• April 19, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion

I attended my first academic conference during my second year of graduate school. While I was there, I ran into a professor whom I had studied with as an undergraduate, and who had written a letter of recommendation for me for graduate school. I saw him at the tables the conference had set up to sell books by the presenters and keynote speakers.

Before I went over to say hello, I noticed that he was looking at his own book -- an analysis of contemporary poetry published by a prestigious university press. Several copies were lying flat amid a long line of similar books along the edge of the table. He appraised the situation, and then approached the person behind the table. The bookseller nodded, and handed him a little white stand, which he used to take one copy of his book and set it up on top of the others, displayed visibly to all comers.

"Oh my God," I thought at the time, "what shameless self-promotion. I can't believe an academic would do something like that."

What I didn't know then, as a graduate student of not even two years vintage, is that having a successful academic career largely depends upon your talents at shameless self-promotion.

It is not entirely our fault, however. We are schooled in this behavior -- compelled to it, practiced in it, tormented by it -- with the constant rituals of self-evaluation we must undertake at every step of our careers.

And self-evaluation, if you have ambition to succeed, means self-promotion.

A few months ago I sat down with the dean and provost of my college, along with my department chairman, to undertake my third-year review. That meeting, which lasted less than 30 minutes -- and was, happily, mostly positive -- was based on the written evaluations that had been submitted for me: a two-page letter from my chairman, a two-page letter from the dean, and around a 400-page document from me.

Those 400 pages included three years of syllabi, other course materials, and the manuscript for my first book -- material, in other words, that I needed only to compile for the review, not write. But the first document in the stack was a 25-page evaluation of all the documents that followed, and an analysis of what I have done well and not so well in my first three years on the tenure track.

Is there any sentence more difficult to write, without sounding like a pompous ass, than the one that follows this opening: "My primary strengths as a teacher include ..."? I would be interested to see the reaction of the freshmen in my 8:30 a.m. composition class in my first semester of teaching if they were to learn that I thought my primary strength was cultivating good discussions. Their exclamations of protest might be the first time I heard their voices.

But in three years I got better -- and I got smart enough to avoid 8:30 a.m. classes after that. So I felt justified in making that statement.

Equally difficult to write were the sentences that identified my weaknesses. I didn't want to be like the candidate for a nonacademic job interview who responds, when asked about his worst quality, that sometimes he works too hard. But I also didn't want to criticize myself too harshly; they might actually believe me.

So I settled on a few things that I have been wanting to do for these past few years, like put my courses online, but haven't got around to yet.

Of course, this third-year review is just a warm-up for the tenure review, for which I will have to write another one of these self-evaluations of my first six years. (I am told by savvy colleagues that you can crib much of your tenure self-evaluation from your third-year document.) I can't imagine how many trees will perish in the process of compiling and writing all of the documents for that review.

These self-evaluations get on my nerves, because at times it feels like laziness on the part of the administrators. Evaluating me is part of their job, right?

Let's try this, I want to say: I teach, serve, and write; you evaluate me. I don't see why I should have to do both my job and your job too.

Of course, as always, I know there is another side. The process of having to write a comprehensive self-evaluation forces me to articulate the reasons for doing what I am doing, and that articulation can help me create a better fit between my pedagogical theories and my practice.

I also don't like people telling me what to do -- that's why I became an academic, after all -- so I am more likely to change my behavior as a result of a self-evaluation than as a result of someone else's evaluation.

Given the unsupervised nature of much of what we do in this business, I am really in the best position both to describe and to evaluate my work most effectively. After all, if I develop and perfect an incredibly innovative and effective teaching technique, but no one is observing my class on the days I use it, I have two choices. I can either continue to use it for the benefit of my students, or I can use it for the benefit of my students and describe it in my self-evaluation, so it benefits me, too.

And if I put it in my self-evaluation, I pretty much have to explain that I put it in there because it's incredibly innovative and effective.

That definitely seems like a smarter alternative to me than not telling anyone about it. So as my three years on the tenure track have passed, I have become much more willing to promote myself in descriptions and evaluations of my work, both within and outside of the college.

Still, for me, and I bet for many other academics, the need in such documents to trumpet my work confidently -- to argue why I am the best person for the job, or for continued employment, or for tenure and promotion, or for a course reduction, or for a grant, or a publisher -- never stops feeling like shameless self-promotion.

Maybe someday, when I'm famous, other people will praise my work for me. The president of my college will trot me out before the Board of Trustees, roll down my list of publications and teaching awards, and ask me to deliver some witty remarks after dinner to help pry open bulging wallets; Stanley Fish will court me for his newest stable of superstar academics; Oprah will laud my latest memoir for her book club.

Until then, I can see only one candidate for the job of shamelessly self-promoting me.

He gets better at it every year.

James M. Lang is an assistant professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. He writes occasionally about his experiences on the tenure track in the humanities.

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