A Sociological Autobiography: 54 – Becoming a Professor

When asked if I am ambitious I have always replied: ‘only to write a half-way decent book or two’. My institutional ambition was even more vague, at least as far as promotion was concerned. This was in part due to my personal experience as an undergraduate at Surrey University and of studying when only 7% of my age-group went to university, and in part because I have never held rank to be good indicator of talent or achievement. When I arrived at Surrey in 1968 there were no professors of sociology, or of psychology or philosophy. It was only when sociologist Asher Tropp was plucked from the LSE in 1969-70 to run the department that things changed.

It was normal then for departments to have a single professor and for him (or much more rarely her) to be head of department. When in the early 1970s I signed up for a Ph.D in philosophy at Birkbeck College, and when I subsequently switched to a Ph.D in sociology at Bedford College, this same convention still applied (David Hamlyn ruled at Birkbeck’s philosophy department and Margot Jefferys at Bedford’s Unit of Medical Sociology). To babyboomer undergraduates a ‘professor’ enjoyed a symbolic status and an influence now well and truly lost.

This is not to decry the accomplishments of today’s professors – after all, the awarding of chairs was always a socio-political process (if you read Halsey on the emergence of sociology as a university discipline you might be forgiven for thinking that it all occurred at Oxbridge and the LSE) – but rather to give context. A decade ago I was asked to comment on a candidate for a chair at a small, local neophyte university. I was shocked at the paucity of content in her CV. My response? I had to admit that according to her institution’s criteria she was worthy of elevation; but at, say, UCL, she would not be competitive even for a lectureship (her bid was successful).

Back to my own journey. I was a university lecturer in my mid-20s, albeit initially half-time, but progress thereafter was less than rapid (senior lecturer by late 30s, reader a few years later, and, wait for it, professor aged 52). 52, is none-too-showy these days. Insofar as I aspired to the title, it was a reactive aspiration: I saw colleagues being awarded the title and inferred even from my maverick CV that, after all, I was no less deserving. My line-manager at UCL, Stan Newman, was very supportive and we together constructed my bid.

I recall only too vividly Stan knocking at my door on the second floor of the Wolfson Building in Riding House Street to relay the positive news. I asked him to repeat it less I had misheard, which indicates what it meant to me.

One of my early heroes (and I have always been disinclined to have ‘heroes’) was Dr Donald Soper, a socialist and Methodist preacher I regularly tuned into on Tower Hill, holding forth from his pulpit, and on what was then the Home Service’s ‘Any Questions’. I have yet to encounter his equal as an orator: he was a supreme and informed articulator of unpopular truths. In odd moments of vanity I coveted his title of ‘Dr’. So too, I guess, I wanted to be a ‘professor’: at least, I had determined that I would if at all possible retire a professor rather than a senior lecturer. Ok, becoming a professor was a lesser mark of distinction than it was in the 1960s, and I always recognized that many a senior lecturer, past and present, had outperformed in scholarship and/or impact his or her professorial colleagues, but …

I rang Annette, with whom it was a shared moment. I thought no more of myself, but maybe I breathed more slowly with a hint of relief: a hurdle had been cleared.

In my early teens at Worthing High School for Boys I remember thinking that if only I could bank a crop of O levels I could count myself among the achievers; then A levels; then a B.Sc; a Ph.D; a lectureship; and so on. How we tick boxes. And how separate all these ticked boxes are from any real accomplishment. When all is said and done, titles are ephemeral. My respect for my colleagues in sociology is entirely divorced from the titles, or for that matter the honours, conferred on them. It is independent too from their ‘productivity’: I know academics with 300+ peer-reviewed articles who will retire leaving no worthwhile legacy, doomed to be forgotten, seduced into anonymity.


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