Unsticking the Stuck Professor

Like many universities, mine has steadily increased its publication and grant expectations, both of its individual faculty and its departments (and thus by extension its chairs). While most of my faculty members do a good if not great job in this regard, I do have a couple of faculty members whose scholarly/creative productivity has—for lack of a better word—flatlined. One is an associate two years out from tenure who has seemed to have trouble getting to work on new projects, and another is a senior faculty member who has for several years been working on an archival monograph with little in the way of intermediate production (i.e. conferences or articles) to show for it. How can I help these faculty get back on track?—Professor Expectations

Dear Professor Expectations:

I can see other chairs nodding their heads in recognition of your quandary. As the goalposts of achievement have been moved throughout academia, associate professors have been left behind. There are cottage industries to help graduate students finish their dissertations and new faculty make their way through tenure and promotion, But there’s not much aimed at providing mid-career scholars with the tools they need to sustain excitement about their research. Nationwide, organizations like the Collaborative on Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) are finding that associate professors feel like they get minimal mentoring and support towards maintaining a research profile and moving towards promotion to Full Professor.

First of all, I’d separate the two cases you raise. Stymied New Associate Professor (SNAP) has different needs and concerns from Blocked Senior Colleague (BSC). Primarily, SNAP needs mentoring from faculty who’ve been successful in keeping the research and publication juices flowing. Ask around your department to see if someone is willing to take on this task. You might speak to your dean about starting a monthly writing group of faculty in the humanities (or, if you’re at a small institution, humanities and social sciences), where participants share drafts of their work for feedback from other group members — and maybe the dean could offer some snacks and coffee to make the sessions even more appealing. These are all strategies that will serve all newly tenured associate professors in your department and even throughout the institution. Sit down with SNAP and ask what their plans are for the next couple of years in terms of publication. Find out what’s actually getting in the way of their productivity. Is SNAP being asked to take on more service? Are they burned out from the pressure of the tenure process? Do they have increased family responsibilities? The more you know, the more you can help.

BSC presents a different challenge. It’s not uncommon for scholars to hold onto their work until they think it’s “perfect.” In talking to BSC, you might emphasize that presenting work at conferences is a great way to get real-time feedback on work in progress in a fairly low-stakes way. Also, conferences can offer networking opportunities that BSC might not have considered, especially in the context of archival work. BSC could start small by presenting their research to the department  as a warm-up for conferences. It’s possible that BSC doesn’t want to be distracted from the larger project by spinning off articles, but you could reassure them that the feedback from peer review is invaluable in clarifying arguments, corralling sources, and cementing conclusions that would actually be very useful for the larger book project. As with SNAP, the key here is finding out what BSC wants, and why things are moving so slowly.

Ultimately, though, it’s worth thinking about why you want these two colleagues to publish more. Is there pressure being imposed from your university’s administration to make faculty more research active? Are there negative consequences for your colleagues, yourself, or your department if not everyone is producing at a faster clip (increased teaching load, or reduced internal research grant funding, or loss of prestige for the department, for example)? Is there a push for associates to move towards promotion to Full? Or do these two faculty members simply want to publish more, but they’re unable to find a way to do it? Once you’ve sorted out what’s at stake not just for them but for you, it’ll be easier to help them achieve their goals.

The Chair




1 Comment

  • Anne Donadey says:

    Our university (San Diego State University) became a member of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity a year ago, and their webinars and other resources, coupled with supportive mentoring on the part of our Associate Vice President for Faculty Advancement, Dr. Joanna Brooks, have been transformative in helping faculty members who were stuck go back to research and writing with enthusiasm. The program is geared primarily towards underrepresented faculty but the insights are incredibly helpful to all. If institutions are interested in having their faculty publish more, this is a great institutional resource that benefits a lot of faculty members.

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