We're All Failures

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Image: The Rink (1916)

Academics are wired to achieve, and their CVs are designed to showcase their every accomplishment. While rejection is a fact of academic life, most faculty don’t share the gory details. Every successful scholar has tanked job interviews; been turned down for fellowships, postdocs, and grants; and had publications that flopped. Faced with failure, academics tend to paper over it (which doesn't make it hurt any less) and quietly blame themselves. So it's been inspiring to see scholars like Melanie Stefan, Devoney Looser, Johannes Haushofer go public with "CVs of Failure" that list their numerous brushes with defeat in glorious detail. Thanks to them, rejection is the talk of the online academic town of late. Here's what a handful of our columnists had to say on the subject.

Theresa MacPhail: "It's Not About You."

The best advice I received about rejection came from Andrew Lakoff at the University of Southern California, who told me early on not to take rejection personally. I remember him saying, "Just try to remember that none of what is about to happen is really about you. You'll never know why anyone passed on your application and you can't worry about it. All you can do is keep doing your work." I didn't really understand that advice until the "no's" started rolling in and I never heard back from an interview, or I got the very lovely "no, thank you" phone call. Now that I'm on the other side of those application packets, I understand what he meant. There are so many great candidates out there. We reject people for all kinds of reasons, none of them are personal and all of them are specific to the quirks of our needs. It makes me feel better about the whole process, even though I still remember what that feeling does to the self-esteem. It can be brutal. I give the same advice now to people on the market: It's not about you. That should be your mantra.
See Theresa's profile »

Jim Lang: "I Cut My Teeth on Rejection, and the Possibility of Rejection Keeps Them Sharp."

When I had a substantial portion of my first book completed, I sent out a batch of query letters to agents, all of which were promptly rejected. And so I sent out another batch. Rejected. And another. Rejected. In the end, I sent my first query letter out to around 60 agents, all of whom either rejected the proposal out of hand or rejected it after seeing a little bit of the manuscript. No matter — rejected in the end. ... When I finished the book and had a clearer view of the project, I sent out a final round of queries, but now with a much tighter, more focused letter. This time lightning struck. Not only did I get an agent almost immediately, but she told me that she thought the book would spark a bidding war, and I would potentially be looking at a six-figure advance. Imagine receiving news like that when you are in your first years as an assistant professor of English (i.e., poorly paid), your wife is a teacher (i.e., poorly paid), and you have three small children and live in an expensive city.

I won't bore you with the details of what happened next, but suffice it to say ... it didn't sell. It has been 12 years since it finally appeared in print, and it has sold no more than a few thousand copies. ... Of course your first book holds a special place in your heart. At the same time, it was probably better for my long-term career that I have had to wade upstream for every writing success I have experienced, and that I always assume rejection sits waiting for me around the corner. Without that prospect, I would be a lazier writer. I cut my teeth on rejection, and the possibility of rejection keeps them sharp. I hope it always will.
Read Jim's full response »

Natalie T.J. Tindall: "Discuss Your Shortcomings, But Only With Those You Trust."

For me, admitting defeat or failure is difficult. Blame it on a Type A personality that attempts to keep all facets of my life in a clean, precise performance formation that Beyoncé would be proud of.

When I was in my first year of the tenure track, I was hesitant to admit when I’d failed. Admitting failure gets applause and kudos in some corners of the academy, but only for certain people (i.e., those deemed academic superstars). For many of us, however, admitting any shortcoming can be the Judas kiss to a tenure file, a promising career trajectory, or a well-maintained, well-curated professional identity.

So I never told my peers or chairs about my projects until they were finished and in final form. I never engaged in conversations about the "almost, shoulda-coulda-woulda" research articles that never emerged to see the red pen of Reviewer 2.

In mixed company, especially in public, I never felt comfortable sharing my rejections. Doing so, I feared, might leave me too vulnerable and exposed. I only divulged my failings and limitations — the barriers that damn near crushed me and the obstacles that I wasn't able to overcome — to my small, personal circle of trusted academic friends and mentors.

My advice to young academics who are in precarious positions is to do the same: Discuss your shortcomings — but only with people you trust. Be purposeful about it. Don't disclose just to commiserate. Do it to get constructive feedback. If you want to go public later in your career, after your CV can speak to your triumphs, that’s OK. I can do that now.

Now that I’m farther along in my career, I can tell you that getting rejected from a journal is nothing. Everyone has experienced that, though not everyone has been through six rounds of revising and resubmitting a single article (if you have, let's chat over a drink.) I can admit that I lost a grant due to my own inability to balance a new administrative position with the demands of the grant-making authority.
See Natalie's profile »

David Perry: "Celebrating failure is the privilege of those who have succeeded."

I have tenure at a university I love, and so my failure narratives fall into the "it all worked out" category, but it's vital to realize that academic culture can be highly abusive. We're told to just work hard enough and we'll get a job, publish our way to R1 universities, and climb the prestige ladder. Alas, if you happen to miss key steps early on (the right grad schools, grants, early publications, etc.), the deck becomes stacked against you. It's good to count blessings, and I know I have many, and of course it's always possible to recalibrate your definition of success, but a stable job, financial stability, and a safe workplace are pretty basic steps on the hierarchy of needs. I worry that failure narratives push academics to blame themselves for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, to keep themselves in abusive or exploitative positions in the hopes that if they just work harder, success will follow.
Read David's full response »

Kelly J. Baker: "I Learned More From My Rejections Than I Ever Did From My Successes."

Rejection forced me to find another career and another way to live in this world. Rejection opened me up to possibilities I never would have imagined and allowed me space to recognize that academia was only a part of my world, not the defining feature. Rejection made me a more determined scholar and allowed me to become a writer. It changed my path in ways that I appreciate more and more every passing day. Rejection was never actually a failure, but a new possibility.
Read Kelly's full response »

Allison M. Vaillancourt: “Stay True to Your Personal Values.”

My story is less about failure and more about how it feels to be rejected for being who I am. A while back I received calls from two search firms in the same week — and both were looking to fill vice presidential roles at well-known and well-resourced private universities. Feeling a little itchy and also exhausted by state budget cuts, I interviewed with both. And I was rejected by both — immediately after my campus visits.

According to the search consultants, the interview teams were impressed with my credentials and track record, but they didn’t like me as a person. Seriously; they both said that! They thought I was too direct and unconventional. One group even called me “too radical.” While both institutions claimed they wanted change, they worried I would have brought too much of it. Plus, they hinted that I didn’t seem to understand “my place” and talked too much about institutional issues instead of focusing on the narrow role they were seeking to fill.

Being doubly courted and doubly rejected in a compressed period of time threw me into a funk. And I thought for a long time about what it meant to be rejected for tending to challenge the status quo and being interested in issues beyond my immediate portfolio. In the end, I decided I could suppress who I really am to get ahead, or stay true to my personal values. I decided to focus less on getting a bigger, better job and more about the opportunity to do meaningful work with people I like and respect. I threw myself back into my current role, started teaching and writing more, and took on new leadership roles within community and professional organizations. I started to feel happier and less antsy.

And guess what? I was recently offered a bigger role at my current university without even asking for it. Why? Apparently, because I am honest, direct, and unconventional, and I think about issues beyond my immediate sphere of responsibility. It is a wonderful thing when being true to oneself actually works out.
See Allison's profile »

Kevin Gannon: “Help Is There If You Ask for It.”

At the beginning of the second semester of my first tenure-track job, I was called to the department chair’s office. There, the other three members of my department, faces grim and mouths shut, handed me an 11-page, single-spaced document. The first paragraph ended with a declaration that it was the opinion of the department that I would “never become a good teacher, scholar, or colleague.” I had published a journal article and book chapter in the fall, and received excellent teaching evaluations in all my courses; I’d not been told before that day that I was falling short in any area of my performance. So, yeah … that wasn’t a very good day. In retrospect, I see some areas where I didn’t help myself, but I was later told by other faculty that my department had a reputation for being a sociopathic viper pit. (This would have been useful knowledge, say, four months earlier). The history job market was nearly as abysmal then as it is now, so it looked like my academic career was over five months in.

But I soon learned that help is there if you ask for it. One of the first people I called was my Ph.D. mentor, who helped me get over the shock and start to strategize. I faxed him the document I was given. This is not OK, he said; you need to launch an appeal. In the meantime, get out on the market and look for late-opening positions. I will do anything I can, he said, to help you. And he did, more than I can express. His advice got me launched on my appeal, which gained traction quickly and caught the attention of some regional leadership of the AAUP. Other faculty from my Ph.D. department also reached out, wrote me reference letters, and worked their connections. My parents and my wife did more than I can ever satisfactorily articulate. Other faculty at the institution mobilized to come to my aid, giving me moral support and sage advice on how to navigate the college’s appeal process, as well as generous offers to write on my behalf. And my students — wow, my students. When our majors heard what had happened, a half-dozen of them piled into my office and told me they thought my department was making a huge mistake. They called their parents, some of whom were donors to the college, and asked them to call or write. Their affirmation kept me afloat.

The story has an improbable happy ending. A job opened up late, right in my areas of specialty. I got invited to a campus visit, and 12 years later, I’m still here. I’m a full professor and direct a center on campus. It sounds like a cliché, but none of this happened due solely to my own efforts. I had luck on my side, for sure. But more important, I had dozens of people in my corner, helping me see past the immediate meltdown of my career and take advantage of the lucky opportunity when it arrived. Academia can be a solitary endeavor, one where we see others as competition more than colleagues. It can keep us deep in the weeds of our own work and problems, like we’re wearing blinders. But I’m here to tell you that, at its best, it can also be a remarkable, supportive, and career-saving community. That spring, I experienced academe at both its worst and its best. Best won.
See Kevin's profile »

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