Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Academic Confessions of Success and Failure

‘Academic work is publicly and correctly viewed as having a sacred quality involving the pursuit and transmission of truth. But it also involves a job or career carried out in a competitive milieu where the usual human virtues and vices are never far from the surface.’
Gary T. Marx (1990) 'Reflections on Academic Success and Failure: Making it, Forsaking It, Reshaping it'

Before I started this blog I searched the Internet every day for stories from others who may have been writing about their ambivalent experiences of Post-Grad study or work in academia. I was amazed at the amount of information I found, and as I have already stated, it was these accounts that prompted me to ‘come out’ and start writing. I came across a chapter published in 1990 from American Sociologist Gary T. Marx, Emeritus Professor at MIT, and since I've read it I find I keep wanting to go back to it to help make sense of some of my post-academia feelings. Maybe others too can relate to some of what Marx is sharing here. 
Marx offers a touching and honest account of his own ‘academic success and failure’, charting his long scholarly history from the early 70s to the 90s, when his chapter ‘Reflections on Academic Success and Failure’ was published. One of the hooks for me as a reader was his introductory address to two different reading audiences: ‘persons beginning their career, and those at midcareer sorting it all out --the former because I wish someone had told me these things when I was starting out, and the latter because they may believe them.’ I have always wondered why some of my experienced academic friends have never ‘told me’ certain things, with honesty, about what it’s really like to start out in an academic career. I have also wondered about the stories that are told about academic life by those are steeped in the middle of it. Do they only reveal half-truths? Do they hold back when talking to others who are just starting out because they don’t want to frighten the next generation? Do they even know where to begin in telling a story that is full up highs and lows that often depends largely on historical contexts and ‘luck’ of the draw?
Marx writes about his promising start of success, beginning his Post-PhD life three years after completion, with a great salary and light teaching load at Harvard University. His book, Protest and Prejudice, presumably extended from his PhD, was a big selling hit, students loved him and many later became established scholars in their own right. Research fellowships offered more teaching relief. Invitations to speak and serve on a range of editorial and advisory boards offered positive affirmation of his academic identity that many early academics desire. Life for Marx was at an enviable high point and it seemed it might never end. Why should it? He was smart, hard-working, researching and writing about what was important. But this wasn’t to last, Marx reflects. The decline wasn’t a quick and sudden one.
‘[G]radually the sweet smell of success turned slightly rancid. As traditional achievements became less satisfying and little failures accumulated, stalagmites of disillusionment, anger, and confusion built up over several years. What I had naively assumed to be the natural order of things turned out to be but a passing phase conditioned by historical factors and luck.’
The journey of failure for Marx feels quite uncomfortable to read, although certainly refreshing. I’m sure it was even more difficult to write and expose his vulnerabilities. His ideal tenure job never surfaces and is offered to another less experienced colleague. The hit success book finally goes out of print and the next book doesn’t sell. Another prospective collection is rejected by the publisher. Grant applications are rejected and The Republicans get into office. A new historical era begins – yes, successes and failures often rely on history and structural regimes.
The need to ‘display’ academic success, Marx reveals, may be ‘part of the American achievement ethos’, but for many of us, like Marx, it also can be an expression of some of the complexities of the parent-child relationship, in which the child seeks the approval of the parent who is difficult to please. Of course, this can be an illustration of the cultural forces of the ‘American achievement ethos’ acting upon us on the micro-level, but the effects of them are highly emotional. Marx writes about the impact his father had on his desire to succeed:
‘His own needs were such that he made me feel very inferior. As a result I had a strong need to prove myself. Seeking the external symbols of success was a way to demonstrate to the world and myself that the inner doubts I harbored were mistaken.’
Self-reflexivity seems more acceptable in academic writing now (at least in the Arts and Humanities and some social sciences) since the early nineties but for many disciplines the question of how far one goes in their revelations is still unanswered, especially when the revelations are concerned with challenges to academia and doubts about one’s academic career and livelihood. Marx’s consideration of his journey of academic success and failure leads him to confront the realities of the myths surrounding success. It never lasts. Your publications cease to be read after a while and when your generation retires, the younger ones forget you, or never knew of you in the first place. The tendency for academics to self-punish for not being as successful as they should be is rife:  
‘You can never be successful enough (at least in your own eyes). No matter how good you are, there is always someone better. Whatever you did, you could always have done it better and done more, or done it earlier. You never were as important or well known as you thought you were. Even the truly famous are not exempt.’
This means that efforts towards success are never-ending and they only become harder to achieve as you move up along the academic career path. This is a point with which I can really identify. In my previous life when I was working outside academia, there were many times when I felt my achievements and successes in the workplace were recognised and praised. Why wasn’t this enough for me at the time? Perhaps my reasons were like Marx’s, harking back to some need for parental approval which leads more to a personal mission of self-disciplining and self-approval (I’m not good enough; I will never be good enough, but my hard work and hard efforts can show that I’m not lazy; I have at least tried my best; I will strive to do what I haven’t yet done; There will always be more that I can and should do.).
For me, the most valuable lesson that Marx’s chapter leave readers with (his final section is titled ‘Practical Lessons’), although I’m not convinced it is the easiest one to achieve, is ‘do not make your career your life’. Most academics I know seem to be able to appreciate his first bit of advice, which is to ‘value the process of creating as an end itself’. The pleasure in the journey of the investigation, the ‘process’ is often what carries many academics along, what keeps them motivated. However, this intrinsic value is endlessly complicated by all of the other constraints that the academic workplace puts on scholars. And we often don’t have control over these constraints. It seems that the easy phrase, ‘do not make your career your life’, most of the time, feels unachievable for many academics whose passion for their subject area arose out of their personal desires in the first place. In the Arts and Humanities, in particular the areas of culture studies in which popular culture, film, media and television are studied, these topics for lectures and papers are indeed emerging out of the lived experiences of those academics. They wouldn’t have written whole PhDs on the films of so and so if they weren’t excited by watching them in the first place. The separation of work and play and emotions, becomes far more of a challenge for many Post-Grads in the Arts, but one that needs to be addressed. For the increasing number of post-academics out there from Arts and Humanities subjects, I would guess that it must be the struggle they have to separate those areas that they find most difficult in their search for a new direction and career.

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