Another “CV of Failure” has (inevitably) appeared. These make me feel uncomfortable. It’s not that they don’t represent a conversation that we need to have. It’s that - no matter how well-meaning the writers are - the pieces themselves are tone deaf. They are written from a place of figurative and literal privilege: permanent positions and lofty offices. No doubt many people find these ‘Shadow CVs’ uplifting and hope-giving, they also alienate people whose plans haven’t exactly… gone to plan. They are the academic equivalent of ‘White Saviour syndrome’. The impetus to write this came from seeing this tweet, which perfectly summed up my feelings:
But I can let you in on a secret: these days we've all been rejected from jobs and fellowships and had papers rejected and not been admitted to every one of the seventeen graduate programmes we applied to. Here’s another secret: most of us still haven’t ended up with tenure-track positions at Princeton. And, for your sins, here’s a third secret: those of us who haven't ended up with such coveted positions work just as hard and have just as many stories of woe. Many of us are also being systemically discriminated against because of our gender, sexuality, skin colour, age, accent, socio-economic background, the ability of our bodies or minds to work “properly”, or some combination of these factors.
So, I could (and have) written about jobs I've failed to get: on the jobs.ac.uk Post-PhD blog and YouTube. I've also written about a “failed” publication – but that article is currently in press at an excellent journal in large part because of that initial “failure” and the reports I received from it.
I could also tell you how at the end of my PhD my marriage failed. Or how around the same time my health failed. Or how I have failed at work-life balance. Or about the times I had to choose between failing at some aspect of my work or failing as a parent. I could, and have, been open and explicit about all kinds of failure. And that’s something we need to talk about. But it’s not done best in the context of ‘Here Are All The Times I Didn't Get What I Wanted But I Have Succeeded Now And So Can You!’.
Here’s why: there are as many ways of measuring success as there are people on the planet. Probably more. I might love a tenure-track position at Princeton, but when I sit down and think about what I’d have to give up for that… that doesn't look like success to me anymore.
So – let's continue to talk about failure in academia. But we should be doing it in an ongoing, constructive, and open way. We should be letting people who have experience of being failed by the academy talk. You shouldn't need to have a faculty position to say: hey, I've failed too. Because guess what: every single person in academia has “failed”. But that doesn't make us failures. So I want to encourage everyone: adjuncts, PhD candidates, those who have lived on a string of fixed-term contracts, those who have landed tenure track positions, and everyone in the middle, to talk about failure. But not in the format of the “CV of Failures” - in everyday conversations. We should be trying to normalise failure in the academy, but a genre built to hide the humble-brag isn't the way to do it.
Huge thanks to Joe Fruscione, who read an early draft of this piece. His comments helped me articulate my ideas in, frankly, a much clearer way.
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