively working toward promotion. We are succeeding at an increasingly demanding job and have adapted to those new demands.

Yet many of us greet each day feeling that we are failing. And because, especially in the humanities, we are acutely aware of—even sometimes ashamed of—our good fortune to have permanent positions at all, we accept this feeling as part of the bargain.  In fact, a study published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) found that job satisfaction among professors who have been at the associate professor level beyond six years, is lower than it is among faculty members at any other career stage.

Recently, I was out walking on a perfect spring morning, feeling guilty for not being in the library during the dwindling days of a study leave. I was also exhausted from the events of the day before—a day that should have been spent writing but instead was given over to navigating a campus in turmoil over the Gaza war. As I walked, I berated myself for my inability to block out the noise, sit down in my workspace and focus on my book.

Then, something shifted. I found myself thinking, “What would it look like to upend the narrative? To speak of ‘engaged’ rather than ‘stalled’ associate professors? What might universities do to recognize that engagement?” A list began to form in my mind:

  • An engaged associate professor is involved in ground-breaking research that requires sustained periods of time to evolve into publishable work.
  • We participate in international conferences and workshops, the purpose of which is to create and advance new knowledge, as well as to support the work and success of junior scholars. 
  • We take seriously the work of mentoring junior faculty.
  • We not only teach, advise and mentor graduate students. Female associate professors in particular offer models for navigating work-life balance, especially for our female graduate students, and we are available to talk through these issues as part of our role as graduate mentors. 
  • We have enough teaching experience that we can fully commit to fostering a community of care in the classroom, where students from diverse backgrounds and experiences can feel equally heard and respected, where diversity deepens and complicates students understanding of the subject matter, and where students feel safe enough to be unsettled. 
  • We have the courage and confidence to let go of old courses, curricula and methods. We explore and experiment with new ways to meet student interests in a rapidly changing world. 
  • We translate our research for the public, through nonacademic and journalistic writing and other media. 
  • We say yes to university, college, and department service, including serving as department chair when it is appropriate (as I did), and we treat those obligations as opportunities to make meaningful contributions to the health and vibrancy of our institution. 
  • We are invested in the world beyond our own research and teaching, because it makes us better teachers and scholars.
  • We have achieved enough to be able to pivot away from our best-laid plans and attend to new challenges when a crisis like COVID or the war in Gaza takes hold.
  • We participate in family life that includes care for children, partners and often parents.

We undertake this work because it aligns with our sense of what it means to be successful. But doing so in a system in which a second book, in press, is the only meaningful indicator of success is deeply discouraging. In response to “the second book problem,” the University of Tulsa founded the Second Book Institute, in order to provide “practical support to academics in book-centered fields who are seeking to write a second scholarly monograph.” This is a welcome initiative, but it also reinforces the message that until the second book materializes, we are not really doing our jobs. What if the problem lies not in us but in the urgency of the other activities we undertake—activities that universities depend on for their success but that the existing reward structure fails to recognize?

If promotion to full professor must require a second book, newly tenured professors should be assured that they can take the time they need to do their ideas justice. They should be reassured that being good at this job can take different forms. Colleges and universities can recognize excellence in a number of ways that don’t take book form.

For example, that might be a salary review seven to 10 years after tenure, with an increase assigned within a fixed range based on the extent and impact of a faculty member’s contribution. Or it might be a gift of the holy grail of time, in the form of an additional paid leave, to support the work of getting that book between covers. Some faculty members can focus on research and writing to the exclusion of other commitments, and they will meet the requirements of promotion more quickly. Meanwhile, those of us who will ultimately complete our books, but who lack the time and headspace to do so right now because we are doing other vital work, should have tangible ways of knowing that we are valued by the institutions to which we dedicate our lives and service.

Lauren Monroe is associate professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel at Cornell University.

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