Rebecca Schuman

Columnist at vitae

What’s In a Name? If It’s 'Assistant Professor,' Then Beats Me

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Image: Monty Hall in Let's Make a Deal

Although I haven’t been on the academic job market since 2012, I still diligently read through every ad in my former discipline—then I “rate” them all, largely for Schadenfreude. Because this year’s market in German is so paltry, there are often few or no listings for me to rate. My website’s job-ad analysis feature has devolved a tad, into Nashville recaps, digressions on the wonders of pregnancy, and photos of my novelty coffee-mug collection—all in an effort to bring some gallows humor to my fellow Germanists, and other members of the foreign-language disciplines deemed largely expendable by the university-industrial complex.

In the midst of my distraction-fest, however, I also happened to notice some strange things afoot on the MLA Jobs Information List. As of now, a whopping three of the 23 positions currently advertised in German as “assistant professor” aren’t—or at least they aren’t using those words to mean what I think they mean.

Conventional wisdom, at least in English and the modern languages, says that the title “assistant professor” refers to a tenure-track job—whereas contingent faculty at the “rank” of assistant professor will be referred to as something like “visiting” assistant professor, “term” assistant professor, or even, as my husband is called, “assistant teaching professor.” But you wouldn’t know that from these listings. Check out this one:

Huh. The title of the ad boasts “Assistant Professor of German,” no modifications—but once you look at the text of the listing, you see that it’s just another two-year VAP job, in which the chosen candidate will—with equal parts relief at being employed and despair at infinitely more years on the market—continue turning and turning in the widening gyre of contingency. If this position has any chance of being converted to a tenure line, the ad says nothing of the sort, so the candidate will be left to intuit, perhaps using the ancient wisdom of his or her body that my midwifery books keep telling me about.

I’m not the only one a little vexed by this nomenclature. I emailed briefly with former MLA president and current academic elder statesman Michael Bérubé about it, and he told me that he finds listings like that “nonsense.” They’re “even worse,” he posits, than “‘postdocs’ that are really one-to-three year, nontenure-track positions with 3/3 loads,” which he also sees advertised. “Assistant professorships should be tenure track by definition,” he says. “Anyone who advertises a NTT ‘assistant professor’ position is engaging in deceptive advertising.”

Granted, it’s inaccurate to call something a “trend” in such a small discipline, so I braved the rest of the JIL and found a few more nontenure-track “assistant professor” listings in the other foreign languages (none in English that I could find):

The good news is: This phenomenon is indeed an outlier, and the nomenclature “assistant professor,” with no modifiers, still almost always refers to what few tenure-track listings remain. The bad news is: Some institutions do seem to get to advertise pretty much anything they want as an “assistant professor,” with no regulations to make them stop.

So why should they have to stop? Doesn’t a college teacher deserve to be called an assistant professor? Am I being elitist, snootily insisting that the tenure-trackers deserve a special title because they’re so special?

It’s not that, I promise. If it were up to me, we would all, from adjunct to triple-endowed chair, just be called “professor.” The end. But the reality of academia is that it’s hierarchical, and the only thing that can make its current hierarchical (some might say oligarchical) tendencies worse is to be inconsistent about it.

First of all, not all fake “assistant professor” jobs are alike. Take this listing at St. Anselm College, for example, which I talked about briefly with Elizabeth Fouts, an associate professor of Spanish and chair of the department of modern languages there:

This job is advertised as a “term” assistant professor slot (though not in its ad heading), Fouts explains, because “for the past decade or so, we have been unable to secure tenure-track replacements for most retiring faculty modern languages.” However, she says, “the administration is usually willing to give us the one-to-three year renewable contract, which often is converted to tenure track after a year or two.” So, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that with a job like this, someone could catch the right provost after a few unexpected birdies at the club, and get that line converted.

Then we have jobs like this one, a one-year visiting gig that will hire at the “rank” of instructor if the chosen candidate is A.B.D., or at the “assistant professor” rank if he or she has a doctorate, as per institutional convention:

I talked to Jorge Olivares, chair of the Spanish department at Colby, about this ad, and he explained: “At Colby, the ‘instructor’ rank is given to hires who are A.B.D.’s; the ‘assistant professor’ rank is given to hires who have completed their Ph.D.’s. It is irrelevant whether the position is tenure-track or temporary.”

Interesting. I wonder if this year’s angst-stricken job seekers would find that point irrelevant.

Yes, the “rank” (but not the job) of assistant professor is almost always bestowed on the institutional and not departmental level, for reasons I understand: At some institutions, only faculty members at the rank of assistant professor and above have the right to sit in meetings, develop curricula, qualify for research grants, etc. But still, ads like Colby’s also have the effect of using a title people expect to come with a certain amount of security, without being held to the conventions of that title at all.

So can I play, too? Can we do the same thing with the higher ranks? Like, can we just advertise two-year, 5/5 contract jobs as “Eminent Scholars” now? Ooh, what about “tenure”? Can we just decide that the word “tenure” actually means, “to put in six years of service to the university, at which point the employee’s body will be donated to the medical school for experiments, dead or alive”?

Instead of that, I’d like to offer this far more modest proposal: Publications such as the JIL that advertise academic jobs should ramp up their regulation of position titles in job ads. Academia is an industry (or “vocation,” whatever) that prides itself on precision of language. It’s a culture filled with people who are allegedly too busy to answer student emails yet spend hours upon hours picking apart the language of listservs and dumb Facebook arguments. A considerable amount of scholarly ink (including my own) is spilled in the mulling-over of linguistic ambiguity. The least we can do, in an academic job market that continues to be truly abysmal, is to put some consistent nomenclature on that abyss.

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