Rejection

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After celebrating an enjoyable and productive writing period in an earlier post, I am now cast down after a rejection. I had a series of rejections – for jobs, papers, abstracts and grants – last year. After many years of writing and publishing, I am highly experienced in rejection. But, my goodness, it can still sting.

I recently watched this TED talk on 100 days of rejection. Spoiler: this guy mostly chose low risk rejection, and (as is the trajectory of TED talks) he turned challenge into opportunity. It is based on the idea that what is holding you back is fear, and repeatedly exposing yourself to rejection allows you to overcome fear. But academic rejection has some peculiarities and, for the most part, I don’t think fear is the root cause.

Academic work is closely bound to identity, as this Chronicle article from a few years ago articulates so well:

Academic failure felt like the death of a substantial part of my identity—and I sincerely believed the best possible outcome was for the rest of me to die along with it. Of course I’m ecstatic that that didn’t happen, and mortified that I thought it should. But now I wonder: Was my all-encompassing sense of failure commonplace? And, if so, why? What makes academe so “special” as to traumatize its rejects into believing they are worthless to humanity?

Rejection feels personal. Last year, an assistant professor at Princeton published his CV of failures. He later added a meta-failure (his CV of failures was more successful than any of his academic work):

This resonated with many because it showed the continual series of rejections that a ‘successful’ academic negotiates. Most of the advice on academic rejection reads something like this: get used to it, learn from it, toughen up, persevere.

This advice didn’t help me much last year. (I think of it as the year of rejection but, of course, it wasn’t all bad, and the rejections continue). Here’s another thing that didn’t help: preempting rejection by doing more. Submitting three abstracts instead of one, applying for ten grants, sending out a CV like confetti, and saying yes to every opportunity just in case.

Here’s what did help me: talking to a careers coach, seeing a psychologist (through a work scheme), getting feedback on job applications from colleagues, and continuing to write with others. You need a thick skin, a supportive network and some luck to endure ongoing rejection. The solution to academic rejection is to seek out supportive friends and colleagues. Share your vulnerabilities. Spend time with those who don’t make you feel like a reject.

Increasingly, I find myself in a position to reject others – as a reviewer and editor or on a selection committee. It doesn’t feel good from this end either. But, whenever possible, I try to learn from my own rejections, especially those that hurt more than others –  the university that didn’t let me know I had missed out on a job (after interviewing me), a journal article rejected after revisions, and the brusque (or downright cruel) rejection.

On a lighter note, here’s a rejection generator to save some time with your next submission. Or, consider the Snoopy approach with this wonderful form letter for rejecting the rejection.

Stars = slow, tiny acts of resistance

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I have mentioned last year’s Academic Identities conference in a couple of previous posts – here (on calendars) and here (on anxiety) – so it has certainly had an impact. (It is also on my mind as I start work with an international research group on a social history of the Academic Identities conferences).

One of the great and simple ideas to come out of this conference was from the wonderful Barbara Grant. At the risk of fangirling – always awkward for academics – it’s impossible not to love her work. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully about supervision, writing, and academic development. In a recently co-authored paper on the experiences of academic women under research audit, Grant and Elizabeth (2015) write:

Collective political resistance to [research audit regimes] has not been a feature of the academic landscape … In [our] interviews, there was largely an absence of the emotions of anger, fear and frustration usually associated with collective resistance … Unlike fear, anxiety seems a weak basis for political action …

Yet other forms of resistance were present … individually and collectively. Individuals were deliberately maintaining their research interests in defiance of perceived [audit]-rewarded tends; departments were actively pursuing collegial rather than competitive practices …

On the Activism in the Academy panel I chaired last year, Barbara mentioned  STARS (slow tiny acts of resistance, which I mis-remembered as small, targeted acts of resistance) such as those described in the paragraph above. Talking with a senior academic later, he said he hated this! He works with enough difficult people and doesn’t need more resistance. I get it. It can extremely challenging to enact change in universities. It is easy to blame cynical, obstructive, uncooperative academics – and there are some out there – but there are systemic issues at play that provoke reactions like this.

And we need some difficult people. (A salute to the women resisting Donald Trump).

STARS offers a way of promoting values such as slow academia, academic freedom and collegiality with minimal risk. Interpreting research targets as a pirate code might be one example, speaking up in a meeting and asking difficult questions might be another. This is a complex issue. Worth reading is this excellent recent article by Liz Morrish: Why the audit culture made me quit. She writes:

Sara Ahmed and I are by no means the only feminist academics over the past couple of years to have resigned, after decades of claiming space for collaborative, interdisciplinary and slow scholarship, as well as personal development transformation and reflexive practice. These notions recognise the value of research in contributing to a conversation about power and privilege … Feminist scholarship has advanced the argument that there should be no one-size-fits-all performance expectations in the academy.

I found this a difficult read because universities have so much to gain from critical university studies and from colleagues such as Liz. The Academic Identities conference ended with a keynote from Ruth Barcan on experiences of leaving academia. Many in the audience found the research dispiriting and shocking. One academic Ruth spoke to described fantasising about setting herself on fire so people would pay attention to her struggles. But it ended with a positive: everyone who left academia was happier and healthier.

I wish Liz and those of her ilk pursuing independent scholarship the best of luck. For those of us working on critical university studies within universities, best of luck also. Look to the stars.

Slow privilege

Gosh, the beginning of semester is a busy time, even for a slow academic. This post comes to you late, and feels a bit rough, but ‘done is better than perfect’.

There have been some great tweets about the privilege of slow academia in the last couple of weeks:

In case you missed it, the entire thread on Twitter (and responses) is worth a read. Dr Lucia Lorenzi makes important points, including:

A warning in advance: my thoughts on these points may read like a series of non-sequiters. (I think they are contagious. My almost-4 year old son loves them. He frequently interrupts family conversations with pronouncements like “I sleep in trees”, or questions such as “Do you like juicy plums?”)

Many tenured and tenure-track academics have been casuals themselves, and I think they are keenly aware of their privilege. This is one of the reasons that luck has become a dominant way of talking about academic careers. (The ResearchWhisperer had an excellent recent post on research careers and serendipity which suggests that the value in planning is dreaming). Saying, ‘I got lucky’ is a defensive – and not particularly helpful – way of acknowledging the privilege of a secure academic career.

Acknowledging privilege can be important. I co-taught with a colleague – the wonderful and fiery Cathy Rytmeister – last week. She gave a powerful acknowledgement of country in which she said it is important to realise that we are able to be here – in this room, learning at university – because of the displacement of the traditional owners of this land.

Acknowledging privilege comes with an imperative to act.

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I want to reiterate some points I have already made in separate posts: slow academia is harder for casuals than those with job security, but I would argue that casual academics need it more. Addressing slow privilege, among other problems in higher education, is not an individual problem. In a previous post I wrote: the acceleration of academic work … is a systemic problem that requires collective work to change to the structure and organisation of higher education.

One of my suggested strategies for slow academia was to find like-minded souls. This is what it looks like for me:

  1. Join a union
  2. Join (or start) a network/ community of practice/ writing group
  3. Find mentors. And mentees
  4. Talk with people, ideally over food or coffee
  5. Interact on social media
  6. Share resources, celebrations, vulnerabilities, kindnesses, nourishment

When academics feel the pressure of scheduled time and contracted time, these are among the first things to go. But when I think back on the highlights of my career/ year/ week/ day, it is precisely these things: conversations, moments of connection and intimacy, the pleasure of thinking with others and creating something together.

Use your privilege. This is what I really liked about Australian children’s author Mem Fox’s recent article on being detained at Los Angeles airport. She writes:

They made me feel like such a crushed, mashed, hopeless old lady and I am a feisty, strong, articulate English speaker. I kept thinking that if this were happening to me, a person who is white, articulate, educated and fluent in English, what on earth is happening to people who don’t have my power?

That’s the heartbreak of it. Remember, I wasn’t pulled out because I’m some kind of revolutionary activist, but my God, I am now. I am on the frontline. If we don’t stand up and shout, good sense and good will not prevail, and my voice will be one of the loudest.

That’s what it has taught me. I thought I was an activist before, but this has turned me into a revolutionary. I’m not letting it happen here. Instead of crying and being sad and sitting on a couch, I am going to write to politicians. I am going to call. I am going to write to newspapers. I am going to get on the radio. I will not be quiet. No more passive behaviour. Hear me roar.

Career pathways

I spent part of this week – my final working week for the year – at the Macquarie Minds showcase. I wasn’t able to attend all sessions but those I did proved thought-provoking. Listening to these academics it was easy to see why they are at the top of their game: they are passionate, they communicate effectively to non-specialists and they show that their research and teaching matters.

The session on Pathways to Building  an Academic Career: From PhD to Professor is one with resonance for the ideas I discuss in this blog. The panel consisted of university leaders and senior academics. I have worked with many of them, I have been and continue to be mentored by them, and I enjoyed hearing the stories of their academic careers.

The session started with an introduction to the new academic promotions policy, which I think is a very positive step (the challenge will be changing the mindsets of promotions committees).

Photo by @uche_ngwabe via Twitter.

The idea of luck or the accidental academic career (as I have previously mentioned) was a dominant one. And one piece of advice was to say yes to lots of institutional service (“things no one else wants to do”) to open up career opportunities, to which Twitter responded:

But the title of the session seemed a misnomer, and I believe there was a mismatch with audience expectations. Casualisation was the elephant in the room. There was a lively Twitter backchat that raised some of these points:

I asked about this final point during question time – it is a difficult question and the panel responded thoughtfully. Colleagues and I continued to discuss the ideas for a long time after the session. I would like to think there are some ideas in the works for helping academic aspirants to have “lucky accidents” and for PhD graduates to be supported to apply their academic research to non-university contexts with minimal risk. Watch this space.