The title of an article I read yesterday piqued my interest, and after much circling on the internet via JSTOR and various institutions and online journals, I found a copy of it. That process itself is annoying. You either have to subscribe, hope you’re institution (if you are part of one) has access, or live in London it would seem if you want to get the stuff google teases you with online. Now whether I found the final version of the article or not, I am unsure. However, on reading the article, I felt the title promised more than the article delivered.
I was surprised that an article with its particular title was a mere four pages long, well five if you count the four lines at the top of page five. Six if you count the bibliography.
I’m all up for brevity, but I didn’t find this article really got started or had an argument. I actually wondered what it was doing, and thought perhaps it was just beyond my comprehension. But it is perfectly readable and of course, it has much of interest, partly because the subject is in itself just interesting. But my faith in the author instantly wobbled on page one when it referred to ‘William Holman Hunt’s iconic painting Ophelia‘. Hang on, Holman Hunt’s painting? And suddenly I found myself questioning my own knowledge. This may of course just have been a typo, a kind of ‘can’t see for looking’ editorial moment, but it was then repeated again on the final page. Now it would be harsh and unfair to just dismiss such a promisingly titled article for what may just be a typo.
But despite the evident knowledge, references, and thought that goes into the rest of the brief article I was not led to the subject I expected. The footnotes are scant, and the bibliography short. Now, I feel a bit mean writing this as it is obviously a criticism and in our sensitive academic circles we all come up against angry, often unjustified criticism but I wanted to think aloud on this one (and am certainly not angry, anything but). So forgive me Associate Professor author – you just happen to be the trigger point for those thoughts of mine.
I’m at the other end of the spectrum from the author, so again, it is mean of me to criticise and I hope I am forgiven. But I wonder about this circle of academia I inhabit, if only peripherally. Do I really want to join it? Do I ostracise myself unnecessarily from it through procrastination and fear? Am I overtly critical of my own writing to such an extent that I daren’t put myself out there in case I am subject to just this type of criticism? In case I get something wrong, make a typo, in case I misread, didn’t understand, misquoted, skipped over, or was entirely oblivious to some critical writing I should know intimately and have forever tattooed on the inside of my brain.
The author has written a lot (more than me), has a doctorate (more than me), an academic job (more than me), and a whole host of funded research under their scholarly belt (more than me). So what do I know? I don’t know the author’s works, other than this one piece, so this isn’t an attack on the author in question, God forbid, but it is a question to myself really.
There is so much stuff out there. One only has to go on Twitter for five minutes to see everyone being amazing and instantly crushing my terrified soul into a chasm of self-doubt and unworthiness. There is so much writing and we are made to feel it is all elite, superb, of such a highly incomprehensible, unparalleled standard that only the best-of-the-best can be part of the circle from which it emanates. But I’m beginning to think that’s not true. Possibly….
It may be about a) being good enough and b) about believing you are just as capable as the others already ‘there’ and c) about working hard enough to join that niche / clique / elite (insert appropriate / preferred adjective here) – should you so wish. I am even beginning to wonder if being an academic is even about intelligence or knowledge on occasion, or whether it is really about sheer chutzpah. (Some of) Those who succeed can be said to have succeeded out of sheer audacity, self-belief, motivation, and arrogance. There are, of course, variables and shades of all of this, and there are many who are not these things. But many of those who get so far, e.g. they get the PhD, don’t get the job or the funding or the publications. Many chase and don’t get the reward (particularly of tenure). And of course, the clock ticks. You only have so long to get that fellowship, that post-doc, that job, that something positive for your c.v. which is essentially a poorly paid apprenticeship that keeps you outside of tenure, and outside of the club. Nearer but not quite in it. And of course, the desire and pressure to publish grows ever stronger. But less is more isn’t it, generally? In terms of quality?
We can’t all churn out stuff all the time and it be of a high quality all the time. Or we can and then burn out. We can if we want to not sleep, or see our families. But if academics are made to pursue unrealistic goals then the quality will slip, intentionally or not, and if those academics that constantly publish keep on doing so, they feed into that cycle of pressure. They are actually facilitating that unhealthy environment, they are responsible for making that an expected target / output.
This isn’t good, or healthy. Mistakes are inevitable. By all of us. And slowing the pace down may help reduce them and push the quality up. Either that, or I just need to up my game and accept that I am supposed to be performing better, more often, more coherently, and more authoritatively. I don’t know. Maybe academia is only for those that really like ivory.