Monday, July 10, 2006

Ok, So I'm Not Really Lazy

I suppose that this will be another post about the identity stuff that has been rolling around in my head lately, although I hadn't anticipated going into this territory today. I suppose it's because I just checked off the one thing I really wanted to accomplish (aside from the thing I can't accomplish that I mentioned in the previous post), which was to update my cv. I'm pretty good about keeping the CV updated with the big stuff - you know, publications, conference presentations, etc. - throughout the year, but nevertheless, I do need to sit down with the CV at least once a year to update all of the other crap that I do that I don't tend to think very much about. You know, the small, little things like serving on committees, or helping to organize an advising meeting for majors, or judging a contest.

So, I updated my cv, and it occurs to me that I'm totally not a lazy person. I'm a very, very busy person who accomplishes a great many things. And then this got me to thinking about the fact that I do tend to present myself as kind of a slacker most of the time (although not all of the time, because I think on the blog sometimes I present myself as having the weight of the world on my shoulders even though I don't tend to do this in life), and to wondering about why that is, and then to wondering about whether I really believe I'm a slacker, or whether this is all a clever ruse to try to dazzle and confuse those who would look too carefully at all of the things that I'm actually accomplishing.

Ok, I just deleted two entire paragraphs because what I was trying to say wasn't coming out at all. And so now I'm trying again. I think the thing is that in order to be successful in this profession, a certain amount of self-promotion (and self-absorption) is key. The people whom I most admire and who have achieved the most in this profession tend to talk themselves up - not down. Every time I see one of my mentors, she never fails to mention what she's working on, what most recently appeared in print, what her plans for her next project are. I've been actually trying to work on performing in this way, but I (for whatever reason) find it really difficult to sustain. For whatever reason, it feels more natural to me to downplay what I'm doing or accomplishing or planning, to act like it's no big deal and really not worthy of attention. This is not smart. This is, in fact, quite stupid. So what's the deal? Why is it that I have such a hard time with this part of things?

It isn't (at least I don't think) a problem with confidence. I'm actually quite self-confident, and I tend to have a high (perhaps too much so in fact) opinion of myself. The problem is not with me on the inside (it seems to me) but rather a problem with how I translate what's going on inside to the world outside. I don't want to appear a) big-headed (although I do literally have quite a large head), b) entirely self-involved, c) like a snotty person who thinks - in the words of my working-class family - "her shit don't stink." And so I think I try to avoid those pitfalls by talking myself down - oh, I'm not accomplishing anything, oh, I'm lazy, oh, I'm such a bad professor. But all the while what I'm really doing is talking about all of what I am doing - just not in a positive way.

So what does all of this have to do with identity in this profession, you ask? Well, I think that it has to do with one's identity because I think that many aspects of this profession are designed to make you feel like you can never accomplish enough, that you can never produce enough. And so if you fall into the trap that I fall into - and you talk yourself down constantly, or at the very least talk about what a huge amount you need to do that you're not doing or that you don't have time to do - I'm thinking that this will have to at some point have an impact on how you ACTUALLY see yourself as a scholar - or at the very least on how other people regard you, which is, perhaps, more important, at least in terms of professional success.

But then, isn't this version just the flip side of the positive self-promotion performance? It occurs to me that there is no model for talking about oneself in a moderate way in this profession, and so perhaps that's why it can be so difficult to have a moderate life for so many academics. There is no discourse for talking about work in a measured, balanced, non-crazy way. Either you're a crazy self-promoting narcissist, or you're a crazy self-loathing narcissist, right? There's no language for saying, "well, I accomplished a few things today and then I frolicked in the sunshine and then I had a nice dinner and took a hot bath," because if you talk like that, if you're not obsessed with the job, then you're not to be taken seriously.

I guess the thing is, I wish that I could talk about what I do professionally in a more moderate way without feeling like it's not permitted or like I won't be taken seriously if I do. I also wish I could be more comfortable with talking positively about my accomplishments instead of fearing that I'll be perceived as a jackass for being proud of myself.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

Oh, I so agree with you on this. Brief anecdote: I went back to my grad campus a couple of years after I finished for a conference, and ran into a bunch of profs I knew. They'd say, "How are you doing?" and I'd say, "Oh, good, great!" and there'd be a pause and they'd say something like, "Well, good," and move on. Finally I ran into my advisor and we had this exchange and someone else was there and somehow my book project came up and my advisor said, "Yes, so what ARE you doing about that?" And I kind of mentally jumped to attention and started talking about the project, what I'd been doing (i.e. grants/publications) and my future plans for brilliance. And it dawned on me that like an idiot, I should have said all those things to the other profs I'd run into - that this was what they were waiting for in those gaps in the conversation. But I just had no idea how to go about it. Why talk about that specifically unless I'm asked about it specifically? Because yeah, I don't want to have a big head either (very bad thing in my family, to be conceited). But you're right, talking down is as self-absorbed as talking up. It is all very confusing.

USJogger said...

"I don't want to appear a) big-headed (although I do literally have quite a large head), b) entirely self-involved, c) like a snotty person who thinks - in the words of my working-class family - 'her shit don't stink.'"

This part really resonated with me. Internally, I'm fiercely proud of what I get done. I constantly compare myself with others, and I do pretty good, I think. But you can't say that to people without looking like an idiot.

One result is that some of the easiest stuff I do gets the most credit, because it's highly visible. I organize the Math Colloquium for our department. It's biweekly, and we usually miss a session or two, so we're talking about arranging for four or five talks per semester. It takes maybe 20 minutes of my time, every other week. And everyone says what a great job I'm doing.

Meanwhile, other things that take hours of work get overlooked, because I don't tell everyone about them.

hypatia said...

Your comment about your advisor resonated with me... because my advisor did, well, not the opposite exactly. But nearly. He didn't talk himself up... he didn't run himself down... He never talked about himself at all. At the same time he published proflically (and solid work). And what I observed is because he rarely talked about himself everyone else talked about him for him. It's a very interesting phenomenon to observe.

But I can't quite decide if it's one to emmulate. For instance, clearly at time for tenure, you'd like to see people knowing what you do... and maybe it's easier to not talk about oneself when you are senior, well funded and well known than when you are junior, poor and trying to make a name for yourself.

kfluff said...

Yes! Yes to all of it, and most emphatically to this:
"It occurs to me that there is no model for talking about oneself in a moderate way in this profession, and so perhaps that's why it can be so difficult to have a moderate life for so many academics."

My colleagues make this particularly difficult, being attached to the martyr version of academe (a few ex-nuns, don't you know). As a dodge, I've taken to discussing what I'm working ON, rather than what I've finished (which, lately, is not bloody much); it seems to hold off any judgment about my not doing enough, or about my bragging. But that doesn't address your idea that balancing life with work is an important accomplishment as well. Pity--because the people who can prioritize moderation are the most sane of all.

Flavia said...

I completely agree that talking oneself down is almost identical to talking oneself up, and that they reflect the same completely unhealthy work- and self-obsession.

But, like Hypatia, I do know some extremely successful academics who don't do either one, and I wonder whether that's the point: the scholars I'm thinking of are all full professors, and many of them are at my grad institution. . . which means that they have nothing to prove to anyone--including themselves--any longer. It would be interesting to know whether they were like this when they were younger.

prefer not to say said...

I work in a unit that has a history of being very bad for women faculty. And the female faculty members who hung on during the worst years all believe in the formula: When ever anyone asks you how you are doing, say 'I just got a grant!' or 'I just made a breakthrough on the new project!' or 'I just published a book review!' or basically anything to tout yourself and how great you are. Never mention self-doubt. Never self-deprecate.

And while this might have helped them survive, one of the ironies of their commitment to this mode of behavior is that THEY begin to use it as criteria for how to evaluate other junior women. So the senior women wind up being the ones who MOST expect me to talk about myself all the time, and if I'm not, they take it as an index of my approaching failure in the academy.

So, I'm fascinated by how self-promotion winds up becoming a free-standing criteria for success, independent of actual performance, and I'm especially fascinated how, in my particular situation, women tell other women they need to do it because THAT'S WHAT MEN DO.

Academic Texan said...

First, I'd like to say hi. I'm a new blogger on the block, as it were. Love your set up here.

When I'm with other grad students and professors I know, I always talk about research I'm doing, a poem I've written, something new I tried with my students. And I ask them about what they're doing. Usually, I do this because I'm genuinely interested in what they're doing, or I want feedback on my work.

Dr. Crazy said...

Hey everybody.

First of all, I've enjoyed reading the comments to this post because on the one hand they've made me feel like I've got company in my angst about this stuff. On the other hand, it occurs to me that it's disheartening that this is something that so many people "get."

While I think it's true that full professors with nothing to prove MAY fall into these traps of extremes less, I think the likelihood/unlikelihood of that is inflected by one's relative position of authority within a department, the culture of the department, and things like gender/race/etc. For the most part, I've noticed my female mentors (at my grad institution and beyond) fall into the extreme categories much more frequently than male, even at the full professor level. At my grad institution, the junior female faculty who were there when I arrived who didn't fall into the extreme category were denied tenure. That's a pretty powerful message, I think. I'm not at all saying gender is the only thing that affects this, but I think it's important to recognize the ways that it does inform these kinds of things, whether in traditionally male fields, as Prefer Not To Say describes, or in fields that have been feminized (i.e., mine).

Finally to respond to Academic Texan (and welcome to this little corner of the blogosphere!):
What you say makes sense about these kinds of conversations being about interest. I think that it's true that when talking with colleagues/mentors with whom we feel comfortable (i.e., people we see every day), talking about what we've been doing comes naturally, or at least more naturally, just as water cooler chat. I think what I'm talking about more here is how we characterize ourselves AS professionals through this kind of talking about ourselves, and at least for me, chatting at the copier with a colleague about the assignment I'm trying out doesn't count as part of constructing my professional identity, or at least not in a conscious or calculated way. In contrast, when I talk to somebody I see at a conference only once every other year, that interaction carries a lot of weight in that regard. Similarly, when I see people from my old grad institution at MLA. As I've moved along in the profession, these issues have become more and more fraught, in part because of the kind of institution at which I teach (if you talk too much about research it can hurt you, but when I see people from my old grad institution and I talk constantly about teaching they look at me like my brain is broken), but also I think because one becomes more aware of trying to construct oneself as a "colleague" and not as a student, i.e., any sign of weakness is not regarded as something that all people go through but rather as a sign of professional unworthiness. I don't know. I feel like I'm rambling, but I hope I've gotten my point across at least a little :)