Friday, 12 June 2009

Finding the Right Pool Party Wear

So there's a couple of debates going on in my blogging community (to be generous), first about academic insecurities - particularly the tendency of academics (usually young ones) to be slaves to the pre-exisiting literature - and second about academic status and status crutches - especially, the CV.

photo by Ojo de Vidrio

I read in a book called Authoring a PhD that one of the reasons why novice researchers become bogged down in the questions, theories and tomes of more senior scholars is simply because of the structure of post-grad writing, a structure which, quite sensibly, first asks for an extensive literature review. One of the main functions of the review, Dunleavy says, is to help your supervisor get up to speed in your area. But us pups are not told this and, as one of our earliest academic memories, the review weighs heavily in our minds and on our weak shoulders. We sense that all these old timers are just waiting to hear what we have to say about 'their' field, doing warm-up stretches, cracking their knuckles, pushing their hips forward, lining up to take a potshot.

As much as we are told by our supervisors to take command of the scholarship or, as Dunleavy helpfully pointed out, to see it as context, not competition, we continue to absorb mixed messages about the extent to which we have to respond to previous debates and who our audience is. We may have or hear of experiences that don't alleviate these worries, such as someone's arguments being misrepresented and then criticised or receiving snarly feedback from blind reviewers. This often results in confused, defensive writing.

Acadamnit used a fabulous pool party metaphor for the academic publication activity and implored us newbies to turn up in appropriately revealing swimwear, reasonably open to the scrutiny of the academic clique. Addressing a newbie whose work he had to read, he said:
I know you are new to the research publication party, but don’t you want to show up dressed appropriately? It’s like a pool party and bathing suits are required. You simply cannot arrive in Arctic expedition attire. It’s uncomfortable I know. And no, an 1800s style “bathing suit” doesn’t work either. You just have to put yourself out there. You are obligated to cover the most sensitive parts, the delicate parts of your argument that would hurt most to get burned, but the rest is just going to have to be left exposed and open to scrutiny. It’s OK, it just takes some getting used to.
In a following post, he admitted that his confidence levels were relatively high (or his insecurities not especially low) in part because of his blossoming CV, one of the perhaps unfortunate, but inevitable markers of academic success.*

Then Academic Cog replied:
I'm standing here in the dressing room as a scholar just starting out, wanting to ask for help but also not wanting to come across like a complete dork or idiot from outer space --- what if I don't know which parts to cover and which to let hang out? Which are the naughty parts that you just don't expose and which are the merely risque? If you don't know that by now, I hear academics in my head saying, you don't deserve to be here...
photo by: Tom@HK

As for me, I have already submitted a couple of journal articles and had them sent back with classic comments about my bulky swimwear. I have been wearing too many floaties, dark goggles and a swimming cap and probably didn't need to hold my nose as I jumped from the diving board. In other words, I need to cut down on the lead-in material and narrow my arguments. But I have had a couple of attempts and the layers are being slowly removed. Right now, I have a chapter for a book due next week and I am definitely feeling more confident (stripping down to sensible full-piece, aiming for tasteful two-piece by thesis-submission). Admittedly, I feel more enticed to do a drop-bomb in this case because the two editors, like kind-hearted parents, are willing me in from the middle of the shallow end of the pool.

*Back to the nature of academic wins, the flipside of all this hesitation, Acadamnit's post elicited this comment from a non-believer:
You [academics] are without out exception a bunch of self-centered, narrow-minded f***s. You do not make the world a better place. Your research does not make the world a better place. You are worthless to improving society and actually make life miserable for those around you. This creates a ripple effect that makes you equal to common criminal in your influence. Get off your high horse and try to be human. I know you broke your ass to get the academic position, but please admit your mistake and find some real work to do.
Since then, there's been a lively discussion about the nature of academics and academic work: shame v grandeur, self- v student-centredness, narrow- v liberal-mindeness, neediness v autonomy, social deviance v social good etc.

Love this. Conversations in blogland are far more interesting to me than spewing bits of myself into the void. So get involved. What are your thoughts about newbie academics and academics in general (our habits, neuroses and social role)? Do you love us or not?


Dr. No said...

This is great Hopeful...when I first read that anonymous comment on my original post, admittedly, my first reaction was to delete it- but that would have completely obscured my point and placed me in the "superior editor" role...

Take it off Hopeful (and keep stepping on the grass)!

Ink said...

This IS great, AH...I hadn't realized how all the different conversations were potentially converging, and you did a great job of pointing that out, er, reviewing the literature! ;)

I feel sort of strange about having complained re: cite and thought about deleting it. Maybe I should just be happy that someone pretended to have read the book. ;)

Dr. No, good for you. That comment was shocking and I'm glad you left it up because we now can talk about it. Though of course you ARE a superior editor. ;)

Ink said...

Oh, and I love how you purposefully step on the grass, too! :)

(OMG, could I end EVERY sentence with a smiley today?)

Good Enough Woman said...

AH, I love this post but as I have spent the last six days doing the following, I have nothing intelligent to say (other than that I read that same PhD book):

Had a big party with bounce house and lots of children.

Had birthday dinner for daughter and family and friends.

Chaperoned kindergartners (60 of them) down to the bay, the very muddy bay.

Became host to my father whom I haven't seen in two years.

And so on . . .

Real comments to follow as this conversation is very interesting and helpful to me.

I'd rather be playing frisbee said...

The old-timers love us to be creative. But sometimes it falls flat. The frisbee analogy to human rights fell flat. The Nintendo analysis of tort law soared. The problem is: you never know if it's going to fly or drop. It depends on many factors beyond the point that it leaves your fingertips.

But frisbees never sink, so I say put yourself out there and don't worry about it. Everyone else is going to either sit back uncomfortably with their sarongs still in place, or throw them off and dive in after you.

Academic, Hopeful said...

Thanks for the feedback and encouragement.

Dr. No - 'Social media, when it's really social media, is not about what about you have to say; it's having a tolerance for what people have to say about you' (Merlin Mann, geek blogger). If not buying this, I also think it's best to keep criticisms in for comedy potential.

Ink - Don't worry about complaining. It's highly recommended in blogland.

Frisbee-lady - Your comments operate on many levels.

GEW - Lots in your comment, esp re your father. A response from me here feels wrong, but, for now, family stuff always creeps in.

Bavardess said...

Great post, and thanks for the pointers to those other conversations.
To stick with the clothing analogy, I sometimes think academic writing can be likened to Coco Chanel's advice to begin by wearing everything, and then start taking things off. But it certainly takes courage and confidence to let go of all those extra 'accessories'.

The History Enthusiast said...

Great post! My advisor frequently says these things to be, but without the cool pool party analogy. Transitioning into being a full scholar has been a tricky one for me, as for many.