12 December 2005

academic generosity

so not such a hot morning, as the Oxford Art Journal sent me a rather terse e-mail rejecting my submission (of July 2005) without any comments, feedback, or readers' reports. for those outside of academia, this is fairly normal, although I find it ethically reprehensible, and thus my post.

I imagine that few people end up kvetching about this sort of thing because, well, you have to admit that you have been rejected, which as is now clear, I have no problem with. It sucks, but at least I sent something out, right? what angers me is the lack of care amongst the academic community for the "greater good." Perhaps it's a side effect of living in this slightly more generous culture over here, and perhaps it's a side effect of not having a job and having more time to give to colleagues, more space in my heart/brain to be generous and help others get better, succeed, do well rather than resenting others for doing those things. over the last three years since I left St. Mary's, I have decided that both positive and negative energy come back to you; it merely depends on what you put out there. Not to say I'm some saint now and exude the glow of Enlightenment (in the under-the-Bodhi-tree sense, not the Cartesian one), but I just like helping other people do well in their chosen path, and I find that when I do that, my chosen path becomes easier. I am helped by helping and by those whom I help.

So, when I had to write rejection letters to hopefuls for the panel I co-organized for CAA (art history's MLA, for those lit folks following), I made a point of writing individual letters and offering substantive feedback on their proposals, taking their intellectual projects seriously and trying to help them succeed in their next proposal. I invited them all to come to the panel and participate, and several e-mailed back indicating that they would and that they appreciated my comments, which was gratifying, but also the first step to building a real community with these other scholars, who clearly do something interesting to me (or else they wouldn't have been interested in my panel).

Yes, this process took some time. A bit more time than generating a single stock letter and e-mailing it, or a lot more time than generating a one-line e-mail (yes, we've gotten those too). But the investment there will come back to me somehow. And I'd rather invest there than in an endless meeting divvying up $10K for technology spending across a campus of 250 faculty (shout out to Ruth and Sam there). It seems, now that I'm on the outside and sometimes looking in, that academics should be smarter about this. They should come together in support of one another and the sometimes isolating project of intellectual writing and thinking, helping to hone that process, valuing it rather than dismissing it or tearing it down.

to put it another way (quoting my Mom here): how hard is it to be nice? so I will stubbornly continue to be academically generous (and I hope in other ways as well) and see what happens. Fie on one-line e-mails and blanket rejections! May the work of the editors of Oxford Art Journal receive greater care and generosity than they have given mine.


dan said...
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sageblue said...

I wholeheartedly agree that academia could be nicer, and in fact have experienced good examples of such camaraderie/community; e.g., when I didn't get the job at Haverford, the Provost explained that, while I was a good candidate, I just didn't have enough experience and suggested I keep on the track I was moving on. He could have just sent the same sort of letter you received, but didn't, and I appreciated that.

However, I also wonder if we are working under the not-altogether-bad assumption that academia should be better than the "real world." I don't think that when people get rejected from jobs or other things that they get detailed responses explaining why. They probably should, but then again there isn't a principle of free exchange of ideas in the "real world".

Rebecca said...

Yes, absolutely. As the Nina character on Desperate Housewives indicates, it is definitely not a case of the grass being greener. I've actually more or less given up on comparing "real" and "academic" as I am now in some nether world. I suppose though the elements of that comparison still latent in my post spring from a sense that academics are more isolated as people than folks with other kinds of jobs. Our work, particularly journal article writing and the submission process, is fairly lonely and distanced from others doing the same work. So I suppose that as we don't have to talk or interact with one another all that often, you'd think we'd do so in a nice way during those small times it does occur. On the other hand, the lack of continual interaction is probably one reason why some academics aren't nice--they don't have practice, and they don't see others acting poorly all that often.

And actually, I do think that one can follow up with job failures in the "real world" much more often than not. I can't tell you the number of people who have asked us (upon hearing of yet another year of academic rejections): why don't you call up that head of department and ask for feedback on your application? Only to have to explain to said real-world questioner that this cannot and does not occur in academia, particularly when it comes to jobs, for fear of the immortal and everlasting lawyer. In "how to get a job" guide books, on the other hand, they tell you that you should follow up, have a conversation with the person rejecting you to ask what you could do better, which may not lead to a good result, but at least there's encouragement to do this sort of thing.