Nevertheless, I Persisted: One Year Later

One year ago this week, the members of my promotion appeal panel wrote up their final decision: in their view, my file (“with its heavy reliance on non-peer-reviewed on-line venues”) had not met the requisite standard and therefore “promotion to full professor is not merited at this time.” Though they claimed to “see merit in reaching beyond the confines of the academy,” overall they confirmed what President Florizone’s earlier letter had told me: if I wanted professional advancement, I needed to “focus [my] efforts on seeking peer-review of [my] work.” In other words, as I wrote at the time, I needed to “get back in the box.”

Well, I have not taken their advice–not just because I still believe they and the others along the way who insisted on the primacy of peer review were at best misrepresenting and at worst disregarding explicit university policies, but also because, inadvertently, they, and the whole unpleasant process, helped clarify something for me. I don’t want professional advancement. Or at least I don’t want it more than I want to keep trying to succeed on the terms I have set for myself. I was (unfortunately) seeking validation, but I wasn’t asking permission–and the doubts about my abilities, accomplishments, and prospects that were sown in my mind over that grimly discouraging 18 months are finally being overcome by my growing confidence about and satisfaction with my work as a literary critic on my own terms.

It’s still a slow and incremental process: I have more than once, in conversation, compared my efforts to build up my portfolio of work and thus my credibility in that role (for which my academic credentials mean relatively little) as being on a hamster wheel. I am very fortunate in that I do not need to depend on the results financially–but at the same time that also means I am doing this work alongside the other demands of my job. I’m increasingly happy with the results, though, especially now that they include a couple of pieces that reflect me more personally–that came out of my own strong interests and let me show a bit more of my own style and personality as a writer.

One of these is coming out in the next issue of Tin House: for their regular “Lost & Found” feature, I wrote about Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic in the context of my experiences as a student at UBC and my interest in the gendered relationship between history and fiction. The other is my appreciation of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which was published in this week’s issue of the TLS. I’ve written a lot of things over the past decade that I am proud of, many of them in Open Letters Monthly but also here on my blog and in a range of other publications on and off-line. What’s especially gratifying about these two recent pieces is that they are essays, rather than reviews, that I successfully pitched them to these well-respected and widely-read venues, and that both I and my editors are very pleased with how they turned out. I realize that this doesn’t guarantee anything about what will come of the next idea I have for something to pitch, but it does give me courage to keep looking for ways and places to write that let me express myself more as a reader and critic.

In other words, a year after a fairly crushing blow to my career and (not incidentally) my self-esteem, I’m doing OK, even well. (Today was certainly an excellent day! There’s nothing like being included in the TLS’s podcast to make you feel like you really are participating in the “wider conversation about books.”) Soon after receiving the letter telling me that my appeal had been denied, I resolved to stay on the path I had chosen, even if it meant the end of any lingering academic ambition: as I said in my post last year, “an academic’s reach must exceed her grasp, after all, or what’s tenure for?” In the last 12 months I think I have actually done more to advance both the university’s profile and its central mission–“the increase of knowledge and understanding”–by doing what I have done than I would have by devoting myself to the kind of research and writing that would (eventually) lead to peer-reviewed publication. So I don’t feel that I am being unprofessional! I’m just not limiting myself to the rigid, narrow-minded, and insular definition of my profession that was advanced and enforced by the university’s gatekeepers. They can keep their “past practice”: as Aurora Leigh says, “I too have my vocation–work to do”–and books to read, and criticism to write, and also, most important of all, classes to teach.

And with that, I’d best get back to it: I’ve got another 1600 words due on two books about Golden Age crime fiction in a week or so, not to mention the rest of both Middlemarch and North and South to reread for next week.

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Must You Try Again?

I’m trying to move on from my promotion debacle–honest! But I recently went another round with someone about whether I will, or should, reapply, one consequence of which is that I want to sort out my response (literal and emotional) to that question.

Since my final appeal was denied in November, I have actually had a version of this conversation fairly frequently. Usually, it reflects a friendly spirit of boosterism: it is supposed to make me feel better that people think I did deserve the promotion–and of course that is a nice thing to hear, and I do quite genuinely appreciate the expressions of support. Even so, I find these conversations stressful, because of their unspoken and (I assume) unintended implications, as well as some of the tacit assumptions behind them.

One plausible implication of pressing me to try again, for instance, is that getting promoted counts as professional success, and so until and unless it happens, I’m a professional failure. By some measures, this conclusion is obviously true, though it relies on rather circular logic. One of the hardest things about the whole process for me was precisely that I began it feeling proud of my accomplishments and ended it feeling like a failure. Pressure (however encouraging) to reapply makes me feel that way all over again, and reflects, I think, the general feeling among academics that of course we all want to achieve these professional milestones, which of course are meaningful indicators of the worth of our work.

For me, however, the pressure to reapply undermines the hard mental work I’ve been doing since last summer to distinguish my own standards for success from the standards against which I was measured by so many people involved in my promotion case. Regardless of what our regulations actually say, only very specific kinds of work were ultimately treated as eligible contributions to my discipline. Repeatedly and with conviction, I made the case for a more expansive and flexible definition of “scholarship,” but I was told in so many words that if I want professional advancement my body of work must conform in both kind and quantity to “past practice.” More than once I was told (as if to soften the blow of rejection) that my application was “premature”: the message was not, however, that eventually the quantity of my non-academic writing and other projects would meet the necessary (though nowhere specified) requirements, or that if I reached some higher (again, nowhere specified) level of achievement in my public writing, then my file would ripen into eligibility. Very specifically, I was told that I would deserve promotion if and only if I met the “usual” standard for peer reviewed publications.

I feel very strongly, however, that I should not allocate my time and expertise based solely on how my institution will reward me for it. That, to me, would be a poor use of my tenure, and of the academic freedom it secures for me. (Indeed, I think a case could be made that by insisting that if I want professional advancement I must work in one way and not in another–despite the university’s own regulations and the positive judgments of peers in my discipline–several levels of review at Dalhousie compromised, perhaps even violated, my academic freedom.) If I get nothing else positive out of this whole dreary experience, I hope that at least I have finally made my peace with the consequences of choosing to do critical work of a kind I find valuable, intellectually stimulating, and challenging, and that I have learned (or am learning) to stop seeking external validation for it–at least, not from Dalhousie. Instead, I am thinking hard about what success looks like on my terms and how best to achieve it. In this respect, applying again would be a real step backwards.

Another way of looking at my situation, of course, (and the way I’m sure my friends and colleagues intend when they urge me to reapply) is not that I am a failure but that the system failed me–but in that case, what do I have to gain by having another run at it,  except possibly vindication? If I’m not in fact a failure, why do I need to be promoted in order to carry on  precisely as I have been doing? This is a question I have spent a lot of time thinking about. I actually started asking this question even before my final appeal, which for a while I wasn’t 100% sure I would go through with. Why had I applied in the first place? What was in it for me, really? The professional payoff (including financial) is actually not significant–it’s mostly about pride and prestige–and there are even some down sides to it. I did think I had earned the promotion, and it is the usual next step for professors of a certain seniority, so part of my initial decision was just thinking that my time had come. But I also, I admit, had wanted to prove something, to myself and to some of the people around me. I wanted validation for the decisions I’d been making. I wanted my work to get an A! That’s an awfully hard habit to break–but, to reiterate my previous point, that’s exactly what this process has finally (I hope) managed to do for me.

I think my friendly boosters also don’t quite realize the time and the toll the process has already taken. I began compiling materials for my file in June 2015; the decision on my appeal arrived in November 2016. For nearly a year and a half, that is, I was frequently (and mostly negatively) preoccupied with it, including many hours in meetings, many more hours writing responses, rebuttals, and appeals, and many, many, more hours brooding–many of those hours lying unhappily awake while arguments and counter-arguments and what seemed like willful misrepresentations of my work went round and round in my head. Because so much of my social life is bound up in my departmental life, there has been significant fall-out. Some of my relationships, including with formerly close colleagues, have been irreparably damaged. I’m only just recovering my individual equilibrium, something that, as Timothy Burke aptly observes, isn’t easy to do, given the peculiar nature of academic culture. (That post of his has given me a lot to think about.) There’s absolutely no guarantee of smooth sailing if I opt to do this all again–so blithely urging me to press on seems a bit callous! Besides, I’m 50 now. How many of my remaining full-time years should I put into seeking approval from other people instead of just doing the work that matters to me?

For myself personally, then, applying again just does not seem worth the effort and the risk. I might change my mind, but it’s hard right now to imagine why. Another frequent component of these discussions, though, is that I owe it to other people to try again. It is often pointed out to me, for instance, that women are underrepresented in the higher ranks of the academy. I’m not sure my particular case has much to do with this general situation, and I’m not so far convinced that I should feel any special obligation because of it either.

I’m somewhat more persuaded by the argument that the kind of change or challenge to academic norms that I represent won’t happen unless people like me fight for and then use the influence that comes with seniority to turn advocacy into policy. But we have already changed our policies here at Dalhousie: it’s attitudes that haven’t changed–at least, not much. A lot of us were pretty excited about blogging for a while, but our more recent discussions showed a significant (and understandable) decline in optimism about that. Also, while there’s a lot of talk about “knowledge dissemination” and “public engagement,” it looks to me as if the trend is towards shaping that work into something recognizably academic and institutional–incorporating peer review into blogging, for instance, and establishing university programs and centers for things like the “public humanities,” rather than cheering on people who just go out there into the public sphere and participate in forms and discussions of different kinds. In this context, I’m not sure how much good I can do, individually, to instigate or support change, or at least why I have to put myself through another grueling round of extreme academic vetting in order to do it. It seems to me that I am doing as much good by persisting on my own, just trying to exemplify one of many alternative models.

“Never say never” is perfectly reasonable advice, and who knows how differently I will feel in the future, or what else might have changed in the world around me. For now, though, being promoted to full professor is simply no longer one of my goals.

2016: My Year in Writing

2016 was an odd year for me as a writer. On the one hand, I wrote a lot of literary criticism, for a wider range of venues than ever before. This experience was challenging, educational, exhilarating, and occasionally frustrating: in some cases, I had to write shorter and faster than I ever had before, and in others I had to find an angle on books or writers that weren’t immediately congenial or intelligible to my critical sensibilities. I also had to work with new editors and adapt to their different styles and priorities. Overall, I’m very proud of the results.

On the other hand, I also got the clear message from my employer (and many colleagues) that this is not the kind of writing they value, and that if I hope to advance professionally, I’d be better off giving it up, scrambling back into the ivory tower and devoting myself to a very different model of literary criticism. I actually wrote thousands of words in 2016 trying to turn this judgment around — attempting to persuade people on campus (none of them, ironically, actually literary critics of any kind) to recognize my essays and reviews, and the other elements of my diverse portfolio of projects and publications, as worthwhile contributions to my academic discipline. Of all the writing I did this year, this was the least pleasant, and ultimately the least rewarding.

Where does this leave me? Well, mostly it leaves me wondering how much more writing about literature I could have done in 2016 if I hadn’t wasted so much time (and, perhaps even more relevant, so much angst and energy) on a futile quest to change academic priorities — even if it did initially seem as if I was just urging everyone to live up to their oft-stated commitment to outreach, public engagement, and innovation. It certainly hasn’t persuaded me to do as I was told: I’m not against academics doing specialized research leading to peer-reviewed publications in academic venues, but I strongly believe enough academics in my field are doing this already and that it is both right and imperative that universities loosen their grip and encourage, support, and even reward faculty who do other kinds of work as appropriate to their disciplines.

bonnard-young-woman-writing

Institutional issues aside, I feel as if I made a lot of progress as a writer this year. Book reviews are not the be-all and end-all of my writing ambitions: I would particularly like to write more, longer, better, wider-ranging essays. I wasn’t able to do much of that this year, but the reviewing I’m doing is both honing my skills and helping me build up my credibility (one interesting and humbling thing about writing outside the academy is that my formal credentials and my academic c.v. mean very little “out here,” where authority is something you have to earn in other ways). I hope that in 2017 I will keep moving forward — both as a reviewer and as an essayist. This includes hoping that I make more progress compiling my existing essays on George Eliot into a book: now that I’ve self-published one e-book, I feel emboldened about doing another.

There’s a complete list of my publications under the ‘Other Writing’ tab above. Here I’ll just mention a few from 2016 that stand out to me, for one reason or another.

At Open Letters, I was particularly pleased with “Our Editions, Our Selves,” which was ostensibly a review of the lovely new Penguin Deluxe Classics edition of Middlemarch but which also gave me a chance to ruminate about my personal history with my favorite novel. Writing this review of Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved brought me some comfort and joy, and it was also my first attempt to write something thoughtful about romance fiction.

At The Quarterly Conversation, I wrote about David Constantine’s The Life-Writer and In Another Country, which I already mentioned in my previous post as some of the best reading I did in 2016. Because Constantine was new to me, and because his fiction is so elegant, I was a bit intimidated when I started working on the review, but in the end I felt that I had found something interesting to say and said it pretty well.

I published four reviews in the Times Literary Supplement in 2016. My favorite was of Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder — to me, anyway, this little piece reassured me that I am starting to be more at home in shorter reviews, that I can still sound like myself in a more compressed form. (I think my forthcoming review of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First is actually better, though; it will be out in January, I expect.) I was proud of my only longer piece in the TLS (so far), which discussed three recent scholarly books on Victorian women’s writing: this was not as much fun to do, but (again, to me, anyway) it seemed like a good example of my academic expertise being used in the service of a wider public.

I was very happy to write about Maurizio de Giovanni’s Bastards of Pizzofalcone novels for 3:AM Magazine: these were two of many good examples of crime fiction I read and/or reviewed in 2016. And I also appreciated the reviewing opportunities I got from Quill and Quire, including two neo-Victorian novels (Smoke and By Gaslight) that, again, let me draw on my academic background a little while nudging me out of my comfort zone.

Overall, then, on my own terms 2016 was a productive year for me as a writer and a critic. A key goal for me in 2017 is to stop seeking validation on other people’s terms!

Policy and Prejudice: My Promotion Postmortem

ns-dalhousie-universityAfter well over a year, my application for promotion to Professor finally concluded last week, with the disappointing news that my appeal of President Florizone’s negative decision was unsuccessful.*

I am well aware that compared to the precarity of so many others working in academia, my troubles don’t amount to a hill of beans. But they are troubles, nonetheless, and when you’ve given over 20 years of your life to an institution — a commitment that has had significant and often negative consequences for every aspect of your life, especially your family life — and when you have always brought your best self to the job — then the conditions of that job, the return you get for that commitment, hardly feel trivial. Those of us with tenure, also, have the security to advocate for the academy to become the kind of place we think it should be, which in my case means a more open, flexible, and publicly engaged place. If we don’t use our privilege to instigate change, we are wasting it. That this process ended in failure for me is a personal defeat, but one that I think also says something about the hope I know many of us share that academia will evolve.

I have thought a lot about what I can and can’t (or, should and shouldn’t) say in this public space about this process. I haven’t been completely silent about it up to this point, but I pretty much kept to generalities while the case was ongoing. I’ve gone into a bit more detail on Twitter since I received the appeal committee’s judgment, but though tweeting is a good way to let off steam and lay out preliminary arguments (and also to be reminded that you have allies), it doesn’t allow much deeper reflection or provide any sense of closure. That is what I need, and that’s why I’m writing this post — that, and because for almost a decade this blog has been a site for reflecting on my academic as well as my reading life.

screamIt is tempting, of course, to use this opportunity to lay out my whole case, to rehearse the ups and downs as my application went through its nine (nine!) stages of review, and to air my specific grievances as well as parade my allies and advocates. Militating against that self-indulgent impulse, though, is the conviction that even if it were professionally appropriate to expose all the parties involved in that way, nobody really wants to read that 10,000 word screed. Besides, I’ve done a lot of relitigating of details in the past 16 months. It will do me more good to pull back a bit, to get out of the weeds and try instead to articulate what seems to have been the fundamental problem, which I now think can be aptly summed up as (to borrow a phrase from Middlemarch) “a total missing of each other’s mental track.” I won’t name names or quote at length from any submissions, and I’ll try to avoid special pleading — though I can hardly be expected to hide which side I’m on! It will help me to write about it in this way, I hope: it will exorcise some of the frustration and bitterness I still feel. And then I will be done with it — publicly, at least — and I will do my best to gather up all the energy that has been dispersed among these professional and psychological hindrances for so long and rededicate it to the ongoing task of becoming the kind of literary critic and semipublic intellectual I aspire to be.

I’ll put the rest below the fold, so that if you come here for something besides academic self-flagellation, or you don’t have much patience for the professional troubles of someone in my position when the world seems to be falling apart (a reasonable attitude!), you can move on more quickly.

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The Price We Pay: Brian McCrea, Addison and Steele Are Dead

mcrea-not-the-coverFrom the Novel Readings Archives: I still find myself thinking a lot about the questions raised by Brian McCrea’s book Addison and Steele Are Dead, which I wrote about during my first year of blogging. Apparently I’m in something of a minority, or presumably I’d be able to find the actual cover image online somewhere! But rereading this post nearly a decade later, McCrea’s theory about the relationship between literature, professionalism, and teaching still seems well worth considering.


In parallel to my reading of ‘books about books’ aimed at non-specialist readers, I have been reading scholarly books that treat the development of English studies and/or academic criticism in historical as well as theoretical contexts. (Examples include John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, Morris Dickstein’s Double Agent: The Critic and Society, and Geoffrey Hartman’s Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars. My notes on these have been largely maintained off-line, though my post on Denis Donoghue’s The Practice of Reading comes out of the same line of research.) All of these books (and many more like them, of course) make explicit that what now appear to be the “givens” of professional literary criticism and the discipline of English studies are highly contingent and far from exempt from scrutiny, evaluation, or (presumably) further development.

McCrea’s Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism (1990) is certainly among the more lively and provocative books in this collection. As his title suggests, McCrea frames his consideration of English departments as professional and institutional spaces with arguments about what features in the work of Addison and Steele “render it useless to critics housed in English departments”–not, as he is quick to add, that “their works are without value, but rather, that they are not amenable to certain procedures that English professors must perform.” The opening sections of the book look first at the express intentions of Addison and Steele as critics and men of letters, particularly at their desire to be popular, widely read, accessible, un-mysterious. The short version of his story is that professional critics require difficult, complex, ambiguous texts to do their jobs; the “techniques of simplicity” that characterize Addison and Steele propel them, as a result, out of the canon. (McCrea reports that the last PMLA essay on Addison or Steele appeared in 1957, and that Eighteenth-Century Studies, “the publication of choice for the best and brightest in the field,” published only two short pieces on them in 20 years.) (As an aside, I wonder if a similar argument could be made about Trollope, whose novels often seem difficult to handle using our usual critical tools.)

spectatorAs he develops his argument, McCrea offers an interesting overview of the 19th-century and then 20th-century critical reception of Addison and Steele. He explains the Victorians’ admiration for these 18th-century predecessors largely in terms of the different understanding that prevailed about the relationship of literature, and thus of the literary critic, to life. Rightly, I’d say (based on my own work on 19th-century literary criticism), he sees as a central Victorian critical premise that literature and criticism are public activities, that their worth is to be discussed in terms of effects on readers; hence the significance attached, he argues, to sincerity as well as affect. Especially key to McCrea’s larger argument is his observation that the 19th-century writers were not “academicians” or “specialists in a field”:

For Thackeray and his contemporaries, literature is a public matter, a matter to be lectured upon before large audiences, a matter to be given importance because of its impact upon morals and emotions. For the present-day academic critic, literature no longer is a public matter but rather is a professional matter, even more narrowly, a departmental matter. The study of literature has become a special and separate discipline–housed in colleges of arts and sciences along with other special and separate disciplines. The public has narrowed to a group of frequently recalcitrant students whose need for instruction in English composition–not in English literature–justifies the existence of the English department.

As McCrea tells the story (which in its basic outlines is pretty similar to that told in other histories of criticism) this decline in the critic’s public role has had both significant costs (among them, the critical ‘death’ of Addison and Steele) and significant benefits. At times the book has a nostalgic, even elegaic sound:

People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman’s Shropshire Lad with the full professors.

mcgowanWhile we can all share a shudder at the very idea, to me one strength of McCrea’s discussion is his admission that marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response is, in a way, to be untrue to literature, and that the professional insistence on doing so also, as a result, marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McCrea says, “from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics–otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles], and, ultimately, any larger public.” (In Democracy’s Children, John McGowan makes a similar point: “There remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw [at least partly] allegiance to literature itself”).

But why, McCrea goes on to consider, should we expect such cross-over between our work–our professional lives and discourse–and our personal lives? McCrea’s answer to this question (we shouldn’t) puts the professionalization of English studies into the context of professionalization more generally, which he argues (drawing on sociological studies) was a key feature of American society during the last half of the 20th century. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of McCrea’s book, in fact, seems to me to be his insistence that, in this respect at least, ‘professing English’ is (or has now become) just another job, and indeed that its success at establishing itself professionally at once accounts for and has depended on its investment in theory and metacommentary: “The ultimate step in the aggrandizement of any professional group is for its members to get paid to talk about how they do what they do rather than doing it.” If one result is isolation from and (perceived) irrelevance to the broader public, including the reading public, the gains for criticism and even for literature are also, McCrea argues, substantial:

Rotarians no longer look to us for uplift, future presidents no longer turn to us to increase their ‘stock of ideas,’ nor do ex-presidents attend our funerals, undergraduates no longer found alumni associations around us, family members can no longer read our books, and plain English has disappeared from our journals. But professionalization has liberated us from a cruel Darwinian system in which one white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male emerged at the top while others struggled at the bottom, grading papers in impoverished anonymity. It has liberated us from the harsh economic realities of eighteenth-century literature . . . while [today’s critics] might wish to share Steele’s influence, I doubt they would want to share his life. He practiced criticism in a world in which there was no tenure, a world devoid of university presses, National Endowments for the Humanities, and endowed university chairs in literature. . . .

In a society in which no one outside the classroom reads Pope, professors can earn handsome incomes by being Pope experts. The five top Pope experts compete with each other, but probably not with the Tennyson experts, and certainly not with the Chaucer experts. The quest for autonomy has cost us Addison and Steele, has cost us the ability to treat literature as a public, moral, emotional phenomenon. But it has left us with a part of literature, with a canon of works complicated in their technique and tone, and with a classroom in which we have a chance to teach those works, to keep them (and whatever value they hold) alive.

Provocative, as I said, not least in reversing the oft-heard line that (undergraduate) teaching is the price professors pay for the opportunity to do their research and as much as declaring that, to the contrary, academic criticism is the price they pay to preserve literature and its values.

Originally published in Novel Readings August 8, 2007.

Fear of Failing

success-failureEarlier this year there was a lot of buzz when a Princeton professor published a “CV of Failures.” I know: “Princeton professor” and “failure” hardly seem to belong in the same sentence. But that was pretty much exactly why Johannes Haushofer decided to make his record of rejection public. “Most of what I try fails,” he wrote in his preamble,

but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective.

I admit that it seemed a bit silly to me at the time. Don’t we all fail a lot, and isn’t the point of a curriculum vitae to make the positive case? But he and the many people who responded enthusiastically to the whole idea of going public with failure weren’t wrong that in academic culture failures are hidden while successes are trumpeted — not just in the relatively discreet form of CVs (which are all-too-rarely made public anyway), but by announcements from Deans, or applause at Department meetings, or faculty book fairs, for example. In this context failure always feels a bit shameful (which is just one of many reasons the terrible job market for PhDs is so psychologically damaging). Academia is a profoundly evaluative, and thus incessantly judgmental, culture, and thus also a culture that all too easily divides us (if only tacitly) into winners and losers.*

fisforfailureI have been thinking about the question of failure in academia again since my promotion was denied. The appeal is ongoing, so I don’t yet know how the story will finally turn out, but no matter how it does, the fact will always remain that I was not successful in this process.** It has recently occurred to me that one reason last year was so difficult for me is that when things took a turn for the worse, one of my most intense reactions was humiliation. I felt profoundly embarrassed, because I had been held up for scrutiny and found wanting: I had not passed the test, and in this world, that feels not just like a professional evaluation but also like a very personal and all-too-public shaming. I know that this is not an entirely rational response, but I bet it also isn’t unusual for academics who fail in this way, especially when you add in imposter syndrome (endemic among academics) — this is the time you were finally exposed as the pretender you always were.

freakoutthrowstuffWhat I have been thinking about more recently, though, is how much worse this cringing attitude made the whole experience for me, because it led me to be not just discreet but downright secretive about what was going on. I’m not saying that I should have made all aspects of the case public (and I don’t plan to now, either): I have some doubts about the advice on Historiann’s blog (about another case) to “YELL AND SCREAM ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING,” not just because it seems to me a strategy that could backfire but also because it could look as if you’re trying to do an end-run around proper procedures. (Not that those procedures themselves might not sometimes deserve yelling and screaming about, of course, but as a general rule I don’t think professional matters should be litigated in the court of public opinion.) I just mean being frank about the basics, so, for instance, when people ask how you are doing, instead of saying “fine” and then going in your office and throwing things to relieve the stress of keeping up appearances, maybe saying “not great, actually, because my promotion application isn’t going as well as I’d hoped.”

My overwhelming desire to hide in my office and listen to Adele may have protected me in some ways, but it also, I belatedly realize, cut me off from what might have been really valuable gestures of support. Mind you, being more open might well have created other problems, since the sources of my troubles are one way or another all colleagues: presumably we don’t routinely discuss these processes more openly precisely because the airing of internal grievances threatens our collective collegiality. Of course, from my point of view the damage is already done: there are people I’ll never look at the same way again. Also, the prevailing norm of confidentiality strips away some kinds of accountability. My feeling at this point is that like any dissension between co-workers, it’s awkward any way you handle it, but my way — which meant closing myself off from many of the people around me — ended up being quite personally debilitating.

failureI don’t rule out that some of the intensity of my own reactions might be idiosyncratic: I myself was surprised that I took it all so hard, and that has been cause for some self-reflection. (Indeed, I have experienced fits of meta-failure in which I have been thoroughly unimpressed with myself for not handling everything better!) That’s what got me thinking again about the general context, though — about what failure means and how failure is treated in the academic world. And it also got me thinking about other failures in my own life, along the lines of the ‘CV of Failures.’ It isn’t, after all, as if this is the first time I have swung at something and missed. So in the spirit of Johannes Haushofer, here are a few more of my own failures. I’ll restrict the list to things that quantify more easily than, for instance, my general failure to thrive during my graduate coursework, and that are on a larger scale than, say, the many books I have failed to understand.

  1. I was rejected by most of the graduate schools I applied to, including the one I most wanted (the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz, which in retrospect I think might have been a complete disaster for me).
  2. I was also did not get most of the jobs I applied for, including the one I really (really) wanted (at Simon Fraser University, where I came close enough to have a campus interview). (Worse, almost, is that they sent the rejection by email so I wept over it in a dank basement computer lab, which is where we read email in those days.) Obviously, I did still get a very good job (just as I did get into a good graduate program) but I didn’t know at the time that’s how things would turn out.
  3. I didn’t get the only SSHRC grant I ever applied for. The funny thing about that, in this context, is that one criticism of my promotion case (from some quarters) was that I hadn’t applied for a SSHRC grant — I had, but it wasn’t on my CV because I didn’t think failed applications belonged there.
  4. I’ve been fairly lucky with articles submitted for publication, though I’ve certainly had failures there too. One that I remember with particular clarity came back with a very dismissive assessment and then was accepted unchanged by a different journal — good evidence for the “crapshoot” theory. Another came back as a revise and resubmit: that ended up being one of the most valuable experiences of my early professional career, as it was for Victorian Studies, the revision advice was both generous and rigorous, and they accepted it when I sent it back.
  5. I don’t yet have much experience with “pitching” essays to magazine editors, but I’ve failed almost every time I’ve tried. Sometimes these failures come in the form of absolute total silence in response — that I don’t really want to get used to, as it seems to me just plain bad manners. There was also that book review that was declared unpublishable.
  6. I have so far failed to turn my miscellaneous writing on George Eliot into a viable book project. I do consider this particular failure a work in progress, though. At the very least, as time goes on and I try different variations of it, I hope maybe I am failing better!
  7. (I thought of this one after I’d published this post originally.) Although I have been nominated 5 times for teaching awards, I have never won.
  8. (Updated) It turns out I did lose the appeal, so that’s a story that ends in a resounding failure. (Not just for me, IMHO, but definitely and specifically for me.)

Like Haushofer, I’ve been very fortunate overall in my academic career. The point is not to complain (that would be absurd, for someone in my privileged position, and anxiety over giving just such an impression has nearly kept me from posting this at all) but to reveal more of the whole picture, to be clear that my career has not been an unimpeded string of successes that nobody with any failures on their record could possibly hope to emulate. I’ve learned over the past year, too, that for all my successes — maybe even to some extent because of them — I still need to work on my own fear of failing, or, more specifically, of being seen to fail. This post is a start.

*I’m sure these attitudes are not unique to academia, but I think they may have some unique features there given the particular form and very long process of indoctrination professionalization we’ve gone through by the time we end up in these jobs.

**I know now; see #8 above.

Academic Enclaves

I was reminded yesterday that SSHRC has awarded a large sum to help start up a Canadian version of The Conversation. I have followed links to the other national iterations of this site before and thought it seemed like a good idea. “Academic rigor, journalistic flair”: what’s not to like?

Well, actually, I don’t altogether like the tone that tagline sets — as if there isn’t journalistic rigor, as if academics can’t have flair, as if the twain otherwise don’t meet. Okay, folks, you’re different, but maybe not that different: people with “deep expertise” do write for other outlets, after all, and once in a while “facts and evidence” actually do get into the public arena from other directions. It’s a great idea to make the kind of expertise academics have more widely available, but that good impulse is somewhat offset, for me, by the site’s faint air of condescension. Am I being uncharitable or oversensitive? Does it strike anyone else this way?

Thinking about The Conversation got me thinking, in turn, about some other academic “crossover” sites I’m familiar with. Almost all of these have occasionally (again, despite their manifest good intentions and the often very high quality of their content) irritated me in the same way: Stanford’s Arcade site, for instance, or the Public Books site (which has another tagline that I don’t like, implying as it does that the “curious public” is passively awaiting delivery of “cutting-edge” ideas); or, in a more niche category, the Branch Collective. Obviously, these sites aren’t all trying to do the same thing, and they have quite different personalities of their own, but they have in common that they are deliberate attempts to bridge the divide between the ivory tower and the rest of the world. Also, they all seem very keen to differentiate themselves, implicitly or explicitly, from the masses of other sites offering analogous content, playing up the scholarly qualifications of their contributors or their replication of key academic processes (notably, in the case of the Branch Collective, peer review).*

I think what rubs me the wrong way is exactly what these sites (with some justification) play up as their strengths — that they may be out in public, but at heart they are still academic. They are careful to explain and assert their own authority, in (mostly) implicit contrast to the many other sites that are equally public but not created or curated by academics. To me, this all has a whiff of the all-too-familiar academic mistrust of the actual “public arena,” in which credentials are neither necessary nor sufficient for authority and peer review neither filters nor stifles contributions to the conversation. It’s not that there aren’t good reasons to get frustrated with the resulting chaos of information and opinion, but to me there’s something a bit precious about setting up special academic enclaves and calling them “public” instead of just joining in. (If you don’t think Wikipedia is good enough, why not make it better?) It also seems to me in some cases as if, alongside the desire (genuine, I’m sure) to offer something of value to people outside the academy, there’s some concern about ensuring that the form that offering takes will pass muster inside the academy — because for all the big talk these days about “knowledge mobilization,” in practice universities are profoundly conservative institutions, and the more familiar an “innovation” looks, or the more it is “branded” as a ground-breaking institutional or disciplinary project, the more likely it is to be praised and given professional credit.

Again, I’m not disdaining the quality of the sites I’ve mentioned. There is just something about their tone or atmosphere that I sometimes find off-putting. I have also been frustrated at having them held out by other academics as exemplary in ways I do not believe they actually are. In my own promotion case, for instance, one of my external reviewers praised the editorial process she (or he, I don’t actually know) had experienced at Public Books, suggesting more or less directly that it was more rigorous than that at Open Letters Monthly because she had found some of my reviews there “repetitive” (which ones, she didn’t say). Well, of course, equally rigorous readers can still disagree about judgments like that — and it’s a hard claim to assess or dispute anyway, without specifics. (I didn’t appreciate the slur on my co-editors, however, even setting aside the criticism of my own writing!) However, in my turn, I’ve read a few things at Public Books that I found ponderous, pretentious, or just too long for me to care enough about to finish, so I don’t see any reason to assume that either venue can claim a uniquely effective process. (I certainly feel confident that contributors to Open Letters get pretty arduous treatment in what we fondly call the “shark tank” of general edits.) I also have academic colleagues who are keen to write essays for Branch but cannot bring themselves to contribute to Open Letters — it’s pretty clear that the academic imprimatur motivates them in a way that our masthead does not. (Or perhaps, as has been suggested to me a couple of times, the prospect of going public quite so openly, even on the modest scale Open Letters offers, is intimidating. As Alex Reid has observed, “the Journal of narrowly-focused humanities studies is a good place to hide,” and I admit it takes a while to get used to just saying what you think without the protective shelter created by peer review and obscurity. Or perhaps they just don’t think very highly of Open Letters but are too tactful to tell me: my speculation should not be too partial!)

Obviously this issue is personal to me, especially at this particular moment in my career, which is why I freely acknowledge that my inverse snobbery about these erudite and high-minded projects may well be symptomatic of my own anxieties about the choices I’ve made, rather than an accurate reflection of anything they’re actually doing or saying. Clearly, I have approached working in public in a different way — not as part of an institutional or specifically professional enterprise (not that we have anything like, say, the Public Humanities program at Western — but even if we did, that’s not what I want to be doing), not in a special space that privileges academics. I have just tried to find a place for myself in the ongoing public conversation about literature, to figure out what I could bring to it and how. In this conversation, unlike at The Conversation, we share and create authority for each other; mine, such as it is, doesn’t inhere in my credentials. I am not saying this is the right or best model for all public academics (it almost certainly would not work for nuclear physicists), and I’m also not saying that the enclave model is wrong — though I do think it should not be insisted on or valued more highly just because it preserves, even relies on, distinctions between the university and the world. I think that for me personally, the problem with the enclaves is that they represent, or resemble too closely, what I came out here to get away from, is all.**

*I can’t decide where The Valve fits in here. I think it always had more of a hybrid quality, and certainly while I was writing for it its boundaries seemed fairly porous. But maybe it struck other people as insular in this same way.

**My way has the advantage of not requiring a SSHRC grant to get on with it — though actually to some people that it’s free (except, of course, for the investment of time) apparently counts against it, because getting grants is a thing we’re supposed to do.