Selling points

Corporate speak is key to applying for promotion, says Gloria Monday

April 28, 2008

I’m having another try for a promotion in this year’s round. I know it’s a lottery, and I know too that there’s all kinds of skulduggery going on, most of it hatched in the gents, after hours – a view shared by quite a few of my female colleagues when we look at some of the names of people who suddenly (and unexpectedly) shoot up the promotion ladder.

The old-boy network is nothing new, but it’s thriving better than ever today in our corporate-speaking, macho, management-driven universities, where the games are played out with gusto. Nevertheless, I am still having a go and am quite prepared to hatch a few plots in the ladies if need be.

Applying for promotion means you have to write a document selling yourself and then canvass for trustworthy referees. That’s another lottery, particularly if you haven’t got very distinguished mates that you can rely on to say the right thing.

When my last book came out, I got only two reviews, one from a good friend who managed to make it sound interesting and one from a professor in some minor university who carped on about my having misspelled some Frenchman’s surname and having given two different dates at different points in over 400 pages for the same treaty. The date confusion was a slip of the mouse that would have been picked up by a copy editor in the days when such people were employed by publishers, but the way the reviewer went on about it, you’d have thought everything I’d written was instantly nullified. I just hope the day comes when I can review something he’s written.

Revenge is a big feature of book reviews and reference letters, although nobody likes to admit this. I once read a review where the bloke eviscerated the wretched author by declaring that X’s style bore all the signs of not having matured past the age of eight and a half. That comes close to another corker, which suggested that an intelligent gibbon would have framed his ideas more lucidly. The worst I’ve ever said about anyone’s work is that it was characterised by the flaccidity of intellectual impotence – nowhere near the intelligent gibbon in terms of put-downs.

So I’ve chosen my referees with caution, and have been reworking the application letter. Thank God for cutting and pasting. How people managed when they had only typewriters I can’t think. Come to that, when I was a student I didn’t even have a typewriter, I wrote everything out by hand, until the blessed Amstrad came along and I was converted to the dot-matrix printer overnight, even though it took forever to work.

I’m including all the buzz words in my application – my work is genuinely interdisciplinary, cutting-edge and rigorous, my teaching is innovative, visionary and robustly prepared, my admin duties are conducted in a spirit of collegiality and professionalism. The word strategy is there a few times, but I can’t quite fit vision in, which is perhaps as well, because I have a suspicion that visions belong to yesterday, since I don’t see them around in much documentation these days. I found a way to fit caring in somewhere, also socially aware and responsible, and to balance that soft liberal speak I’ve added a sentence or two about the need to push at the boundaries of the discipline and maintain scholarly standards in our field.

The trouble with writing this kind of document is that you know it’s tosh, they know it’s tosh, you know they know it’s tosh and they know you know it’s tosh, yet everybody behaves as though it weren’t. Everybody is selling themselves and doctoring the old CV to make a ten-minute presentation at some insignificant conference somewhere appear as a grand lecture. If the conference is held across the Channel or over Hadrian’s Wall, you can write boldly about international impact too. I’m required to indicate which of my publications is rated A, B or C, but since there are no marking criteria I’ve decided to leave C out altogether. And no, as I said to a physicist friend, we in the humanities aren’t helped at all by citation indices, because only a handful of specialists read the specialist journals, which are supposed to be the most prestigious places to publish.

Which reminds me, the bloke who reviewed my book is chief editor of one of those. I bet they ask him to assess my promotion bid, in which case I’m doomed. Still, on the brighter side, maybe he’ll drop dead before next year’s round.

Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.

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