Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shameful self-promotion vs. Meritocracy

On August 4th, an article called "How not to get left on the shelf" by Dale Sawak was posted on the Times Higher Education web site. In it, the author argued that if academic authors want their books to be read by a wider audience (or at all), they'll need to engage in some self-promotion.

The article produced an incensed response from some readers. In order to understand why, we need to translate its thesis into Stereotypical Academic Logic. Once translated, the argument looks something like this: Sawak tells researchers who already see themselves as successful (i.e., they have written and published books), that their success is actually limited (by audience, no less; practically an accusation of elitism). He also suggests that in order to achieve "real" success, authors should engage in an activity that's disdained in academe--advertising oneself.

A disclaimer here: part of my research is about the spread of entrepreneurialism and promotionalism in university governance and practice; I wrote my MA thesis in sociolinguistics, and it was a critique of internal public relations at a university. I'm not particularly keen on the idea of having to be a competitive, "marketable" academic, or that we should be forced to participate in phoney promotional activities (I don't think they work anyway) or in the kinds of performance assessments that measure "impact" with a variety of suspect statistics. But as with so many issues, there are elements of self-promotion that relate positively to doing a good job as an academic, rather than buying in to neo-liberal market-oriented self-reformation.

In all fairness there's an underlying critical point in Sawak's article, which is that self-promotion is something that all very successful academics engage in--whether or not they acknowledge it. No-one can argue that Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky don't "put themselves out there" (though usually the term public intellectual is applied). The suspicion of self-promotion is also part of the reason that blogging and other social media activities are often dismissed by academic colleagues and peers.

Not only are self-promoters more successful, but so are graduate students whose supervisors "push" their students' work actively. Ever wonder how so-and-so managed to get that article published in a good journal, or a helpful research assistant job, or an item that showcases their work on the faculty web page? Committee members and supervisors can help with this too, behind the scenes, and it's in their interests because your success reflects back upon them.

While the necessity of at least some degree of self-promotion may seem obvious, given the academic fear and loathing of public relations (where PR is often conflated with advertising and/or marketing or even lying and propaganda) it's actually a tough admission for professors to make.

The admission needs to be made, though, because it further disrupts the assumption made by many that meritocracy is the (only) engine powering the university. Passing on advice about appropriate networking and promotional skills should be a part of mentoring undergraduate and graduate students: one needs to know how to put one's best foot forward, simply because it opens up opportunities. As frustrating as this may seem, it's true that ideas don't tend to be recognised due to "merit" and nothing else, just as great scholarly partnerships and collaborations don't develop out of thin air. You need to meet people and they need to see your work.

Female academics, in particular, are vulnerable to the trap in which they remain silent about their own work and its value--as Lee Skallerup Bessette writes in her blog post, "Shameless self promotion". Women in general are less likely to claim expertise, which can be a detriment when it comes to succeeding in an academic career and a public profile. Female graduate students are more likely to suffer from "Imposter Syndrome" and to lack the sense of self-value that helps them develop crucial professional networks.

Granted, there's definitely some promotion-related career advice I would consider to be cynical and unproductive. For example in this article the authors assert that early-career academics must cite important scholars in the field even when their work is only "tangentially" related. I doubt this is necessary for every paper, and I'd agree with some commenters that most authors can see through a meaningless reference and many will dismiss it. Then again it's also true that we don't live in an academic utopia; some scholars do want their egos stroked. If you're willing to engage in that, then take the advice.

If you still find distasteful the idea of engaging in some form of self-promotion, think of it this way: no-one can assess the "merit" of your work unless they have some exposure to it and to you.

Another reason is that you're already producing PR about yourself. You re-write your own CV and cover letters, send copies of your papers for review and revision, organise and/or participate in conferences; you're concerned about your reputation and the impression you make on peers because it affects your work prospects. There's nothing wrong with all this--it's not "beneath you" to consider and engage in these things and and there's no professional penalty for it (quite the opposite). Expand your idea of "public relations" to focus on the broader idea of "relations", relationships, and it's clear that much of our communication is a part of that process; stop assuming that PR is "evil", and you'll realise it's necessary (as well as omnipresent).

As a final note, I'll talk a little bit about this blog. Did I set out to "self-promote" by writing it? Frankly, no, that wasn't the goal; I didn't start blogging because I thought it would be "good for my career". I wanted the other benefits of blogging such as dialogue with peers, sharing of thoughts and commentary, and a space to "mess around" with ideas that haven't yet made it into my formal academic writing.

The blog has led to many great conversations and connections, but it's also had a much wider readership than I ever imagined (though still fairly narrow-!). Blogging here led to guests post at University of Venus on the Inside Higher Ed site (I'm now a regular contributing writer there); it led to one of my posts appearing in the Guardian UK online, and to another post receiving attention in the Times Higher Education. While those aren't the peer-reviewed academic publications that are required for a career as a professor, they're valuable for me especially in that they relate directly to my field of research, and will reach much broader audiences than my own blog.

Let's try to avoid allowing self-promotion to be one of the "dirty secrets" of the academy, something to be sneered at or reserved for the egotistical and vainglorious, something that "real" academics don't do; after all, what's a book launch for?


  1. Excellent points. I'd add that many academics seem to think marketing is synonymous with lying which doesn't help.

    I would also say that this isn't just about thinking merit should rule. It is also about some myth of that merit being magically discovered. Almost like the Hollywood myth of some girl from the mid-west being discovered and becoming a star. This is a romantic myth (possibly meriting a capital R) and needs to be squashed.

  2. Well said. There is a difference between confident promotion of yourself based on your solid achievements, and making claims that you can't substantiate. I hope that most academics, being trained to be critical, can distinguish between these two things and can smell bullshit when it appears and laud real achievement.

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  4. What's interesting about the point you have made here is that, if you look at how academics have become successful throughout mass-mediated history (since the 1920s, I guess), much of it is due to self-promotion. Successful academics are constantly self-promoting: whether we call this self-promotion, or whether we call it clever placement of grad students in good tenure-track jobs across the country; or whether we call it effective practice as a public intellectual. Really, it comes down to being a good communicator: of your ideas, your values and your qualities as a researcher, teacher and administrator.

  5. Thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments.

    Mary-Helen--Your point about the "difference between confident promotion of yourself based on your solid achievements, and making claims that you can't substantiate" pretty much hits the nail on the head.

    Alex--I think the importance of communication for universities is oddly downplayed. Recently there was a live chat on the Guardian UK site about academic communication; amazingly they were debating whether or not academics should be good communicators. How can they not be? Teaching is 90% communication; and research is about writing and sharing ideas. To ask whether those skills are even necessary shows there's a real lack of insight and perspective about the place of the university and the role of academics in public public.

  6. slow clap from the peanut gallery.

    i think it goes beyond aversion to self-promotion: academia is a closed system that seems to only recognize its own terms. any acknowledgement of accomplishment seems to need to come from higher in the hierarchy. i think that's at the root of the common response to any promotion as almost...vulgar.

    when i went back to grad studies this past September after a ten year gap, in spite of working in universities the entire time, i was viscerally SHOCKED by how any kind of sense of myself as a capable person, adult, writer, or thinker was solidly knocked in its place by the majority of those aimed at teaching me. i'm no car salesman. but i'd been ten years a freelancer, and a writer and editor. i learned quickly that those skills were all being reassessed - arbitrarily, as far as i could tell, for all the accountability i got - on the terms of those in power. so, i played the game, and i did my best, and i earned their nods, but i also started using my online networks to make contacts outside that closed world. because clearly, i'm gonna need 'em.

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