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On Academic Envy

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Image: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

It is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered. — Aeschylus

Recently I logged into Facebook and there, right at the top of my news feed, was a link to a colleague’s third published piece in The New Yorker. The same afternoon, two other colleagues were approached by a literary agent about writing a popular nonfiction book. The main argument for a conference they had organized on campus had gone viral and they were enjoying a level of media interest in their ideas that few academics can ever hope to achieve. Their work had even been discussed on the floor of the British Parliament. (Really.)

In sum, it was a great day for our department, but a rough one for my ego. It also precipitated two weeks of grueling writer’s block.

Let me explain.

Whenever one of my friends or peers secures a big grant, nabs a book contract, receives a big promotion, or gets interviewed on NPR, I am overjoyed for them. Really, I am. I am always happy to see that someone’s hard work and talent are being rewarded. But that’s only half the story of my emotional reaction to other people’s success. The other half is — and I am loathe to admit it — sheer envy. And nothing kills my writing faster than feeling envious.

It’s only natural that envy stalls the production of prose. Why? Because writing is difficult. It’s always hard to capture ideas on a page, to write clear and engaging prose, to wrangle an idea into shape. Even on the best of days and in the best of moods, writing is an exercise in humility, patience, and persistence. And that goes for the most experienced writers as well as the novices.

But still. It’s aggravating to experience envy. It’s even more irritating to realize it’s hampering your own work.

When I decided to come clean, admit my envy, and write this piece, I assumed I was not alone. Surely other scholars and writers had struggled with professional envy, I mused, so there must be other writing on the topic. As it turned out, few academics have tackled the subject, which puzzled me. Maybe envy isn’t as rife in the academic world as I’d assumed, or people just aren’t talking about it. Either way, I was frustrated with my frustration and with the lack of advice on the topic, so I did what any good scholar would do: I started reading up on envy.

Given that envy is an all-too human emotion, I wondered, is it better to try to channel one’s envy, using it as motivation? Or try to avoid it altogether? I wanted to know if envy could be a positive influence on one’s own work.

I found no easy answer to those questions. Even philosophers cannot make up their minds on this point. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on envy explains that “in envy, a person's subjective sense of well-being, self-worth or self-respect is diminished. But if envy involves certain characteristic patterns of motivation, such as a motive to outdo or undo the rival's advantages, then the advisability of envy may be strongly dependent on the advisability of the actions it motivates.”

In other words, if you can harness your envy, it might not be an entirely bad thing and could even be a powerful motivator. But in order to do transform envy into productivity, you first need to tackle the underlying insecurity and self-doubt that come along with feeling envious. As the philosopher John Rawls reminds us (he’s quoted in the Stanford encyclopedia entry), “the main psychological root of our liability to envy is a lack of self-confidence in our own worth combined with a sense of impotence.”

You can say that again.

My colleagues’ combined successes had temporarily made my own self-confidence dip. I worried that my own work might not be as good as theirs.

As a writer, I’m no stranger to professional jealousy. Fiction writers and journalists have struggled with feelings of envy for a long time, probably since the dawn of the printing press. Nonacademic writers have, in general, been far more vocal about publically admitting their envy, even if they are no less ashamed of feeling it. In The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, author Sarah Manguso wrangled with her own envy, musing: “All writers will envy other writers, other writing. No one who reads is immune.”

After reading a similar essay on envy by a fiction author, Lee Skallerup Bessette, a scholar at the University of Kentucky, reflected on her own experience of envy within the academy as contingent faculty. She posits that it’s not necessarily jealousy of the specific awards, grants, or achievements of her peers, but of what those things allow her colleagues to do. She writes, “I envy the feeling of forward motion these opportunities represent, that their careers are going somewhere, mean something. That there is progress being made, and that progress is being recognized and rewarded.”

As the pool of tenure-track jobs has shrunk in relationship to the number of Ph.D.s produced, the feeling of impotence in the academy has likely been growing. My own experience of academic envy began in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, as we saw those ahead of us graduate and fail to find secure faculty jobs. It was clear that you had to be “the best” — or just better than everyone else doing similar work — so that you would be “more competitive” on the job market.

But even now, as a tenure-track assistant professor at a great engineering school, I feel a similar anxiety about my career path. I know that my future academic success isn’t necessarily simply about “doing the work” or doing it well. It’s also, in large part, about timing and luck. And that is what drives my insecurity and feeds my envy. Tenure, promotion, and book contracts, after all, are never guaranteed.

Brian Martin, a professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong in Australia, has written about how envy is necessarily a byproduct of the university system itself. The academy, in his view, runs on envy. The entire trajectory of our careers are dependent on our “status” within a system in which status is measured by which grants we get, how much and where we’ve published, and the prestige of our home institutions. “Universities are status systems,” he wrote. “Individual academics keenly seek promotions, not just for increased pay but because of increased rank and associated status. … The trouble with the academic status system is that a general improvement in everyone's status is difficult, since status depends most of all on comparisons with immediate colleagues. When one person's status goes up, the relative status of others goes down. As a consequence, the successes of colleagues are often resented rather than welcomed.”

Echoing that, Jessica Burstein, an associate professor of English at the University of Washington, wrote in her own essay on academic envy that, “At the heart of it all is desire; we know what we want — even who we are — by seeing what other people desire.” Burstein reflected on what it felt like for her to see someone else’s book — on a topic similar to her own — praised in venues like the London Review of Books. And while she recognized that her envy wasn’t pretty, she argued that it was an honest and natural reaction. Burstein agrees with Martin that the entire academic system is premised on envy. A scholar becomes more desirable on the job market, she noted, only if other departments are interested.

So if envy is an inherent part of academia, and I would argue that it is, how do we cope with it? What advice can I offer readers who may be experiencing envy at this very moment? Whose writing is stalled because they are in the throes of self-doubt caused, in part, by seeing their colleagues’ citations on Google Scholar?

When I reached out to friends, I received some terrific advice:

  • One historian told me that she thinks of admiration as the flip side of envy. Whenever she feels envious, she takes a moment to pick out the qualities she admires in the person she envies and thinks about ways in which she can emulate those traits.
  • Another friend and colleague said she relies on work-life balance to avoid feelings of envy in the first place. From her perspective, it’s far easier to avoid the traps of professional envy if you don’t rely on your academic successes to define who you are as a person. “My self-worth isn’t defined by how many articles I’ve published,” she told me.
  • Yet another friend (and a top scholar in my field who has been the object of my envy on multiple occasions) told me that she doesn’t want to waste time or energy on envy, since she already has too little of both. “I don’t really experience envy,” she said, “but I might be upset if someone gets a genius grant.”

In the end, I think the best way to deal with envy is to admit it. Drafting this essay allowed me to work through my envy and get back to what I do best: Write about what I know.

In her New York Times essay, Sarah Manguso gave a brilliant piece of insight into envy’s effect on her writing: “To write despite it I must implicate myself, to confess to myself, silently or on the page, that I am envious. The result of this admission is humility.” Manguso argued that to write is to be humble, that great work is born out of this humility in relationship to the task of communicating thoughts, feelings, and ideas to a reader. Writing, she notes, is not a task to be taken lightly. I agree, which is why I’m taking her advice to embrace my envy and keep writing.

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