Saturday, May 9, 2015

Failure and the Academic Self (Top Academic Self-Help Books)

The past week has been a mix of wonder and despair.  A paper, submitted long ago (8 months to be exact), and used as the basis of a book launch this past week, was rejected.  The book launch was described by colleagues as wonderful, and I believe that it was.

We are not supposed to advertise failure in academia, but there is a growing literature and sub-genre I would describe as academic self-help.  These books are meant to help with the anxieties and challenges to integrity that go along with life as an academic.

In Silicon Valley people wear failures like badges of honour because they indicate risks taken, boldness, and lack of fear.  Persistence is a virtue there.  Back here the atmosphere is such that wearing those same badges might be taken the wrong way.

One comes to know that publication of papers is the best way to get promotions, to get your work known, both of which lead to research grants and more papers published, in a virtuous cycle.  When things don't pan out in a very straightforward way (and I don't believe they really do for anyone) despair, usually private, ensues.

My point here is that perhaps we need to make more of failure public. We need to publish more about it (as books and papers), and especially talk about it more (in conferences and on blogs, and amongst ourselves) with candour and honesty.

I recommend below some top books of academic self-help, two of which are published by McGill-Queen's University Press.

Killinger's two books are Achieving Inner Balance in Anxious Times and Integrity: Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason.

Despite (or maybe because, I honestly don't know) a Jungian framework, these two books made me think about my place, and the place of my fears and anxieties, in academia.  These no longer felt so misplaced, especially once I adopted the frame of mind of thinking of my work in terms of integrity.  Killinger is a clinical psychologist with extensive experience dealing with the problems academics face.

Donald Hall's The Academic Self and The Academic Community: A Manual for Change are two others that changed my way of thinking, and bolstered my sense of confidence in myself (in the context of academic work, life, and collegiality).  Hall's books (both published by Ohio State University Press) are clearly written and honest with straightforward advice.

These last two books are wonderful in the sense that they speak a language academics can relate to.  They cite Foucault and Butler.  This is academic work for academics, but couched in terms of selves, identities, movements, and moments in the life of academics that make for uncertainty, fragmentation, and wholeness at various stages.

At any rate, it is now time to go re-submit that paper, without delay (or fear)!

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