the stories we tell.

I read two seemingly unrelated professionalization pieces last week:  The Chonicle‘s “Operation Keep My Job” and IHE‘s “Advice from an Outlaw Writer.” The two couldn’t be more different from one another. Bethany Albertson discusses a number of the insights anyone seeking professionalization will hear time and again (e.g., “just say no,” “ask for help,” “keep trying”) and Jane Ward encourages us to work against common refrains -“don’t chip! binge!”

However, they shared an important wisdom – although articulated differently – urging caution in how we connect with those around us.

As Ward says, “it’s a sad state of affairs that the academy is home to so many tortured and competitive people,” and encourages readers to “ignore your colleagues’ professional anxieties.” In her own reflection, Albertson realizes that she was one of those tortured souls:

We all have stories about the times we were screwed over, and we’re lucky if it’s just one. I had a few really good stories. I would tell them, my colleagues would nod with understanding, some would get mad right along with me, and for a moment my short CV would seem less short.

With commiserating doing little to enhance her productivity, Alberston started telling stories that fit: being open about her anxiety, but optimistic in her ability to be successful.

The thing is, these stories – and the musings of tortured souls – are all around us. They’re the way we connect over lunch and fodder for happy hour. Unfortunately, they’re also too often the way we welcome newcomers to our ranks: “Let me give you the low down…”

When I first started as an assistant professor, I was inundated with these messages: “This university is a terrible place for women,” “If they didn’t get tenure, who knows who will,””You know we’ve never had a woman chair?” “Be careful about your research, some people here don’t like that kind of work.” I came home everyday beaten down and exhausted. It wasn’t enough to be worrying about teaching or research productivity, now I had all this extra baggage. It seemed like everyone I met had tortured stories, whether their own or others’, to share.

One night over dinner, I was telling Omar what I’d heard that someone else had heard about something terrible that someone had supposedly experienced and he told me, quite plainly, that I needed to focus on me and my experiences if I wanted to get tenure. He asked me, had I ever experienced this thing? Had I witnessed such a thing happening? Even if the event occurred as I told it, could there have been other factors, omitted from the recounting? He encouraged me to cultivate other conversation topics with people, or other friendships, to preserve my sanity and to avoid risking a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Around the same time, my advisor encouraged me to set aside what I thought that I knew about others and to treat everyone with respect and a clean slate (she also told me to be kindest to the office and custodial staff – which was invaluable advice).

It turned out that I didn’t have to abandon new friends or run in different social circles. I simply changed the conversation, the stories that I told and the way that I connected with others. It’s not that I don’t have my own tortured stories – as I’ve shared some of them here – but I try not to let them dominate the conversation and I don’t use them to connect with others. I focus on telling people how great the university has been for me, how things have changed for the better – in so many ways – in the ten years I’ve been there. I tell people how much I love my job. I talk about my collegial department and the powerful ways people across the university (and outside of it) played a part in my success. I am always happy to share things that worked well for me or what I love about South Bend or Chicago.

In all this, I found that focusing on the positive side of things – staying on the sunny side of the street – was good for my health, well-being, and productivity. I also discovered that I was not alone. The more I shared with others on campus about how supportive I thought the university was and how my experience as a woman had been nothing like I’d expected from reputation and rumors or how much I appreciated the flexibility of academia, the more I met people who agreed with me. Those people have not only become some of my closest friends, but also allies in the fight to ensure that our experience is one shared by others across departments and institutions.

I know this got long, but I have one final word about connecting with others. I was lucky in graduate school. Like many programs, Arizona’s encouraged us to foster relationships with our cohort. My cohort, all of us newcomers, bonded by learning about each other and our new home and trying to navigate this strange system together. We sometimes went to happy hour with other grad students, but also had a lot of time with just us. As a result, I was sheltered from many of the negative stories until after I’d established my own view of the world.  My advice to be careful in how we connect with others is not meant for faculty alone. I have seen grad students suffer under the weight of negativity, tortured stories, and competitiveness.

I’ll close with Ward’s insight on how to react when you “come face-to-face with a colleague’s academic anxiety disease, tenure-track stress disorder or some other anxiety disorder distinct to academics”:

My advice: breathe deeply, wish them love and light, back away quickly, and forget everything they’ve said.


5 thoughts on “the stories we tell.”

  1. I’m slow to respond because I wasn’t sure I had anything to add, except I guess that there is a delicate balance. You do need to stay optimistic and positive to get anything done, but there is also a need to notice real challenges and not internalize structural constraints or microaggressions. I remember being pissed off at a survey (obviously written by a jealous white man) 20+ years ago that asked whether I’d been hurt or helped by my gender. Because of course the answer was both. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were opportunities and awards I received that I got a leg up on because of affirmative action for women; at exactly the same time, my career was obviously also hurt by hostility from some men and [often unconscious] attempts to diminish my accomplishments, and it was affected by gendered parenting choices and structures. Psychologically, it is very important to see yourself as an actor and agent, not as a victim and object, but it is also I think important to notice when someone else is trying to demean you and feel angry about it instead of demeaned.

    It is also important to strike a balance in advising younger people. You do need to be supportive and listen when they complain of their own experiences of marginalization (here I’m thinking especially of racial minorities and first generation students at this point in history) and not just say “suck it up,” but then also help to figure out what can be done to move forward and take agency and not just wallow in the bad experiences. It isn’t easy to find the balance.


  2. While I appreciate that commiserating can bring you down, these interactions also make you feel less alone and give you information that arm you for the future. Psychological research apparently shows that people who lie to themselves are happier and more successful, but they are still lies. Focusing on the negative has probably made me the anxious, depressed, hopeless academic I am, but when it comes down to it I’d rather be unhappy than a deluded chump. Generally, those negative stories are not false. I worry this advice asks us to deny real exploitation and inequality. Like OlderWoman, I am concerned that the “positive thinking,” self-help-y approach just undermines political critique and solidarity. Anger is a legitimate and often-positive response to social life, despite its bad reputation in the self-help world.


  3. I appreciate both of these perspectives. I in no way meant to ignore marginalization or be pollyanna-ish, but I can see how it appeared that way. If I take the time to notice and acknowledge the positives, I feel like it gives me more credibility when it comes time to point out the negatives.


    1. Yes, and also being open to receiving help and support when it comes. I was given a tremendous amount of support early in my career by white men (as well as by women), even as other white men were demeaning or undercut me or sent mixed messages. There honestly are good things and attending to them is helpful. Also in recognizing that the same human being can be supportive/helpful in some ways and not others, and feeling ok about getting what you can from each person, even if they are imperfect. (And giving what you can to others, even if you are imperfect.)

      I am fundamentally a negative person so I never look on the bright side, at the same time as I am also an optimist who generally likes people with all their imperfections. My baseline negativity is a blessing for some people because it allows me to sit with their grief or depression or anger and keep my own balance, not feel the need to paper it over. Oddly, people who feel heard in their negativity often find their own way to the positives.

      But I think, cycling back to your original post, what it does importantly point to is discourses, and I definitely agree that there are discursive contexts in which only griping or stories of victimization or oppression are considered acceptable, not stories of success, and other discursive contexts that are all bragging and success stories, where you are not allowed to share your failures and weaknesses. I’ve been in both kinds of settings and find them both oppressive.


      1. Yes, as someone whose most oft used word is “terrible,” I’m not exactly all rainbows and roses, but I do work to always see the good in people and situations and understand that things are complex and not black and white.

        I want to emphasize that my original post was really about both welcoming and being a newcomer.

        I think that we need to be particularly cautious about the pictures that we paint to newcomers, as we are coloring their perspectives – providing frames, to think sociologically – and profoundly shaping their experiences. If we are struggling, we can want people who struggle with us, or if we struggled, we can want people who struggle too. Even if they’re entering our same departments, they’re coming in at different times, with different histories, and different contexts than we did and it’s so important to be there for them but to let them discover their realities and not impart our own.

        On the flip side, in being a newcomer, I wish that I was talking to Omar about “what I’d heard that someone else had heard about something terrible that someone had supposedly experienced” it was as an ally, but as a newcomer I was all-consumed with my own survival. The emotion stemmed from 1 part righteous indignation for them (albeit someone I didn’t know and about something I didn’t even know whether was really true) and 9 parts “holy-cow-that-might-happen-to-me.” It was, just like the I read the two posts I linked to as saying, the spreading of an academic anxiety – an affliction – and not about commiserating or political solidarity.

        And as far as anger goes, alleym, I agree it can be a powerful emotion and is an important avenue for change – if it’s directed in the right place. Unfortunately, the negative emotions I was experiencing as a newcomer were much less healthy or productive.


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