Friday, September 30, 2016

On Rejection

In order to make it in academia, you need to develop a tolerance for rejection. No matter how good you think you are or how good you actually are, you will be rejected for prestigious grants and competitive jobs, and you will be rejected too for grants which "everyone" gets like soccer trophies or conferences held in Yakima, Washington that take in at least 90 percent of all applicants. People of color and women will be rejected more than white men, of course, but there's no comfort in being able to blame one's rejections on racism or sexism. 

There's a mantra that quality has nothing to do with academic success, a belief held by a few tenure-track professors. One tells me that you can only control for 30 percent of the strength of your application. The remaining 70 is out of your control. Another tells me the latter number is closer to 99.5. 

It's hard to develop a good measurement system for scholarship. The same rules apply to academics as to almost all the creative professions. Brilliant archival researchers can be bad writers. Beautiful writers can have a hard time synthesizing ideas. A genius can do hack work for years and then write one of the most important, groundbreaking papers in his field. A historian can amass an enormous amount of material no one else would know how to get, get the meaning of it all wrong, but still lay the groundwork for a smarter theorist who knows exactly how to put it all together.

A bigoted, fascistic teacher can teach a student how to write a good sentence. A wonderful lecturer can be hopeless when leading a discussion. Someone with no clue how to manage an hour's worth of classroom time can still, in spite of himself, somehow manage to impart several nuggets of wisdom that will stay with at least a few students for the rest of their lives.

I don't want to be a relativist. I know full well that there are people who don't belong anywhere near students. I know there is such a thing as garbage scholarship. I know there are people who don't belong in my world. I can name those people. But I guess we all live in constant fear that we might be one of those people.

If you don't suffer from imposter syndrome, you're probably doing something wrong. And if you are accepted for everything to which you apply, you're probably not being as true to yourself as you should be. And this is what I repeat to myself every goddamn day.

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