“Mid-career faculty can easily reach a plateau where professional goals are less clear, even while an array of attractive personal and professional options may be available. The absence of motivating professional goals can cause professors to settle into a dull routine or begin to invest their energies in activities outside of their professional lives.” (p. 49)
So conclude the authors of a recent interview study that looked for answers to a number of questions that pertain to faculty in their mid-career years. The authors wondered about expectations for mid-career faculty and what they experienced, especially in the way of challenges. They asked about professional support—what mid-career faculty received as well as what they might wish to receive.
Very little attention has been paid to this particular career span, even though it’s the longest, which means it contains the largest cohort in the academic workforce. There’s expansive (and still-growing) literature on new faculty and some on seniors, but almost nothing on the middle years. One of the challenges frequently cited by interviewees in this study (all faculty at a research university) was this lack of attention. One interviewee said, “Once you’ve gotten tenure, you are sort of in charge of your own fate. You’ve achieved a certain level of professional maturity that indicates the department doesn’t need to oversee or nurture your next promotion. That’s kind of up to you.” (p. 50)
This particular study looked at all aspects of academic careers during the middle years, not just teaching. However, a lot of what came out of the interviews related to teaching or emerged from it. There is much about teaching that can contribute to “dull routines.” The same courses are taught with the same foundational content semester after semester. Every class is different, but students still ask the same questions, many use the same poor study routines, and too many accomplish way less than they could. Yes, every semester and every course is different, but after a few years of teaching, they’re not all that different. It’s easy for teachers to find their way into comfortable routines that, before long, become deep ruts.
Those interviewed for the study also regularly reported that more work was added to an already-full workload. Mid-career faculty teach the same number of courses and are expected (if they want to be promoted) to maintain the same level of scholarly output. In addition to that, during the mid-career period, they are often asked to assume administrative tasks, be it chairing the department or accepting some major committee assignment. This additional work can be a source of renewal, but the faculty interviewed often described it as an additional responsibility that required energy from already-depleted reserves.
Once teachers get more comfortable with the content, develop structures that guide their way through courses, and come up with activities and assignments that work reasonably well, teaching becomes an easy target for cutting corners. Students new to the course for a certain semester don’t know what’s missing from last semester. Colleagues who see each other’s teaching only on rare occasions have no reason to suspect any changes. And for the faculty member who has stopped doing one thing and is cutting back on another, a host of reasons can be summoned to justify what, taken separately, are small changes.
It doesn’t help that, in addition to being left to their own devices during mid-career, teachers encounter few mechanisms that mandate accountability. Annual performance reviews happen in most departments, but will the evidence submitted show any signs of change?
Teaching grows tiring gradually, not all at once, even though everybody’s pretty well used up by the end of the semester. That tiredness is transitory, cured by a brief break. The kind of tired teaching that really erodes classroom experiences for students (and teachers) happens when the content stays the same course after course and when the teacher cuts corners here and there, gradually decreasing the time and energy devoted to the course. Pretty soon, the magic is gone. All that teaching has the potential to be vanishes. What’s left is a job, a steady paycheck, and a retirement plan (that will hopefully have enough time to recover).
Most faculty find the autonomy of academic positions highly attractive. But being left alone also means that faculty assume the responsibility of taking care of their instructional health and well-being. As with other health issues, prevention and early detection are the best remedies. The time to make instructional health a priority is during those mid-career years.
Reference: Baldwin, R., DeZure, D., Shaw, A., and Moretto, K. (2008). Mapping the terrain of mid-career faculty at a research university: Implications for faculty and academic leaders. Change (September/October), 46-55.
Excerpted from Those Long Years in the Middle, February 2009, The Teaching Professor.