Monday, August 16, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Ranks

A new correspondent writes:

Why are ranks at Community Colleges sometimes different from those at 4-year schools? For example, my rank is "Instructor," but I'm full-time tenure track. I only achieve the rank of "Assistant Professor" in five years, after I get tenure. The other ranks are for various levels of promotion.

I know it's a minor issue, but frankly it drives me a little nuts having to explain to people that I am, in fact, TT and that I'm not a part-timer. Sometimes I just fudge and say "Assistant Professor," to avoid the confusion.

Any idea why the ranks are so often different? How naughty am I to refer to myself as Asst. Prof. if that's not what it's called at my school?

This may seem weaselly, but my first response is to ask the context in which you refer to yourself that way. On a cv, in an official document, or in a job interview, it would be fraud. In informal conversation, though, I don’t see the issue.

DIfferent systems use different criteria and definitions for names, but the names themselves don’t change much. This leads to no end of confusion.

It starts with something as simple as “professor.” Much of the unhappiness in the profession, I think, stems from people having very different ideas of what a “professor” is. Is a “professor” a researcher with graduate assistants who occasionally gives an auditorium lecture, or a teacher who relies on group discussion, or a learning coach who helps students navigate self-paced learning modules? I’ve seen it carry each of those meanings and many more, but if you think it means the first and you get hired somewhere that believes it means the third, I foresee heartache.

It’s even worse for administrators, if that helps. Is a “dean” an august leader, a middle manager, or a low-level paper pusher? I’ve seen them all...

The instructor-assistant-associate-full ladder is fairly standard across the industry, but each rank carries different meanings in different places. I’ve seen schemes in which ‘instructor’ is reserved for full-timers off the tenure track, though in other places I’ve seen those called “visiting” assistant professors. I’ve also seen schemes in which new t-t hires are called ‘instructor’ until tenure, unless they have Ph.D.’s, at which point they’re called “assistant professor” until hire. (For my money, the best line reading of “assistant professor” belongs to Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But I digress.)

Oddly enough, in some places, ranks are entirely disconnected from tenure status. I’ve never understood that -- it seems to me that if you have a tenure system, then tenure and promotion should be connected somehow -- but it happens. I’ve seen systems in which you could gain tenure, work for decades, and retire still at the rank of assistant professor. It doesn’t make much sense to me, but there it is.

The issue isn’t really that different colleges define the terms differently. The issue is that they don’t know it. Since most tenure-line faculty don’t move around much, they often only know the system in which they personally work. When you try to move between systems, you’ll often see assumptions made based on a lack of awareness that different systems use the same words differently. Are ‘instructors’ on the tenure track? Maybe, maybe not. Do assistant professors have doctorates? Maybe, maybe not. (On the administrative side: do deans have tenure? What’s the difference between a director and a coordinator? Are department chairs administration or faculty? The answers to each of these varies by institution.)

I hope that the quirkiness of the local naming scheme doesn’t cause any real issues for you. As long as you don’t lie in an official context, I say call yourself whatever is easiest.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a particularly odd rank/naming scheme? How did it work?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.