GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Growing Up in Academia

In Liminal Thinking on 2011/03/08 at 22:05

Denise Horn, writing from India

I have friends who are well advanced in their (non-academic) careers—they are senior managers, higher-ups in government bureaucracies, established account and movie executives. They pay mortgages, have children, talk about their investments and have all the trappings of late 30-something, early 40-somethings that we generally associate with that population. They are grown-ups.

Despite being in the same age cohort, however, I don’t feel like a grown-up, really. I feel more like a grown-up in waiting.

It’s not that I’m not an adult, with all the responsibilities that entails, but rather it’s the mindset of being a “junior faculty member.” I’m just in the strange netherworld of post-doctoral student life and pre-tenure. It’s the place where we’re supposed to establish ourselves as academics yet are often treated as an unknown quantity. We can’t defend ourselves openly: we must rely on tenured colleagues to do that for us. We can’t make waves: we have to work through back channels to avoid upsetting the wrong—tenured—faculty member or administrator. We can’t take on too much work other than teaching and research, lest our—tenured—colleagues think we are not “serious” adult academics. At the same time, we are a bit coddled with extra research time (at least in my university), forgiven for rookie mistakes, and (one hopes) protected by chairs and senior faculty mentors.

What does it mean to “grow up” in academia?

For those of us on the tenure-track, I think it means that our worlds are open to us intellectually, yet constrained by the politics of our various institutions which may lead to harsh judgments if we break the rules—just as my parents would have done when I was sixteen. It means that we look forward to the day when we can speak our minds freely and speak out when need be, without fear of losing critical support in future assessments—much the same way I felt as a kid in school, longing for the day I could dye my hair any color I wanted or stay out late. But less flippantly, being granted tenure means that we have done all the things a “good girl” should have done, and finally, recognized as worthy of regard. We are longing to be given the keys to the car.

I’m making light of this with my metaphors, of course, but this sense of “juniorness” as an academic, and all the insecurities and vulnerabilities it engenders, has sobering effects on one’s psyche. While I look forward to the day when I can speak more openly or have a role in administration, we can see, from our vantage point as juniors, why some of our senior colleagues seem bitter or prone to anger over seemingly trivial matters. There is a tradition of putting current juniors through the same abuse one received as a junior scholar that pervades academia. It can be terrifying, stultifying and frustrating.

We hope that every generation will learn from the previous one. But when those of us coming up in the ranks “grow up,” will we repeat the same mistakes? Or will we really try to change the face of academia and welcome the newcomers?

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  1. [...] does this do to junior faculty? It infantilizes them, destroys their innovative spirit, makes them bitter and jaded, demoralizes them, etc. Where is the [...]

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