Shameful self-promotion vs. meritocracy

Meritocracy is a theme to which I keep returning in my blog, mostly because as a core feature of academic culture it never seems to lose relevance. In this post I discuss the relationship between the academic disdain for (certain forms of) self-promotion, particularly social media, and how this is related to assumptions about “merit” and the intrinsic worth of one’s research. Here is a link to the original post, from August 16, 2011: Shameful self-promotion vs. meritocracy.

On August 4th, an article titled “How not to get left on the shelf” by Dale Sawak was posted on the Times Higher Education web site. In it, the author argued that if academic authors want their books to be read by a wider audience (or at all), they’ll need to engage in some self-promotion.

The article produced an incensed response from some readers. In order to understand why, we need to translate its thesis into Stereotypical Academic Logic. Once translated, the argument looks something like this: Sawak tells researchers who already see themselves as successful (i.e., they have written and published books), that their success is actually limited (by audience, no less; practically an accusation of elitism). He also suggests that in order to achieve “real” success, authors should engage in an activity that’s disdained in academe–advertising oneself.

A disclaimer here: part of my research is about the spread of entrepreneurialism and promotionalism in university governance and practice; I wrote my MA thesis in sociolinguistics, and it was a critique of internal public relations at a university. I’m not particularly keen on the idea of having to be a competitive, “marketable” academic, or that we should be forced to participate in phoney promotional activities (I don’t think they work anyway) or in the kinds of performance assessments that measure “impact” with a variety of suspect statistics. But as with so many issues, there are elements of self-promotion that relate positively to doing a good job as an academic, rather than buying in to neo-liberal market-oriented self-reformation.

In all fairness there’s an underlying critical point in Sawak’s article, which is that self-promotion is something that all very successful academics engage in–whether or not they acknowledge it. No-one can argue that Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky don’t “put themselves out there” (though usually the term public intellectual is applied). The suspicion of self-promotion is also part of the reason that blogging and other social media activities are often dismissed by academic colleagues and peers.

Not only are self-promoters more successful, but so are graduate students whose supervisors “push” their students’ work actively. Ever wonder how so-and-so managed to get that article published in a good journal, or a helpful research assistant job, or an item that showcases their work on the faculty web page? Committee members and supervisors can help with this too, behind the scenes, and it’s in their interests because your success reflects back upon them.

While the necessity of at least some degree of self-promotion may seem obvious, given the academic fear and loathing of public relations (where PR is often conflated with advertising and/or marketing or even lying and propaganda) it’s actually a tough admission for professors to make.

The admission needs to be made, though, because it further disrupts the assumption made by many that meritocracy is the (only) engine powering the university. Passing on advice about appropriate networking and promotional skills should be a part of mentoring undergraduate and graduate students: one needs to know how to put one’s best foot forward, simply because it opens up opportunities. As frustrating as this may seem, it’s true that ideas don’t tend to be recognised due to “merit” and nothing else, just as great scholarly partnerships and collaborations don’t develop out of thin air. You need to meet people and they need to see your work.

Female academics, in particular, are vulnerable to the trap in which they remain silent about their own work and its value–as Lee Skallerup Bessette writes in her blog post, “Shameless self promotion”. Women in general are less likely to claim expertise, which can be a detriment when it comes to succeeding in an academic career and a public profile. Female graduate students are more likely to suffer from “Imposter Syndrome” and to lack the sense of self-value that helps them develop crucial professional networks.

Granted, there’s definitely some promotion-related career advice I would consider to be cynical and unproductive. For example in this article the authors assert that early-career academics must cite important scholars in the field even when their work is only “tangentially” related. I doubt this is necessary for every paper, and I’d agree with some commenters that most authors can see through a meaningless reference and many will dismiss it. Then again it’s also true that we don’t live in an academic utopia; some scholars do want their egos stroked. If you’re willing to engage in that, then take the advice.

If you still find distasteful the idea of engaging in some form of self-promotion, think of it this way: no-one can assess the “merit” of your work unless they have some exposure to it and to you.

Another reason is that you’re already producing PR about yourself. You re-write your own CV and cover letters, send copies of your papers for review and revision, organise and/or participate in conferences; you’re concerned about your reputation and the impression you make on peers because it affects your work prospects. There’s nothing wrong with all this–it’s not “beneath you” to consider and engage in these things and and there’s no professional penalty for it (quite the opposite). Expand your idea of “public relations” to focus on the broader idea of “relations”, relationships, and it’s clear that much of our communication is a part of that process; stop assuming that PR is “evil”, and you’ll realise it’s necessary (as well as omnipresent).

As a final note, I’ll talk a little bit about this blog. Did I set out to “self-promote” by writing it? Frankly, no, that wasn’t the goal; I didn’t start blogging because I thought it would be “good for my career”. I wanted the other benefits of blogging such as dialogue with peers, sharing of thoughts and commentary, and a space to “mess around” with ideas that haven’t yet made it into my formal academic writing.

The blog has led to many great conversations and connections, but it’s also had a much wider readership than I ever imagined (though still fairly narrow-!). Blogging here led to guests post at University of Venus on the Inside Higher Ed site (I’m now a regular contributing writer there); it led to one of my posts appearing in the Guardian UK online, and to another post receiving attention in the Times Higher Education. While those aren’t the peer-reviewed academic publications that are required for a career as a professor, they’re valuable for me especially in that they relate directly to my field of research, and will reach much broader audiences than my own blog.

Let’s try to avoid allowing self-promotion to be one of the “dirty secrets” of the academy, something to be sneered at or reserved for the egotistical and vainglorious, something that “real” academics don’t do; after all, what’s a book launch for?

Most excellent dudes – Gender, meritocracy, & media coverage of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs

This is the first Prezi I ever tried using for a conference presentation. Thankfully both the Prezi interface and my skills at using it have improved since 2011. The presentation is about the media coverage of the announcement about the Canada Excellence Research Chairs in 2010. There were protests that no women were even shortlisted for these prestigious and lucrative awards, and the ensuing debate reflected some of the major themes in the arguments about women and (their absence from) science. I discuss two of those themes, the one being “meritocracy” with as idea of excellence as transparent, and the other being essentialist and binary notions of gender.

Myths and mismatches, part 5

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 11, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 5: The Myth of Academic Meritocracy.

Today’s “myth” from Jo and Julie is possibly the biggest one of all, and thus the most destructive should you buy into it whole-heartedly. It ties in with every other point that’s been made thus far in this series…

“Myth #3: Merit is Everything.”

I just want to point out that my response to this issue is always a very personal one, for reasons I will partially explain below.

For the record, the ideal of meritocracy–that you succeed at academic work primarily because of how smart you are–is a myth (as Jo and Julie state: “Excuse our language, but this is all a fucking load of steaming crap”). And there are plenty of examples that illustrate it. One of them is the issue of socioeconomic class, something that has an effect literally from birth. In the research on post-secondary education (PSE), SEC is a clear factor and yet one that various researchers attempt to mitigate by making the claim that cultural capital matters more than economic capital. Any study you’ve seen that makes claims about the improving influence of the “number of books in the house” is a study making claims about class and culture in this way. The problem is that if you used the available statistics to draw a nice Venn diagram, you’d discover that the overlap between “class (economic) privilege” and “cultural capital” makes the diagram look more like one circle than two. Translation: you may have more books in the house, but you might not have the money to pay for an academically elite private school, or even for the extra tutoring that improves your grades and helps you win that merit scholarship. Money matters at least as much as “merit”.

Money also matters when you decide it’s not worth going into $35,000 worth of debt to finance your degree, even if a degree is “an investment that really pays off” as the research tells us (again and again). I know I didn’t want to go to graduate school if it meant I’d have to increase my student loan burden. Does that mean I would have been somehow “less smart” if I hadn’t gone? As it turns out, my grad degrees have been financed primarily by merit-based scholarships. Does that mean I’m now, somehow, inherently smarter than you? (Hint: the answer is “no”.) In the PSE research literature, this attitude of mine is called “debt aversion”. To me, coming from what would financially be called a working-class background, it’s called “common sense”.

Socioeconomic class is only one of the reasons why “merit” is a concept that draws a veil over the causes of “success” and “failure” in academe. But it’s the one with which I have the most intimate familiarity, and it’s why this response of mine is mostly about money/class/privilege vs. merit.

Jo and Julie write that the myth of merit-based success “doesn’t build us up -— it makes us live in fear that, any day now, someone is going to figure out that we aren’t as smart as they think we are, and then they’ll kick us out.” This is why so many (particularly female) graduate students suffer from what’s known as “imposter syndrome“.

But what I’ve noticed is that some people seem completely impervious to the debilitating threats to self-confidence – the daemons of self-doubt – that I know I have wrestled with in the past and continue to battle on a regular basis. Who are those people, and why do they seem so certain of their own place, of the value of their work, and of their intelligence? Career development in academe is dependent not only on how “smart” you are, but on your own assessment of your capacities and how your put that to work; and because we want to believe in “merit”, we often denigrate our own efforts and doubt ourselves even when we succeed (it was “luck”, or something else). The required confidence is harder to develop when you’ve spent your life not being outstandingly successful, and you’ve been assuming it was entirely due to your own deficiencies as opposed to other factors.

That self-interrogation of course informs the comparisons we’re (tacitly) encouraged to make between ourselves and others in grad school. We look at what other are doing, wondering why they seem to be “succeeding” when we’re not. Why do some people seem to be able to effortlessly afford that trip to the conference in San Francisco or Sydney or that three-month stint touring the Far East? Significantly, success in academe also depends on the capital you can invest in further professional experience, where additional available resources mean not having to take on two extra jobs to finance your conference travel (or pay the rent!), thereby losing time you could have spent on researching. Success, in the form of useful capital, builds on itself.

As someone who’s currently riding out my second large merit-based scholarship, obviously I have extremely mixed feelings about the concept of “merit”… on the one hand I represent, statistically, an aberration that should prove the effectiveness of meritocracy: a student without economic means who’s been able to get to the doctoral level, and to do it by winning awards for academic excellence. But sometimes all I see are the thousand other ways in which this story could have ended, the many times I felt like dropping out because I was so sick of being broke and angry and tired and stressed, and the others I knew who were smart and talented and dedicated and still didn’t win the scholarships I won, and who did leave, blaming themselves all the way. I tell myself I made the right friends, got the right advice, stepped into the right subject area at the right time. Surely these were the things that stood between me and a return to a past where I washed dishes for a living instead of marking undergraduate essays.

The line feels that slim–a paperwidth of possibility–one that can be “re-crossed” at any time, given the assumed tenuousness of my success. Because I will probably never feel as if I truly deserve what I have.

Myths and mismatches, part 1

This series of posts was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches“. According to Jo and Julie, the “goal with this series is to help you understand your experience [in academe] as both personal and structural.” This was a helpful series for me, since I was in the process of thinking through the implications of seeking a tenure-track job (hence the in-depth blog responses).

Here is the link to the original post, from January 8, 2011: “Myths and Mismatches”, Oh My!

Over the next week or so I’ll be blogging my responses to “Myths and Mismatches“, an e-course by Jo Van Every and Julie Clarenbach. The goal of this series is to bring attention to a number of “myths” that can get in the way of making “conscious career choices” in the academic environment, particularly for those who are feeling “dissatisfied” with academic work.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (and blogging about it too), since I need to make decisions about “where to go” next, and I find the options overwhelming. I thought it would be interesting to think through my responses to Jo and Julie’s course by writing about each of them as they arrive in my inbox.

“Myth #1: The Life of the Mind, or, Academia Is the Only Game in Town”

The first post refers to a misconception about the nature of academe, the idea of the “Ivory Tower”–one that is perpetuated by media images of university life. Jo and Julie advise us not to fall into the trap of imagining “academe” as a cloister into which one can retreat from the Real World whilst pursuing one’s ideas in peace among like-minded colleagues (and as far from possible from demanding undergraduate students, for example).

I would say it’s no coincidence that this concept of the Lone Scholar is reinforced by the ideal of the tenured research professor, which we’re generally encouraged to think of as the norm or the goal. If this utopian environment/position ever came close to existing, it was a characteristic of the traditional “elite” model of university education, something I’ve written about in previous posts.

The point here is that given the current context, you’re certain to be disappointed if you see this as the ideal, since the job description for professors includes juggling not only research but also teaching, committee and other “service” and administration work, student advising and mentoring, attending and planning events and conferences, and and array of extra-curricular work/activities. In fact the trend is for professors to be more “engaged” with audiences beyond the university because ultimately, public communication is what strengthens and smooths the relationship between universities and the communities/contexts in which they operate.

In terms of my own experience, I don’t think this idea of the “life of the mind” has ever been one to which I’ve had much access; and as wonderful as it sounds, I’ve also never really expected to be able to participate. Jo and Julie make the point that the mythical Great Solitary Thinkers were all men, which is only one part of that equation; there aren’t too many role models to emulate. I also don’t come from a particularly privileged background (economically or culturally), so my expectations have been different all along. I certainly never imagined I would end up doing a PhD at all. Since my undergrad years I’ve talked a lot with full-time faculty and had a good look at what happens in the day-to-day life of tenure-track professors (and part-time/contract profs as well). Probably the combination of these factors is why I’ve always felt ambivalent about the idea of trying to become a professor, as a specific career track. The increased competition in recent years has only made me feel less certain.

Jo and Julie point out that the flip side of “academe as intellectual cloister” is that the “world” outside the university is a barren and banal place, devoid of intellectual engagement. I think the myth of “real world” vs. “academe” is quite destructive, including that of a corporate/business world that’s somehow inherently unethical and opposed to academe. It simplifies the problems faced by universities, often reducing them to an “us vs. them” argument, and it precludes the possibility of meaningful engagement across boundaries. This kind of belief also seems to entail that academe is somehow more ethical than other environments. But to cling to that idea is to set oneself up for a despairing fall–academics are no more (or less) inherently moral or “good” than other groups.