If At First You Don’t Succeed, Must You Try Again?

I’m trying to move on from my promotion debacle–honest! But I recently went another round with someone about whether I will, or should, reapply, one consequence of which is that I want to sort out my response (literal and emotional) to that question.

Since my final appeal was denied in November, I have actually had a version of this conversation fairly frequently. Usually, it reflects a friendly spirit of boosterism: it is supposed to make me feel better that people think I did deserve the promotion–and of course that is a nice thing to hear, and I do quite genuinely appreciate the expressions of support. Even so, I find these conversations stressful, because of their unspoken and (I assume) unintended implications, as well as some of the tacit assumptions behind them.

One plausible implication of pressing me to try again, for instance, is that getting promoted counts as professional success, and so until and unless it happens, I’m a professional failure. By some measures, this conclusion is obviously true, though it relies on rather circular logic. One of the hardest things about the whole process for me was precisely that I began it feeling proud of my accomplishments and ended it feeling like a failure. Pressure (however encouraging) to reapply makes me feel that way all over again, and reflects, I think, the general feeling among academics that of course we all want to achieve these professional milestones, which of course are meaningful indicators of the worth of our work.

For me, however, the pressure to reapply undermines the hard mental work I’ve been doing since last summer to distinguish my own standards for success from the standards against which I was measured by so many people involved in my promotion case. Regardless of what our regulations actually say, only very specific kinds of work were ultimately treated as eligible contributions to my discipline. Repeatedly and with conviction, I made the case for a more expansive and flexible definition of “scholarship,” but I was told in so many words that if I want professional advancement my body of work must conform in both kind and quantity to “past practice.” More than once I was told (as if to soften the blow of rejection) that my application was “premature”: the message was not, however, that eventually the quantity of my non-academic writing and other projects would meet the necessary (though nowhere specified) requirements, or that if I reached some higher (again, nowhere specified) level of achievement in my public writing, then my file would ripen into eligibility. Very specifically, I was told that I would deserve promotion if and only if I met the “usual” standard for peer reviewed publications.

I feel very strongly, however, that I should not allocate my time and expertise based solely on how my institution will reward me for it. That, to me, would be a poor use of my academic freedom. (Indeed, I think a case could be made that by insisting that if I want professional advancement I must work in one way and not in another–despite the university’s own regulations and the positive judgments of peers in my discipline–several levels of review at Dalhousie compromised, perhaps even violated, my academic freedom.) If I get nothing else positive out of this whole dreary experience, I hope that at least I have finally made my peace with the consequences of choosing to do critical work of a kind I find valuable, intellectually stimulating, and challenging, and that I have learned (or am learning) to stop seeking external validation for it–at least, not from Dalhousie. Instead, I am thinking hard about what success looks like on my terms and how best to achieve it. In this respect, applying again would be a real step backwards.

Another way of looking at my situation, of course, (and the way I’m sure my friends and colleagues intend when they urge me to reapply) is not that I am a failure but that the system failed me–but in that case, what do I have to gain by having another run at it,  except possibly vindication? If I’m not in fact a failure, why do I need to be promoted in order to carry on  precisely as I have been doing? This is a question I have spent a lot of time thinking about. I actually started asking this question even before my final appeal, which for a while I wasn’t 100% sure I would go through with. Why had I applied in the first place? What was in it for me, really? The professional payoff (including financial) is actually not significant–it’s mostly about pride and prestige–and there are even some down sides to it. I did think I had earned the promotion, and it is the usual next step for professors of a certain seniority, so part of my initial decision was just thinking that my time had come. But I also, I admit, had wanted to prove something, to myself and to some of the people around me. I wanted validation for the decisions I’d been making. I wanted my work to get an A! That’s an awfully hard habit to break–but, to reiterate my previous point, that’s exactly what this process has finally (I hope) managed to do for me.

I think my friendly boosters also don’t quite realize the time and the toll the process has already taken. I began compiling materials for my file in June 2015; the decision on my appeal arrived in November 2016. For nearly a year and a half, that is, I was frequently (and mostly negatively) preoccupied with it, including many hours in meetings, many more hours writing responses, rebuttals, and appeals, and many, many, more hours brooding–many of those hours lying unhappily awake while arguments and counter-arguments and what seemed like willful misrepresentations of my work went round and round in my head. Because so much of my social life is bound up in my departmental life, there has been significant fall-out. Some of my relationships, including with formerly close colleagues, have been irreparably damaged. I’m only just recovering my individual equilibrium, something that, as Timothy Burke aptly observes, isn’t easy to do, given the peculiar nature of academic culture. (That post of his has given me a lot to think about.) There’s absolutely no guarantee of smooth sailing if I opt to do this all again–so blithely urging me to press on seems a bit callous! Besides, I’m 50 now. How many of my remaining full-time years should I put into seeking approval from other people instead of just doing the work that matters to me?

For myself personally, then, applying again just does not seem worth the effort and the risk. I might change my mind, but it’s hard right now to imagine why. Another frequent component of these discussions, though, is that I owe it to other people to try again. It is often pointed out to me, for instance, that women are underrepresented in the higher ranks of the academy. I’m not sure my particular case has much to do with this general situation, and I’m not so far convinced that I should feel any special obligation because of it either. I’m somewhat more persuaded by the argument that the kind of change or challenge to academic norms that I represent won’t happen unless people like me fight for and then use the influence that comes with seniority to turn advocacy into policy. But we have already changed our policies here at Dalhousie: it’s attitudes that haven’t changed–at least, not much. A lot of us were pretty excited about blogging for a while, but our more recent discussions showed a significant (and understandable) decline in optimism about that. Also, while there’s a lot of talk about “knowledge dissemination” and “public engagement,” it looks to me as if the trend is towards shaping that work into something recognizably academic and institutional–incorporating peer review into blogging, for instance, and establishing university programs and centers for things like the “public humanities,” rather than cheering on people who just go out there into the public sphere and participate in forms and discussions of different kinds. In this context, I’m not sure how much good I can do, individually, to instigate or support change, or at least why I have to put myself through another grueling round of extreme academic vetting in order to do it. It seems to me that I am doing as much good by persisting on my own, just trying to exemplify one of many alternative models.

“Never say never” is perfectly reasonable advice, and who knows how differently I will feel in the future, or what else might have changed in the world around me. For now, though, being promoted to full professor is simply no longer one of my goals.

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