Over the past week I have had several conversations with friends and colleagues about what exactly it is that associate professors are supposed to do. Considering that I am one, this is a pressing question. So how come I don't really know the answer? The role is unclear, that's why. Associate professorland seems to be the epitome of the liminal space. Associate professors are most often defined by what they are not. My trusty Webster's dictionary defines an associate professor as "a member of a college or university faculty who ranks above an assistant professor and below a professor." Wikipedia's entry on "associate professor" isn't much better; it emphasizes only how one gets to be an associate professor, observing that the title is "usually awarded (in the humanities and social sciences) after the second book" (second book? good thing my college Executive Committee didn't know about that).
Given these definitions, and what I've been told by senior colleagues and inferred from others, the main thing I am supposed to be doing as an associate professor is trying to become a full professor. Which seems to entail at least some of the following:
Research. Finish that second book. Definitely start a third. However, I have also been told that full professors are not created on books alone. Apparently I must achieve some additional research greatness, though I'm not exactly clear what form that might take. But I am pretty sure it involves grant money.
Teaching. This one's easy: Don't suck.
Service. The biggie. Once you're tenured you're supposed to do more service, of all kinds, and I definitely embrace the importance of service. I actually did a lot of service as an assistant professor, especially for a department that protected untenured people quite well, but nevertheless the message seems to be: step it up. National associations, editorial boards, graduate advising, disciplinary organizations, grant reviewing, campus committees, public engagement, you must serve, serve, serve them all. But how do you know when and where to put your energies? How do you decide among seemingly limitless alternatives?
There's a very real Catch-22 in all of this: what if the very things that I do to prove I'm worthy of becoming a full professor are the very things that ultimately keep me from advancing? My friends and I talked a lot about this last week, and one thing we concluded is that in an ideal world, there would be more effort to mentor associate professors -- to talk about the role, explore what is necessary for promotion to full, encourage newly tenured folks to really think about where they want to direct their energies. Granted, our most senior colleagues are rightly focusing their energies on bringing along untenured folks, but I think it's incumbent on those of us in the liminal space to be proactive about these kinds of questions.