Advancement Through Narrative: Understanding and Navigating Success and Failure in the Academy

Last month, a phenomenal group of political scientists convened in Washington, DC for a NSF-funded workshop on success and failure in the academy. In attendance were current and former faculty from across the country, employed at private and public colleges and universities and outside the academy, with degrees from different types of programs in various subfields. They represented the discipline on many other personal and professional characteristics as well, such as sex, race, ethnicity, disability, age, stage of career, tenure and non-tenure track, and parental and other care responsibilities. They brought with them their experiences in the academy: the successes and the failures, the opportunities and the hurdles, the victories and the disappointments. They were -- they are -- a remarkable group of human beings who, through their personal narratives, laid it bare for two days so that we all might understand a bit more clearly and honestly how the academy works -- and, often, doesn’t work. As two of the three coPIs on the project, Susan Sterett (UMBC) and I wrote a brief summary of the workshop that includes the primary themes and a few of the common reflections that emerged from our two-day conversation. We’ve published it as a post on the WPSA’s New West blog. If you’re interested in contributing your own story about these or related topics, please drop me an email via Contact Me on this site. Also, please join the conversation on Twitter using #AdvancingNarratives and #ProfStories.

No One Likes a Failure

I remember clearly the afternoon I learned my department would not support tenure.

My immediate response was shock. I thought I might get some pushback from higher in the administration, but I did not expect to be rejected by my colleagues.

The disbelief transitioned pretty quickly, though, from wondering how this happened to completely believing that I totally fucked up. And, for the eternity that it took to drive home, the loop in my head included questions like, Why didn’t I do more? Why didn’t I make different decisions? What the hell was wrong with ME?

The shame was palpable. It wasn’t just the overwhelming embarrassment (soon enough, everyone would know) and guilt (I had let down my family, but also mentors, colleagues, friends) that weighed on me.

It was the suffocating sense of failure that was a boulder on my chest.

* * * * * 

Short of bodily functions, there may be nothing more universal to the human experience than failing.

Everyone does it. Regularly. In small and big ways, we make mistakes, don’t meet our goals, fall short of our expectations, miss our mark.

Sometimes we fail quietly, alone, with little fanfare. And that’s how we like it. With no one watching. It’s painful enough to know our failures ourselves.

But more often, we fail in view of others. Sometimes in view of many, many others. And this is devastating.

Because no one likes a failure.

We dislike our own failure. It fills us with insecurity, remorse, regret. With shame. So much shame.

It is a well-worn narrative--at least in American folklore--that success derives from the strength and perseverance required to pull one’s self up by her own bootstraps. It is an individual accomplishment. We may know better intellectually, but this myth about personal agency, ability, and responsibility pervades our thinking about our achievements. It defines our beliefs about individual worth -- and worthiness. Succeeding is good; it is strength and fortitude.

And if we get to take credit for our success, then the corollary must also be true: we must take responsibility for our failure. It too must be a function of individual characteristics, like ignorance or laziness, that prevent us from achieving our goals. Failing is bad; it is weakness and incompetence.

Given this frame, it is rather unfortunate that most of us fail more often than we succeed. The burden can be enormous, and devastating to our self-esteem. It is little wonder that we are embarrassed, ashamed, and even afraid of failure. That we will do any number of things to avoid it.

As much as we are uncomfortable with our own failure--and perhaps because of this discomfort--we really, REALLY dislike failure in others.

I’m sure the psychology is very complex, but projection surely plays a powerful role in how we grapple with our real or perceived inadequacies. We take back a bit of the security and respect lost by our own failure when we highlight the failures of others. We deflect attention from our own deficiencies when we emphasize the shortcomings of others. We diminish our feelings of vulnerability when we make others feel exposed.

We all do it. A defensive posture against powerlessness, a natural response in a competitive, challenging world.

Add to this the social Darwin-like nature of that competitive world in which a so-called meritocracy rules not only how the game is played but how we frame our own strengths and weaknesses. Some win, some lose, we tell ourselves. Our success is meaningful only in a world where others fail. And where success is earned, so is failure.

Everything is relative, and success requires failure. Just let the failure be someone else’s.

* * * * *

That night after reading the Chair’s letter, I intuitively understood how the psychology of success and failure would play out for me, for the gatekeepers in the process, and for others who would learn that I’d been denied tenure:

Everyone would blame me.

Although the substance of the letter was devastating, the kick in the gut was the line at the end:

“Dr. Diascro knows the consequences of this failure.”

Her failure.

She’s a failure.

That’s what I read. That’s what I heard. And that’s exactly what they meant.

This line, more than any other, was intended to make me feel as badly about myself as possible, to assume full responsibility, and to withdraw into a corner in shame.

I was primed by my own sense of obligation and responsibility--and a healthy dose of self doubt--to believe it all, hook, line, and sinker. To be sure, there were reasonable critiques to be made of my record, at least on its face.

And I wanted to hide; that was certainly my initial impulse. I knew (I know) better than anyone the weaknesses in my record, and I felt very badly about myself for not having been able to publish more.

But it was more than my professional record. My perception of my personal weakness was profound. It was very easy for me to dismiss the challenges I faced in the years on the tenure track with children and the death of my father. I knew well that there were others who’d managed the hurdles of parenthood and life and death to achieve tenure. Surely there was something better about them that led to their success, and something wrong with me that I was unable to do it too.

If their success was earned, then my failure was earned as well.

But the sense of failure doesn’t end in our own heads. Much of it is comes from others. A significant source of my feelings of failure came from being called a failure by my peers. I’m quite sure I would have felt a little less horrible--perhaps it would have seemed a bit more private--had they not actually documented their perception that I had failed.

There is enormous shame that comes from the external reactions to failure. This is one reason we do our best to keep our shortcomings and challenges as secret as possible; it’s the reason we don’t talk about failure. As much as we blame ourselves for falling short of our aspirations, others blame us more.

With some notable exceptions, the responses to my “going public” with my failure have met with this kind of response.

And I get it. There is enormous insecurity and vulnerability in academe. The risk and experience of failure is everywhere, fundamentally inherent in the scholarly process of research and teaching. The opportunities for success are slim and highly competitive and coveted. The process is devastatingly unforgiving. The game is perceived as--and perhaps is--zero-sum. The anxiety about completing intellectually and psychologically rigorous doctoral programs, competing in a sparse and cut-throat job market, and achieving the brass ring of tenure in a constantly shifting higher education environment, is very real.

I understand why some people aren’t sympathetic to someone who appears to have benefitted enormously from the institutions of academia, only to throw it all away by her own actions. Someone who should have known better. Someone who should have known the consequences of her failure.

And I feel badly about this. I know I’ve been lucky in many ways, and I know that others have struggled in ways that I have not.

Yet, I think it’s worth taking a step back to reflect a bit. Despite some views to the contrary, my purpose in writing about my tenure denial was not to garner sympathy. That’s hard to believe because it’s hard to understand any other reason for exposing failure so publicly.

But take a moment to ignore the particulars of my experience and all the baggage that I’ve brought to it--and the baggage that you've brought to it as well. Instead, consider the underlying issues about the institutional processes that I’ve described, that affect all of us in academia. What’s the role and significance of internal and external written reviews? What are legitimate standards of excellence and how are they administered? What’s the purpose of different levels of institutional review? How available and trustworthy is advice and mentorship? How meaningful are the processes by which life events are accommodated in professional advancement, if they exist at all? What’s the commitment to diversity and how is it implemented? And more.

If you consider these questions outside the context of my failure, what do you think about them? What will you do about them? Can you get past your own insecurities, vulnerabilities, and fears, to constructively evaluate the current state of the academy? What is the state of play, and who benefits and loses? How might we develop processes that are at once rigorous and demanding, transparent and honest, and forgiving of the nonlinear paths that most humans experience in their lives?

What might we do to better to understand what success and failure mean for academics?

I know I’ve made some people very uncomfortable with this blog. More often than not, I’m uncomfortable writing it.

No one likes a failure.

But if you don’t dig it, don’t read it. If judging me makes you feel better about yourself, then so be it. Your choice.

Alternatively, if you’d like to constructively address the many challenges we face in academia, then let's do it. We can do better, and we should.

Gatekeeping: A Self-Fulfilling Cycle, Part II

In my first post on gatekeeping, I argued that the academic gatekeeping process,

is a self-fulfilling cycle, based on a narrowly defined playing field that supports and promotes like-minded players who reject those deemed unqualified by the narrow standards that they themselves have devised and from which they have benefitted.

This cycle is driven largely by those who succeed in advancing through the tenure and promotion process. They are the academic leadership.

They are the gatekeepers.

They decide who succeeds and who fails. It is their judgment that is exercised in making and implementing the rules. It is they who decide who gets to play – and not just at tenure, but at numerous other evaluation points along the way, starting with hiring.

Of course, there must be gatekeepers. But because there is so much at stake, we should think very carefully about who they are—and are not—and what we expect from them as they make choices about who wins and who loses in the academy.

Here’s a start, a few of the expectations we might reasonably have of our gatekeepers.

1.Seniority and Experience. First, we might reasonably expect that gatekeepers be among the most senior people in the academy—those who’ve been through the evaluation processes themselves and who have the experience of doing evaluations.We might expect them to be rather sober in their decisions, knowing full well the significant consequences of their judgment.

This is not to say that they shouldn’t make hard decisions, but that the gravity of the decision would reflect the breadth of their experience.

Immediately, the challenge is obvious: only a select few—who, notably, are not a substantively, methodologically, or demographically diverse group—make it to senior status in the academy.

But there are other obstacles to role of seniority and experience in the most important administrative decisions. For example, in the tenure process, it is often the department that plays first, led by the department head or chair who (alone or with senior members of the faculty) establishes the trajectory and tone of the decision-making.

Yet, department chairs don’t necessarily have the seniority or the experience we might hope for someone with such awesome responsibility. Indeed, as most faculty know, the chair is often the sucker who draws the shortest straw.

The Chair at the time of my tenure case was neither particularly senior nor experienced. Instead, he had just recently been tenured himself and became chair just a couple of months before I submitted my dossier. His letter undoubtedly framed and set the tone for the evaluation of my record.

There are other senior players at the university with significant roles to play, not as rubber stamps but to check potential—and arguably inevitable—implicit and explicit biases in decisions. It is quite possible that they all may come to the same outcome in the case, and we know anecdotally that they often do. But, their role is to independently evaluate and provide legitimacy to the final outcome, whether positive or negative. But as my tenure materials reveal, that’s not necessarily how it works.

Reviewers external to the university are another set of gatekeepers who play, at least theoretically, an important part in the decision making process. Usually selected as a function of their seniority and experience, these experts weigh in on the merits of the tenure candidate.

Yet, in my case, their evaluations were all but dismissed. And it seems this is not unusual. Word on the street and in print is that the voice of these gatekeepers matters only if they’re negative. Or, put differently, they’re not considered valuable if they’re positive—at least, that is, for an internally disfavored candidate.

2. Leadership. It should go without saying that personnel decisions should be made by people with leadership skills. And there are some exceptional leaders in political science. But in my experience most of them came by their skills naturally.

The academy doesn’t train leaders, and anyone who’s been part of the selection process for academic administrators knows that demonstrable leadership skills are not a prerequisite for success in getting or performing the job.

We might debate the key elements of leadership—for me, they include clear & honest communication, transparency, responsibility and accountability, and inspiration—but the failure of leadership in my tenure case is obvious, not because I was denied but because of how the leaders exercised their power.

The most obvious failure was the Dean’s in speaking out of both sides of his mouth and doing a 180 in his evaluations of my record. But the Chair was no sterling example of leadership either, in part due to his lack of experience. For many departmental decisions, this may not be problematic. But at times the chair is the gatekeeper who makes career-altering decisions for his/her colleagues, as was true for me.

3. Substantive Knowledge. We might also reasonably expect that gatekeepers have some expertise about the work of the people they’re evaluating.

If the work is teaching, it makes sense that the evaluator would be an experienced teacher, perhaps even an expert in pedagogy, and would know something about how to teach the particular subject matter. And at some institutions, peer review and similar evaluation is used to provide feedback and accountability on teaching.

At many institutions, though, teaching is a secondary consideration in tenure decisions and students provide the gatekeeping function for teaching in the promotion process.

Because research is the fundamental part of tenure and promotion at most institutions, we might expect the evaluators of research be not only experienced researchers themselves, but also experts in the relevant substantive field.

Such expertise often comes from outside the university, the external reviewers whose role it is to be among the gatekeepers who can comment knowledgeably on the intellectual and scholarly merits of the work.

Yet, as I mentioned before, the hitch is that their input is likely perverted to meet desired outcomes. Particularly when their reviews are favorable (on an internally disfavored candidate), their expertise – or at least their word – is questioned and their review relegated to passing (if any) reference in the decision to deny.

Then, the views of internal gatekeepers form the basis of evaluation—even if they have no substantive expertise. My case demonstrates this clearly, as my responses to the Chair and the Dean illustrate.

4. Rules and Standards. Last but not least, gatekeepers should attend to the rules and standards of evaluation. Whatever those are. At minimum, all parties to the decision should be aware of the standards; but more precisely, everyone should know them, as in they should be clear and comprehensible and knowable. They should be predictable.

There are legitimate challenges in writing rules. Beyond the question of who creates them—usually the gatekeepers themselves—there is the very real issue of how specific they should be. The tension around specificity is obvious to anyone who’s been involved in a discussion about what it means to be a scholar in a particular discipline. In my experience, few people desire such rigid rules that no variance in individual cases can be considered. Similarly, ambiguous rules open the system to ad hoc and idiosyncratic determinations.

Surely, there’s a way of establishing standards that guide gatekeepers in making meaningful and defensible decisions without falling prey to flaws of either rigidity or ambiguity. Among many possible steps toward this goal is discipline-specific standards that account for differences in research, teaching, and service requirements.

Yet, faculty manuals often include only a very general set of guidelines about tenure, which are then interpreted and implemented as if they provide specific criterion for advancement. Generic passages like, “evidence of scholarship,” “significant scholarly contributions,” and “other activities that advance the discipline,” provide the appearance of precision but leave the standards completely open to interpretation.

In other words, depending on who the gatekeepers are at any particular time, the standards for being promoted are likely to change. As a result, there may be little that is clear, comprehensible, knowable, or predictable about how and why tenure decisions are made.


And so this short list comes full circle to the self-fulfilling cycle of the academic gatekeeping process. The decisions about who wins and who loses are not necessarily based on merit, but rather on the self-interest and self-importance of those in gatekeeping positions, who guard the gates and allow entry only to those who support their narrow conceptions of success.

The absence of alternative, authoritative voices poses a serious obstacle to individual advancement in the academy, but also to the goal of higher education and the growth of the academy more generally.

The challenge of diversity is not unique to academia. But one need only be socialized as an academic to understand that we often think we’re above or beyond the insularity of other professions and industries.

At a time when higher education is under concerted attack from politicians and others (just a few examples here, here, and here), we would do well to exercise a bit of reflection on the nature of success and failure among our ranks and to think creatively about how to break the self-fulfilling cycle of academic achievement.