I’m sitting in a meeting with colleagues from industry and showing them the persona of a mid-career academic. They ask, “But where’s the EGO? We heard faculty members have big egos.”
So, I’ve been thinking about that… actually, for the past 20 years or so, since I was a graduate student. I think I’m only now beginning to see it – or to have the courage to articulate it:
Academia is bad for the soul. It is bad for mental health, for psychological well-being. The individual reward system of academia, the secrecy and ambiguity of evaluation criteria, the lack of control over the products academics are evaluated on – they all create a culture of fear. Fear invites different coping and protection mechanisms, one of which is the ego. Fed on a diet of fear and occasional success that carries the author’s name in bold letters, the ego inflates.
Or, at least that’s my experience of academia, from my point of view. (See what I did there? I am qualifying, minimizing, making my opinion smaller, more precise. Good academic thinking. Powered by years of learned fear of merciless critics.)
In my earlier years [of writing in academia] I tried the opposite approach – filling my mind with critics and naysayers. I would sit at my desk and picture the faces of my least favorite professors, my harshest and most cynical colleagues, and my most unforgiving online critics. If I keep them happy, I thought, or at the very least quiet, I’ll be good to go. The outcome was the worst-case scenario for a researcher or a social scientist: findings that were gently folded into a preexisting way of seeing the world; findings that carefully nudged existing ideas but did so without upsetting anyone; findings that were safe, filtered, and comfortable. But none of that was authentic. — Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, p. 4
If you’re an academic – I bet you hear those voices in your head. I bet your advisor, reviewer #2, or that scared, mean kid back in grad school – they are in your head. You write for them. They are in my head right now. I write in spite of them, pushing, fearfully, letter by letter, through the thick fog of fear.
I bet that most of the successful research you do is just that – careful, comfortable, safe. How else would it get published? You can’t take the risk now. You’ll take it after you get tenure. Then, you will shake that tree.
The truth is, it is awfully hard to be your authentic self in the publish or perish environment of scholarly research. And, ironically, it is hard to do your best work.
At the end of the day, success in academia rewards the individual – the sole hero, HIS name (and yes, it’s mostly his name, still, unfortunately). It is HE who won the prize, who got the grants, who created The Theory. There’s no account of the team – of the nameless, faceless graduate students, for example, who were instrumental to the work. No, it’s just HIM. The Professor. The Researcher. He is worshipped, adored, and dreaded at conferences. A cloud of timid, hopeful, terrified graduate students surrounds him. He hides, he tries to protect himself from the annoyance of people without whom THERE WOULD NOT BE A UNIVERSITY. Oh, wait. Those are undergraduate students. He doesn’t know much about those. He hasn’t taught an undergraduate course since his first years as an assistant professor. Undergraduates are a complete waste of time. They distract from The Research.
In academia, mentorship is a joke. Mentors fear mentees – the young, eager faculty, with so much more energy, enthusiasm, and hope. They are on the fast track, and they publish more, accomplish more. That’s threatening. As a mentor, I look bad by comparison. Old. Tired. Blase. I don’t publish as many papers each year. I don’t have the same kind of pressure, so I don’t. I’m worn out. I’ve got tenure. Counting down to retirement. In my own life, the mentors I’ve met who are not threatened by mentees can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The pattern is, tenured faculty bully talented, untenured ones.
Back to the ego. It is fostered, encouraged, demanded, by the nature of the system of evaluation and rewards. But, is it necessary? The most successful people I’ve met (by academic standards) are kind and humble. That is, I think, because they are free of fear. They have nothing to prove. The rest of us, are drenched in fear. Fear that our publications are not good enough. And it’s true, they are not good enough. Any research paper can be criticized and ripped apart. Any research study can be done better. Fear that our publication number is not high enough. How many publications does it take to be “good”? To be productive? The target is moving and ambiguous. The evaluators are anonymous, cranky, sometimes uninformed. We call them blind peer reviewers. Their assessment is unreliable. The same paper that is an embarrassing disaster in reviewer 1’s eyes is brilliant in reviewer 2’s eyes. The same paper that got painfully rejected from conference A got an award at conference B. Hilarious, isn’t it? Not when those are the standards that define your success.
You cannot know whether your work is ever good enough, not by the gold standard of peer review. You cannot know if you are good enough.
A healthy mind requires we divorce ourselves from our behaviors. Just because an act, or a behavior, is not good enough, this does not mean the person is not good enough. Bullshit. In academia, it does not work that way. As a researcher, as a writer, I put my heart and soul into those papers. My mind works on them day and night, during a movie, during vacation, who knows, maybe even during sex (do academics even do that anymore?). It’s non stop. You can’t turn it off. You can’t stop thinking about it. You see the solution in a dream, and then panic when you wake up having forgotten it. The work consumes so much of your life. Most of us have a hard time turning it off. I remember working on my dissertation, and how I could not take a break, even when I did take a break. I worked on it non-stop for 2 years. It was exhausting. But, you ask, don’t you have something else in your life, something else to make you feel worthy, accomplished, outside your work? I don’t know, maybe children. I don’t have children, I don’t know. I don’t have a life. I don’t have a hobby. Academics who have hobbies are losers. Who has time for that? Or for taking the weekend off? I remember the advice of a well meaning mentor, or maybe it was a workshop on academic life: You should be sure to take half day off during the weekend (oh, no – it was a talk from a university provost, at a celebration of accomplishments, telling us we can relax a bit now). Half a day. How generous! (Note for the assistant professors out there: this does not apply to you. Please work all weekend.) So, no, there’s not much else. If there is, you are lucky, and you must have worked really hard at it. Because, if you’re an academic, as long as you are awake, you are working. And your brain continues working on problems when you are asleep. So, then, you bet your smartest body part that that paper is not divorced from the sense of self. When anonymous reviewer #2 writes a snarky comment about your research methodology, you read it as a comment about your own self, your worth. Many a therapist would say that is not healthy.
As you can gather, this entire experience is rather unpleasant. It is full of fear. Fear of the snarky comments. Fear that my work is not enough in quantity or quality. Fear that I am not enough. So then, what does the poor psyche do, to protect itself? It builds a big bubble around it, a big bubble I’ll call ego, and it fills it with hot air and it feeds it with acts of bullying that reassure it that, after all, I do have some power – power over something, someone, that starry-eyed assistant professor, that hapless student who dared write me an email.
I’ve been noticing a lot lately, in various writings (Tara Brach, Brene Brown, Gary Zukov) – that fear is related to feelings of powerlessness. I plan to explore that in the near future.
Academia operates on powerlessness. You are trained to be fiercely independent. Yet you have no power over whether you even get to do the work you want. You depend on the unpredictable game or research grant funding (oh, what a circus that is!). You have no power over your publications. You write them, but you don’t know if and when they will see the light of day. And yet, your success – your job, your salary, depend on a certain number of high quality publications seeing the light of day in a given time frame that you have NO CONTROL over. You try to please anonymous reviewers, and to work to standards that are not only secret – they are infinitely ambiguous and debatable. It’s not that you’re being judged, like in a Kafkian novel, in secret, by criteria unknown to you. You are being judged, in secret, by criteria that evolve and shift as the evaluation is being conducted. What would Kafka say about that?!
It is no surprise then that this environment of powerlessness breeds fear. Fear breeds ego – and we create a world where we are too scared to be kind, vulnerable, authentic. So we become assholes. Yes, yes, there are exceptions. Fortunately, a lot of us academics are decent enough human beings, and introspective enough, that we are able, to varying degrees, to keep these fears under control, and to not let them rule our behavior. But it’s not easy. And it is not healthy.
Let me get it straight. I loved my job in academia. I loved what I was able to do, and that I was able to do it. A lot of great work gets done, a lot of lives are changed. But this does not make the environment healthy or positive for the people who call it home.
I’ve been thinking about the authentic self a lot. For me, the moments when I was able to be my authentic self in academia happened only in the classroom. A lot of magic happened in my classes, I think. Enough to keep me alive, happy, and in love with my job.
If it’s all so bad/sad, what is the solution? I don’t know. Perhaps we need to rethink “Publish or Perish.” Many much more informed minds have already thought about that. I believe it takes a systemic solution, but I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it.
On an individual level, I can tell you what helped me: yoga, meditation, therapy, friends who could see and love my authentic self, antidepressants, books, my love for students, my husband, my cats.
That being said, I love academia. I love the way it teaches you to think, the freedom it provides (tenure is not all bad!), the privilege of living a life of the mind. I know many people who thrive there, and some say I might be one of those. I was even happy there. I was very much in love with many aspects of my work. Yet I’ve always known that parts of it (well, the Publish or Perish part, specifically), is not healthy. I have a lot of fear, and it’s deep in my bones, and I know it is still keeping me from being my authentic self. But I think I’m beginning to feel ready to look it in the eye, thank it very much for trying to protect me, and work my way to authenticity.
I leave you with another quote from Brene Brown, something she said during her interview at Microsoft the other day:
I had so much fear about my career that I engineered smallness.
And the first sentence of her latest book, Braving the Wilderness:
When I start writing, I inevitably feel myself swallowed by fear.
What do we do about that fear, babies? How’s your soul doing in academia? Are you able to find a home there for your authentic self? Teach me.
Like any good academic, I leave you with a reading list. Here are some of my favorite books about academia:
#1 – Jane Tompkins, A Life if School: What the Teacher Learned (nonfiction)
#2 – David Lodge’s trilogy of satirical novels about academia
While I’m a technology lover, I do agree with the point of view that by using technology (especially cell phones) so much we miss out on or plain avoid the opportunity to be alone.
There is a lot of self-knowledge to be gained from being alone and free of incoming information. But it often hurts and is scary. So we avoid it by reaching for connection (aka cell phone). Sherry Turkle argues that the kind of connection we get this way is not always authentic and satisfying. It is a cheap replacement, like a cheap “nutritional” drink is a replacement for a healthy, nourishing meal.
Anyway, arguments like the one above are boring. But this comedian explains it much better on Conan:
Can you try to pay attention and notice when you are using your phone to avoid being alone? Can you try practicing being alone, just sitting there, without music or any other stimulus, for maybe 5 minutes every other day, and see what happens?
As I was getting ready to leave my first ever grown-up academic job for a brand new academic adventure, a dear colleague gave me this piece of advice:
Remember this: You know what you know.
It’s one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given, and I find myself passing it on to young professionals, and many women who, like me at that time, might not yet have enough self confidence.
I’ve turned this around into:
Know what you know.
First, know your stuff. Don’t bluff. Don’t cut corners. Do the work. And then, remember and trust that you know it. Have confidence in yourself and what you know.
What is some very good advice that you were given early in your career?
This is a guest post by Eileen Hegel of Higher Ways. I met Eileen when we overlapped on the Clemson faculty for a brief period of time. We got into a conversation on Facebook about the power of words in a diversity context.. and I asked her for a guest post. Here it is.
Words have power. We have all said or heard the words fat, ugly, skinny, beautiful or perhaps gay. The impact of words, even just one, should not be overlooked as they can speak hope or hatred.
Without a doubt, words can inspire us to forge ahead or instigate failure. I am positive we can all think of words that have ignited our heart. In the same fashion, I am sure we can reflect upon words that have fueled a fight. Hence, the British writer, Rudyard Kipling noted, “Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
Recently, I had an opportunity to become reacquainted with the power of my words. Herein, I said something that sparked a mini-wildfire in a person. Shortly thereafter, another word, this time a missing one, caused me some challenges with the same person. I knew that I had set off the fire alarm once again!
In both instances, one word triggered a set of emotions. Words have an interesting way of doing this. The trigger may go beyond what we see on the surface. In fact, words often do.
Whether two people know each other or they don’t, words can be like a match. Words have the power to either kindle the fire of friendship or scorch a relationship. How we handle words may be the difference between saving a soul or in some cases, sending the relationship into ashes.
Although I can think of times when my words have blackened some bridges, maturity has for the most part, taught me to pay attention to what I say. Even with care in the use of my words, they will always have a transactional effect. Hence, words make for an interesting fuel between two people.
In fact, I will never forget the time my words truly stoked a spirit. While teaching a group of alternative students, I let 13 year old, Jeff, know I enjoyed him in my class. He told me, “No teacher has ever told me that!” I secretly understood why, but nevertheless, I meant what I said.
The next day, my boss let me know she had received a call from Jeff’s psychologist. The psychologist wanted her to know that in his 20 years of counseling, he had never seen a kid turn around so fast. He wanted to know what the school and his teacher were doing. Unbeknownst to me, Jeff had been suicidal before he came to my room. That day, I knew, that the power of words were, indeed, the power of life!
I do not claim to understand the entire context or meaning of this quote, but here is what I take it to signify: When you witness injustice, you do harm by not saying anything.
My friends and I have been talking about this a lot. There are situations at work when people say mildly (or even acutely) offensive things, ranging from “hi, girls!” (to a group of female faculty members or staff) to stronger displays of who is in power, who is allowed to speak, and who is too low on the hierarchy to be right.
We all recognize that when things like this happens, it is wrong to let them go. We should say something. We should speak up, cry foul, use the opportunity to educate and raise awareness of how to communicate in an inclusive workplace.
But how do you do this when the people you are talking to are your colleagues (which translates to superiors, if you are not tenured), and when you are a woman, and this means you risk being labeled as “bitchy” as soon as you say something that’s perceived as unpleasant.
I’ve read a blog post from a woman in a tech company that recommended replying like a man would do, humorously, with something along the lines of: “dude, not cool.” I don’t think that would work in academia.
I know from research in communication that the solution is to provide training to recognize these situations and to teach people specific lines they can use when they are flustered and shocked and can’t think of anything to say. I wish I could post here a collection of such lines, but I do not know of any.
Do you have links to any resources that can help, or any experiences we can learn from?
[Guest posting this on our college’s dean’s blog]
I came across this story about the brilliantly hilarious criticism that BiC, the pen company, encountered upon launching a line of pastel-colored pens “for her.”
The product has almost 500 reviews on amazon.com, and I’ll let them speak for themselves by sampling a couple:
“I picked up these pens to fill out a job application as a research scientist, but the only thing they would write on were the subscription cards for Good Housekeeping and Cosmo in the lobby (but not Newsweek or Time- which at first I thought was weird, but after looking at the pen for a minute, I realized I was better off without those dense, hard topics). I eventually got one to work on an application for a nanny, so thank you Bic for giving me proper direction in my career!”
“Before I purchase such graceful, dainty, gender appropriate pens I want to be completely confident that I will still think math is hard. My role model, Barbie, used to say that she thought math is hard and I don’t want to stray from her guidance. What has been your experience?”
The story is amusing, but also very interesting because it points out society’s response to a strategy I like to call “pinkification.” I am sometimes worried that our college’s diversity efforts may fall into the pinkification trap.
Why are people (men and women alike) so upset with some cheap plastic pens? Because they reinforce stereotypical gender roles. We are fortunate to live in a society where individuals are free to become who they want, rather than follow cultural prescriptions of gender-appropriate roles and jobs. We have excellent airplane pilots who are women and men who dream of becoming flight attendants. And it’s about time we stop marveling at the “weirdness” of it all – this is the new normal.
Without claiming that genders are identical, I beg that we be wary of “pinkification” as a strategy for increasing diversity in our college. Ideas such as:
– offering “easy” classes because women don’t like the “technical” ones;
– changing the curriculum because women care about making a difference in society (what, men don’t? not the students I encounter… when I ask them what they want to be when they grow up, most of them say that, in one way or another, they want to help people);
– putting Hello Kitty posters on the walls or the interior decor equivalent;
… are all troublesome because they manifest stereotypes and biases about gender roles and preferences. Rather than defining gender roles, why not create a kind, respectful and encouraging environment where everyone can feel free to manifest their full personality and potential?
So, what can we do instead? I, of course, do not have the solution to such a complex problem. But I can make some suggestions, and hope you can add to them in the comments below.
Maybe we can start becoming aware of our own deep-seated ideas and biases (we all have them). As we notice our mind producing thoughts such as, “women typically don’t do well in this subject” (let’s call them women, not girls nor ladies), or “this woman is successful because of political alliances or luck” – maybe we can stop and consider where the idea comes from; what is the root of the problem; and how this opinion manifests in subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviors that actually influence women’s performance. What if we try to play around with the thought that “all students who work hard can excel in this subject, regardless of biological sex or cultural gender” – and let that idea transpire through our subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviors?
Maybe we can begin to consider how the toys we give children teach them about what they are supposed to like and be good at; that little girls are taught to want to be princesses in pink tutus. There are many subtle and not so subtle behaviors that communicate to young, impressionable people what we expect of them – and contribute to shaping their sense of self.
Maybe becoming aware of our own beliefs, of how they manifest through behavior, and how these subtle behaviors influence students’ sense of who they should be is one little step towards creating change from within.
What other ideas do you have?