In a valuable recent post at University of Venus, Janine Utell uses Tina Fey’s book Bossypants to argue for a specific vision of a positive approach to leadership in higher education, an approach that emphasizes “generosity, creativity, openness, a willingness to be inspired by others, an appreciation of collaboration rather than competition, and a sense that the vision of a group is only as good as what each person brings to it.” (Janine has been a guest author at ProfHacker a few times; see her “Practical Wisdom and Professional Life,” “Using Failure to Reflect on our Teaching,” and “How to Study Your Own Teaching (And Why You Might Want To).”)
The lessons from improv comedy shared in Bossypants–specifically, the experience of being a woman in improv comedy–are what inspired Janine’s post, and as she demonstrates persuasively, those lessons are valuable to the higher education environment as well.
Earlier this summer, when I was reading Fey’s book, I was also struck by the ways in which her advice could be applied to an academic career. Particularly, in my experience, grad students and junior faculty are frequently given unsolicited advice from (hopefully) well meaning people about the professional choices they’re making. And sometimes that advice is thinly-veiled criticism: “That’s not what research by someone in your discipline should be about,” to take one hypothetical example, or “You shouldn’t be teaching that topic that way,” to take another. Fey’s advice is to ask yourself the following:
“Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you.
Should we ignore all criticism? Clearly, no. Should we refuse to talk to people who aren’t directly in our professional circle? Of course not. However, for high performing academics, it’s all too easy to feel the need to please everyone, to answer every question adequately, to justify irrevocably every decision. Trying to do so is counterproductive. Working to please everyone is a recipe for pleasing no one, especially yourself. The challenge is sometimes figuring out whose voice to listen to and whose to ignore.
How about you? How do you choose which feedback to take to heart? Let’s hear from you in the comments!