CVs of failure in academia do not tell the whole story

Being open about failure is one thing, but we must also look at how we define success, says Shahidha Bari

May 19, 2016
Marcus Butt illustration (19 May 2016)
Source: Marcus Butt

A few weeks ago, a Princeton University academic published a “CV of failures” – a list of career lows – in an attempt to “balance the record” and encourage others to endeavour in the face of disappointment.

Johannes Haushofer, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs, modestly notes in the introduction to this resumé of rubbishness that “most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible”. This, he argues, imparts a skewed impression of a charmed career: a seemingly stellar ascension to academic heights unhindered by rejections and rebuffs. To offset this, Haushofer remorselessly lists such missteps as the “degree programs I did not get into” and his “paper rejections from academic journals”.

Failures, he reasons, are not always our own fault: “the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days”. It’s a nicely measured appraisal, although the “crapshooting” analogy suggests that the odds of getting an academic job are similar to those facing Marlon Brando in a homburg hat hustling dice in Guys and Dolls: extremely slim.

As I have previously noted on these pages, academics have a peculiar relationship with failure, coming as they often do from high-achieving student stock (“Missing the mark”, opinion, 20 August 2015). Appropriately enough, Haushofer credits the idea of a CV of failures to Melanie Stefan, a lecturer in biomedical sciences at the University of Edinburgh, who published an article on the subject in Nature in 2010: academics, it turns out, are so preoccupied by failure that they can make it the subject of their own research.

Indeed, the journalist Oliver Burkeman called upon a dazzling array of academics in a recent documentary on BBC Radio 4 titled The Impostors’ Survival Guide. It included contributions from Jasmine Vergauwe, who researches organisational psychology at Ghent University, and Jules Evans, policy director of the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. And the idea for the programme itself originates with an academic paper published in 1978 by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University, who identified an “impostor phenomenon” widespread among high-achieving women remarkable for their inability to internalise and accept their success.

The feeling of fraudulence and the anxiety that exposure awaits you at every turn is not exclusive to academics, of course, but there is perhaps a particular susceptibility to it that we might claim for our profession, because scholarly research is both subject to and intended for scrutiny. We live the life of the mind, hanging off peer reviews and citations, but we also often “perform” authority, as though our expertise and knowledge could be made visible in the ways that we teach, lecture and present papers – even if, internally, we might writhe with guilt at having engineered an elaborate dupe that must, eventually, be unveiled.

For those of us who write, our prose can turn against us. Every sentence is overlaid with an internal monologue: a kind of running self-criticism so remorseless that it is a wonder that we manage to write at all. The irony is that despite the high levels of self-inspection that academic research so often demands, we are often incapable of judging ourselves fairly or reasonably.” We see ourselves, instead, in a mirror darkly.

In English studies, we aspire, rather loftily, to teach something called “critical thinking”. This is a vaguely defined idea of a sceptical alertness, but, at our worst (or best?), we are sceptical even about our ability to know anything at all. As Burkeman points out, there is often something ironic, or oddly involuted, at the heart of the impostor phenomenon: when we are most convinced of our fraudulence, we have been successful – at least, in the deception that lands us in such a predicament.

There are other, tougher ironies, too. The feeling of fraudulence amplifies with every triumph: the higher you rise, the more audacious your unwarranted success might seem. Burkeman cites the curious work of two US sociologists, Jessica Collett and Jade Avelis, whose survey of 460 doctoral students at the University of Notre Dame in 2013 revealed widespread feelings of fraudulence among the women in particular. Furthermore, the mentoring deployed to alleviate this resulted in a disastrous amplification: next to our high-ranking mentors, our sense of inadequacy only increases.

There is a consolatory idea that suffering from an inferiority complex is preferable to bullish attitudes of entitlement, and that feelings of inadequacy cultivate the more likeable qualities of modesty and humility. But the meek don’t always inherit the earth. Nietzsche, for one, lambastes piety and deference as forms of oppression, uncritically internalised as obedience. And the peculiar purchase that feelings of fraudulence seem to have among women might prompt us to query the agenda lying beneath the prizing of modesty and self-effacement.

In Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, the protagonist is a novelist whose interior monologue never quite permits her to believe in her own brilliance. She socialises with activists and academics, checking and rebuking herself continually: “I have to start studying again. How could I let myself go like this? Of course, if I want, I can fake some expertise and some enthusiasm. But I can’t go on like that, I’ve learned too many things that don’t count and very few that do.”

Perhaps the question is not so much whether we are impostors or not, nor even whether it’s best to embrace or overcome our feelings of fraudulence. Perhaps the issue is, rather, who decides what counts as success and what doesn’t – and how we carry on working nonetheless, beyond both our own judgement and that of others.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.

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