Monday, June 20, 2005

more on failure/success (still ch 1)

I'm still thinking about some things in Chapter 1, related to my own career, a conversation I had with an old grad school friend, and Joseph's posts from last week. I agree with Hall about the need for being explicit with students and with each other about the contingency of this profession -- the presumption that decisions (jobs, fellowships, publications) are made solely on merit is one of the most psychologically damaging aspects of the profession. Plenty of people who are not otherwise paranoid or neurotic become that way (at least temporarily) in certain situations (the year one goes up for tenure a classic moment, but there are others). We are given so few opportunities for feedback -- and the ones we do get are mostly very high-stakes. So it's difficult, I think, to maintain one's equilibrium at all times, even if you intellectually realise the value of what Hall is saying.

Hall's main points are about the damaging aspects of failure (the job you didn't get, etc). Such stories are familiar to all of us -- we've all been rejected for various things. Yet his main example of contingency (the finding of a book while browsing before a movie) winds up with the happy ending. Mine does too -- the very random set of circumstances that meant that the one on-campus interview I got my first year on the market wound up in a job offer. I have felt grateful, and not a bit guilty, at times, for lucking into a situation that suits me pretty well.

I guess my question has to do with how one processes such luck, contingency, whatever you want to call it. Because it can (on bad days) sometimes make me feel like a failure -- not for externally defined reasons, but for internal ones. If I got my job because of contingent factors-- when there plenty of people I knew who were as qualified who didn't get jobs at all -- then it's not really an achievement. Ditto for anything else. (This is, of course, how we internalize perfectionism and the values of the profession.)

More pointedly, for where I am now in my life -- if I got tenure based on a book, but it wasn't the book I was "supposed" to write (in my field your dissertation is supposed to become your first book), when can I let that old book go? I hadn't realized until a few days ago how much I was hanging on to internalized assumptions that were basically keeping me stuck. I'm not the person I was when I started that research years ago. But my academic self-definition hasn't caught up to who I am now, yet.