Academic life as a text

Dear colleagues,

Everything can be read as a text, so why not read your own career as a text? This is the intriguing angle taken by Donald E. Hall in his book The Academic Self: An Owner's Manual (Ohio State University Press, 2002), recommended to me by my colleague Michael Flood.

Hall adopts Anthony Giddens' approach to self-identity and reflexivity in analysing academic life. What it really means is that he's examining academic careers and behaviour - including his own - with the same scrutiny that might otherwise be applied to post-colonial literature or capitalism. He begins by observing that things are not as nice as imagined as a graduate student:

"the realities of daily life in the academy were stunning and disappointing: widespread defensiveness and closed-mindedness, an all-too-common resentment of the achievement of colleagues, and often a paralyzing anxiety concerning one's own level of achievement." (p. xiii)

Hall is based at a non-elite US university, with heavy teaching loads, but many of his points are quite relevant elsewhere. He is not in the least bitter about his institutional location. Indeed, one of his main goals is to validate academic life in a variety of locations and directions, including careers focussing on teaching or administration. He is critical of putting research success above all else.

The Academic Self successively scrutinises self-understandings, the academic profession, personal professional behaviours, and collegiality. Hall offers a series of "talking points" which are really lists of practical realities and suggested approaches that can help the reader make the academic life a decent one.

For example, he points out that careers are often affected by chance events: those who are successful often owe a lot to good fortune, and it would help to acknowledge this. There are also adverse events in all careers. Planning cannot eliminate contingencies but can help us make the best of our situations.

Hall argues strongly for taking responsibility for one's behaviour, including reactions to events. For instance, he notes how some scholars are unable to process rejection or criticism:

"I have seen colleagues enraged by even mildly critical reviews and who destroy relationships with colleagues and students after receiving even constructive criticism. Many of us have seen rejection notices and anxieties over not meeting expectations devastate colleagues, some of whom will never publish the books that they write or dream of writing and who, in the most extreme cases, lose promotions, positions, and even entire careers because they are trapped in anxiety and unable to process productively the inevitable turmoils of professional life." (p. 16)

Hall addresses such issues with a practical, step-by-step approach. He believes in learning how the system operates and applying oneself to well-chosen tasks in a systematic fashion. This doesn't mean a single-minded concern about personal success. Quite the contrary: Hall points out that academics spend most of their time with immediate colleagues, so it is worthwhile putting effort into making collegial interactions more productive.

He gives "Ten small steps in the process of professional invigoration (or in remedying isolation and burnout)". Number 10 is "Establish micro-support networks that both nurture and challenge you professionally", but lest anyone believes that all interactions are beneficial, number 9 is "Withdraw gracefully and responsibly from unproductive professional relationships" (pp. 63-64).

Hall applies this same practicality to bringing about change, for example suggesting that junior academics in particular learn the organisational terrain and carefully consider the costs and benefits of change initiatives, and reassess the situation as they proceed:

"Curricular change, departmental reorganization, shifts in priorities or institutional identity, even the creation of discussion or reading groups, may irritate entrenched faculty [academic staff] who are highly invested in the current system, however dysfunctional it may be. This is why a careful reading and thorough understanding of the history of current policies, behaviors, and norms is vital ..." (p. 83)

Hall's purpose in writing The Academic Self is to encourage readers "to engage critically their professional self-identities, processes, values, and definitions of success." (p. xv) If you have any inclination to reflect on your academic career, this is just the book to stimulate your thinking.

Brian Martin
27 August 2007

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