Academia can be a lonely place. In my 40 years of teaching and writing it’s become clear that most us have an increasingly desperate need to carry our successes with us. As even this web site demonstrates, self-promotion has become a professional way of life. Rhetorically, the drill involving these credibility enhancing attempts is familiar. Even before the opening pleasantries of polite conversation are finished, we lapse into hints of self importance, innocently uttered as if by a less bashful self: “Before I resigned as chief spiritual adviser to the Dali Lama. . .” or “As I recall, the phone call informing me that I was a Guggenheim Fellow came just after hanging up with the Chief Justice.” Albert Einstein famously proposed to an editor that his seminal work on relativity be published “if there is room.” But these days vanity seems to have the advantage over modesty.
Perhaps we are born with the knack for discovering tropes of personal credibility to remind others that we are. . . well, pretty darned important. We see it nearly every time our professional newsletters duly pass on our news about grants, promotions, sabbaticals and awards. I suspect that conversation analysts probably have a word for this compulsion to establish our bonafides. But I tend to think of it as a kind of garlic that will ward off disciplinary Draculas not easily impressed. Even if what we say doesn’t inspire, we can at least be satisfied that we dropped enough early hints about our biography to make an impression.
There are many routes to signaling our breathtaking credentials. A personal favorite is the self-referential “literature review” in our research, where half of the seminal earlier sources identified at the beginning of a paper are actually from the author.Sometimes this habit makes it difficult to function as a reviewer of journal submissions that are supposed to be anonymous. Look at whose work gets cited the most in the notes, and you’ve usually found the author. Then there are those professionals in many fields who seem to travel with the details of their professional lives all but tattooed on their foreheads. My wife recently attended a seminar for psychotherapists where—I kid you not—the psychiatrist-presenter offered the gathered group his 80 page resume. For those reluctant to take the bait in paper form, it appeared out of the blue as a PowerPoint extravaganza. The seminar’s theme was not supposed to be about needful personalities with self-esteem issues. That unintended lesson was simply an added bonus.
Establishing our personal credibility is not just a human impulse. Who cannot marvel at the capacity of many animals—males mostly—who compulsively mark out their territory to ward off others who would usurp it? As a critic studying public rhetoric, it’s hard to take in the inevitable opening ritual of selling one’s value without also conjuring images of a neighbor’s pet happily marking every vertical object in sight.
All of this points to something missing in academia. Put simply: we need uniforms. Maybe not the awful pea-green ones used by the Army. And those variegated combat fatigues seen on the streets of Baghdad don’t seem quite right either. But we do require something on which we can hang the symbols of our success. When you think about it, a well-decorated soldier is a walking monument: part time-capsule, part autobiography, and the bearer of all kinds of official certifications. We hardly need to ask what they’ve been up to. By contrast, the old academic imitations borrowed from Oxford and Cambridge simply aren’t up to the task. They were never rich enough in information to record the career-long battles and victories we want others to honor. We prefer our own unoriginal civilian garb. For my colleagues in Film and Cinema studies, it tends toward black jeans and shirts.For Rhetoric faculty of a certain age like myself, the uniform is often a pretty hopeless combination of mismatched pants and sport coats purchased when gas was $1.25 a gallon.
Perhaps the basic uniform could be a nice neutral grey, or maybe the color of one’s own discipline, as represented in the hood of an academic gown. The color of my academic field is silver, which might make a group of us look like a crowded parking lot on a sunny day.But no matter. The real payoff would be in the academic equivalent of the braids, metals and bars displayed on the life-long combat veteran. Deans might even be permitted to wear gold- braided epaulets.
Dressed out in this plumage, we could impress students with a few references to our war medals: the one in the image of a thumbtack for teaching a Friday afternoon mass lecture; the decoration shaped like a racquetball for being forced to lecture in a reverberant room where everything was heard at least three times. We could wear the purple Sign of the Stretched Dollar, given for conference attendance in Nairobi on a travel allowance that wouldn’t get us from New Jersey to New Rochelle. And there is no reason we could not decorate ourselves with pins made up as miniatures of our book covers.
Bars with nifty colors could also be given for surviving a few years as a chairperson, or answering impossible administrative requests, such as listing “all” the maintenance problems in a program’s 400,000 square foot building. And there could be at least small tokens given at intervals for finding new ways to answer AWOL undergrads who innocently ask if they “missed anything important.”
I’d reserve special medals for close combat on the battlefields of conferences and publishing. We have all seen colleagues laid low by petty and sometime terribly misinformed comments and reviews. Some reviewers are so toxic that you may suspect that their presence kills artificial plants. I have a friend who was advised in an anonymous critique that his article suffered from overlooking the seminal work already done by a superior expert in his specialty. He was bewildered to discover that it was none other than himself who was supposedly the more knowledgeable source, giving new meaning to the idea of a “blind” review. And we all probably deserve some awards for surviving the arrows launched in the direction of our own books, papers and articles. I still carry the shrapnel from the panel respondent at a professional meeting that treated my two co-presenters as agents of enlightenment, and me as an unwitting mouthpiece of disinformation. I thought the old scholar might actually cane me with his walking stick. Or there was that really rude assault on a book that implied—as nearly all book reviews do—that the reviewer should have just written the manuscript himself. Surely we should find ways to signal our survival in spite of these wounds.
There probably can’t be battle ribbons for the ecstasies of teaching and writing. These moments should be their own rewards. But I for one am ready to add five or ten pounds of shiny hardware to my drab wardrobe, even if I end up looking like a Soviet war veteran on May Day.