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The Associate

A productive mid-life crisis

The middle stretch of my academic career.


By the time you read this, I’ll be dead.

Not really, probably. But it’s occurred to me that if I begin everything I write like that, imagine how poignant, how tragic it’ll be the one time it’s true.

I’ve been thinking about mortality a lot lately. Because I’m, you know, alive. But also because the last time I wrote for University Affairs, I was a fresh-faced Bob Benson, the junior guy in the office, and now I am a world-weary Don Draper. (Who’s kidding who? I’ve a case of rapid-onset Bert Cooper.)

I am an associate professor, that long middle stretch of the academic marathon. The anticipation and camaraderie of the race’s beginning is far behind me, the finish line and the festschrifts far ahead, and for the moment it’s just me, my bad knees, and the occasional drink station.

Although I’m not really alone. The Canadian Association of University Teachers’ Almanac editions of the past decade tell the story of an expanding associate rank. In my own field of history, for instance, associate professors have risen from a low of 32 percent of all full-time faculty to their current level of 39 percent of full-time faculty. This would seem to be the result more of assistant professors moving through the system than the number of full professors moving out of it – because fewer older professors are, in fact, moving out.

The percentage of full-time Canadian university faculty aged 65 or over has quadrupled this past decade. They have soared from 1.7 percent to 6.7 percent of all faculty. (The increase for history professors is even more dramatic: from 2.1 to 9.1 percent.) Almost one percent of professors are over 70, which has only recently become a measured category.

The global recession produced a steep drop in academic openings, and the end of mandatory retirement in Canada – well, I’m not sure of the impact of that. Whether the move exacerbated the hiring slowdown or kept experienced professionals in positions that would not have been replaced anyway, I’ll leave for others to hash out.

Regardless, in an era when methodologies, disciplines, students, universities, the labour force, and society in general have experienced dramatic change, the Canadian professoriate has been about as unchanging as it has ever been, other than aging.

That reality is difficult for individual aging professors – that is, all of us – to come to terms with, particularly when we see so many capable young scholars unable to crack the academic market. Particularly when we are complicit in making such capable young scholars proliferate. The CAUT Almanacs reveal, for example, that in Canada in 2004, the ratio of students enrolled in history PhD programs to full-time appointments in history was lower than seven to one. But a mere four years later, with enrolments up and hirings down, the ratio had jumped to more than 17 to one.

All things being equal, there was much more competition for those history jobs in 2008 than there had been in 2004 – or when I had been hired in 2001. Would I have been the top candidate in 2008 for the job I landed in 2001? Would I, in 2013?

Beyond what I owe my students, my university, taxpayers and myself, I owe it to recent history PhDs to be the best present-day model of a history professor I can be, and not just the best 2001 model. But like many of us, I have fallen into the trap of recycling old lecture notes, not keeping up with the literature, relying on graduate students’ familiarity with the latest software rather than learning it myself. Every day, my history has grown a little more historic.

Which is why I’m dedicating this regular column to the theme of reinvention. How are professors to adapt to changing pedagogical ideas and methods? When, if ever, do we adjust our long-held standards in response to changing student needs? How do we maintain the university’s forte in training students in skills that are timeless, through the use of new technologies and methodologies – technologies and methodologies that didn’t even exist when we were originally trained?

And, of course, I’m hoping this column will spur and document some personal reinvention of my own. I am planning to contemplate my current practices, develop new skills, be intentional about where I want to go from here.

I don’t for a minute think that in two years I’ll be unrecognizable to those who know me, but maybe I will have set myself a little off-course, in a good way. As a mid-life crisis, it seems more productive than a convertible.

By the time you read this, I’ll be different.

Alan MacEachern
Alan MacEachern is associate professor and graduate chair of history at Western University and director of NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment. His column appears in every second issue.
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