• October 26, 2014

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

The Facebook phenomenon of "liking" comments, links, and even actions ("Rachel washed her hair! 17 Likes") shows, among other things, how we grub and grasp for morsels of praise. It also makes me think about how few plaudits most academics hear.

As kids we receive report cards, and in college we get transcripts. In graduate school, grades become a less indicative measure of growth, and we begin to rely on the direct approval of our professors and advisers on particular projects. Having an adviser means you have someone who cares about your work almost as much as you do, someone invested in your success because it makes her look good.

Then what happens? You defend, you graduate, and if you're really, really lucky, you score one of the 27 tenure-track jobs left in America. You teach many classes, serve on myriad committees, and go about the business of trying to get published. Suddenly there's no one's looking out for you, no one to catch you when you start to falter, and no one to offer praise when you do something well. That is something much overlooked in academic culture, where we expect and become inured to criticism, where we analyze and carp at one another.

Things are even harder, I suspect, if you're on an adjacent, nontenure-track path, where you are teaching so much and at so many different places that taking time to walk the dog is a luxury. But what if you still, somehow, manage to publish an article or write a book? Who congratulates you? Who will even know?

Your paper got accepted! Your article won an award! Your book will be published! Having friends click "Like" on Facebook when you trumpet your own successes may be the best you can hope for.

You can expect your family and nonacademic friends to help celebrate. You can tell buddies in other disciplines, and while they may not understand the exact nature of the achievement, they will say the right things, and you can hope they're being genuine.

But when you spread the joy to colleagues in your department, there may be a tax. They may also say the right things, but will they really be happy for you, or will it stir up their own insecurities and inadequacies? Schadenfreude is an all-too-human response.

Who can't relate to the bitter joy in Clive James's poem "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered"? But the inverse is also true. Gore Vidal said, "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little." It's even worse when someone you don't like and are competitive with gets laurels. You can feel, let's admit it, a little pissy. I try to tell myself that someone else's success takes nothing away from me, and remember that a rising tide lifts all boats, and yada yada yada. But still. We like and admire superstars at a distance; no one wants to have to share a bathroom with them or listen as they list off the places they have to go to collect awards. If someone does what you do, but to more acclaim, your hand can feel mighty heavy when you go to smack that colleague a high-five.

But we all want to receive a few high-fives. So where you get them? Where do you even get an honest assessment of how well you're doing?

I have heard from pre-tenure friends at small private colleges and fancy-pants research universities that they have annual performance reviews in which members of their departments look over their work and offer suggestions, praise, and useful criticism. I wonder how many fortunate academics benefit from that kind of review. What I've seen at public institutions is that people can come up for tenure without having had anyone weigh their dossiers. At that point, it's too late to do anything about beefing them up.

My friend Mike, a Ph.D. in physics, runs the research division of a big semiconductor company, a job he loves but complains about once a year. He hates doing annual reviews. They take a lot of time to write and require hard thinking and diplomatic skills that, as a geek, he's had to work to develop. After he writes his comments, he sits down with each of the people who report directly to him and talks about what they're doing well and the areas where they could stand to improve. One of the reasons the company, Mike, and his employees take this exercise so seriously is because their performance is directly linked to the stock price.

Academic evaluations aren't quite so precise. My sense is that in academe, a positive review means an absence of problems. Self-motivation is the expectation; no one needs to tell you you're supposed to be publishing. But what if you are? What if, in fact, you're publishing a lot, and gathering laurels from your peers in other institutions or organizations in your field? Who on the home front is going to notice or care?

I used to think the hardest jobs—motivation-wise—were those like air-traffic controllers or movie projectionists, in which, when you screw up, everyone knows and reviles you as an idiot, but if you do your job perfectly, no one pays any attention. I've come to think academic jobs are not that different.

Scholarship, as we all know, can require social-life-deadening discipline, Ahab-like focus, and a belief that what you're doing is worthwhile. In order to get something ready to submit for publication, you have to invest time and energy without much intermediate payoff. You have to keep going. Unlike in graduate school, no one's asking to see chapters or help you set and meet deadlines. You're on your own. No one applauds when you have a good day at the archives, or when you've managed to de-bug code that's been giving you fits. No one claps when you make the bed or mow the lawn, either. This is what it means to be a grown-up. I get that.

But getting a glowing book review or publishing the results of a successful experiment matter. What if one of the things that can make professors so nutty—if you haven't noticed that we are nutty, then you are probably in the right job—is that we don't get enough encouragement?

We hear a lot about academic competition and backbiting pettiness, about bad politics and low stakes, but how often do we hear stories of people getting personal notes from their colleagues, chairs, deans, provosts, or presidents when they do their job well? How often do we feel that anyone within our institutions really pays attention to what we're doing? We all manage our own little intellectual boutiques. We may lease space in the academic mall, but we operate independently; if we want recognition, we have to advertise, which is, frankly, kind of icky.

Many of us flock to academe because we don't do well when we're told what to do. I can no more imagine a professor referring to another faculty member as a "team player" than I can see someone with an endowed chair referring to his department head as "boss." Corporate ladder-scaling is not among our skills, and we tend not to value productivity that can be measured by merely counting. But perhaps what we give up is a sense of investment in the community; when we don't have a stock price to worry about, we don't share in one another's successes, and we may not even notice them.

Sometimes, when the writing is not going well, you don't want anyone to ask about the work in progress. And sometimes, if you're cranking along and people don't ask, you feel unsupported. This is a crazy business we're in, and it can make each of us a little crazy.

But are there institutional or organizational ways to recognize the sometimes hard-to-see work of scholarship? Maybe we, as colleagues and administrators, need to think a little bit about how to notice the work of faculty members—both tenure-track and nontenure-track—even if it means just sending cheerleading notes or finding ways to "like" each other.

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University's writing program in Spokane. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.

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