Why it’s always personal… Rejection, failure and the University as a bad boyfriend

Dr Nicola Rivers and Dr Dave Webster

[With a hat-tip to the Thesis Whisperer]

Academia is fuelled by rejection. For every article accepted or funding bid won, numerous others will have been summarily rejected, with promising ideas never seeing the light of day. In fact the constant spectre of rejection is so widely acknowledged within the academic community that CVs of failures have gained increasing notoriety. Yet rather than providing an opportunity to collectively share the heartache of the hours seemingly lost spent toiling over increasingly lengthy grant applications, or the cutting comments of ‘reviewer two’ – a trope which has become so well recognized it is now the source of mirth –  CVs of failures have served to distance failure, and render it safe. Not least because frequently these are after all the CVs of those who have ultimately been very successful.

What these examples do then is normalize failure and rejection in academia, painting a picture whereby the resilient eventually flourish, and the only real failure is the failure to keep trying. In this way, CVs of failure are not dissimilar to the ‘inspiration porn’ we have written about elsewhere. The destination for this route is motivational quote inanity. Don’t give up. Power on through. If at first you don’t succeed… At best this is misleading and unhelpful, at worst belittling and nauseating. And what of those whose failure isn’t a historical episode en-route to ultimate success? When the well-meaning Professor tells their post-doc, or precariously employed colleague who is struggling to pay the rent, to ‘hang in there, your time will come’, they fail to note how the academic job market has altered. There are many whose time does not come. Their CVs do not make inspirational reading, but are tragedies in miniature; tales of talent frustrated, and human knowledge and progress held back.

There is a permeation of the academic world, by ways of relating to each other, that mimic the structures of toxic, misaligned, unbalanced relationships. We might look to ‘just keep trying’ narratives as like gaslighting: where the neoliberal university functions as a ‘bad boyfriend,’ keeping a pool of cheap, talented labour at hand, fed with the lie that covering classes, doing piles of marking, helping at Open Days, will be of some help when a rare job comes up. In short, you are permanently available, and always on-call, but if you call them, nobody picks up. We end up thinking that if only we were a better partner/adjunct, more grateful, or more hard-working, had just done that bit more for them, they’d have treated us better. When poor treatment becomes the norm, it is not difficult to find the fault with oneself.

Well, you criticize my numbers, you hammer out the rules
wait for me to fuck up, and find yourself some proof
and I’m done
Oh whoa, I’m done

You just soak in the hatred of a sorry line
yeah, you hide behind decorum and a fake smile,
and I’m done
Oh whoa, I’m done

Frazey Ford: Done

Should I stay, or should I go? Perhaps unsurprisingly then, an emerging genre in the HE blogosphere is that of ‘Quit-Lit’. These pieces are not as homogenous in tone and intent as the catch-all term might imply. There are examples of academics choosing to leave academia, offering an almost triumphant quitting, although perhaps tinged with sadness that the HE landscape has shifted from that which they recognise or invested in. Crucially though, these are people who quit after achieving a degree of success in the chosen career, at least in the form of securing a permanent contract. Who have to have something to quit from! For many, with the rise of short-term contracts, part-time hourly paid arrangements, and unpaid fellowships, quitting is less about exercising agency, and more a reluctant realization of current HE realities. While the former quitter is reluctant, the never-had-a-job-to-quit quitter is less visible, and leaves un-mourned, or barely noticed. Dr Erin Bartram makes this point well in her much-shared blogpost The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind. She acknowledges the frequently discussed inequities in the HE job market, and the way it made her question her choices and ‘performance’:

After all, I knew the odds of getting a tenure-track job were low, and I knew that they were lower still because I didn’t go to an elite program. And after all, wasn’t this ultimately my failure? If I’d been smarter, or published more, or worked harder, or had a better elevator pitch – if my brain had just been better, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. But it had happened, and if I were ultimately to blame for it, what right did I have to grieve?

Bartram highlights, not just the sadness and frustration understandably felt by those of us who have poured years of our lives and resources – both financial and emotional – into pursuing a career, only to reluctantly realise that it is never going to happen, but also just how personal this failure feels, despite often well-intentioned attempts to frame it as otherwise. The numerous postdoctoral fellowship applications rejected, frequently explained by some generic email that inexplicably seems to be scheduled to arrive in the middle of the night, and attempts to offer the scant reassurance that they received hundreds of excellent applications, so you were unlucky this time, but please don’t be dissuaded from applying again next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. Whilst of course this is well-meaning, and may provide some limited comfort in illuminating the massive oversubscription of applicants for every precious position, what it doesn’t do is actually tell you where you went wrong, or more importantly, how you can improve. Instead the opaque and impenetrable hiring processes of HE remain a mystery. Despite fulfilling all the criteria, and months, if not years of work tweaking a research proposal, you were again ‘unlucky.’ And when you tentatively check out those ‘lucky’ few of your peers who did secure a contract, or funding, or a prestigious postdoc, they seem remarkably similar. Predominantly white, frequently male, and all Russell Group educated. This lack of feedback on applications then, now seemingly standard across the university sector due apparently to the high number of applicants, disproportionately disadvantages those already on the back-foot, those operating outside of the privileges of race, gender or prestige. And so the sector sets about replicating itself.

The tension here is between the structural and the personal. Whilst recognising the structurally entrenched forces that replicate the inequities of the Academy, it is important to note the manner in which structures are incrementally amended and reinforced by the actions of people. What we perhaps have to do is look to staff in less precarious positions as well. The tone of our communication with each other matters. When we obscure the personal, and act as if only the structural exists, and does so independently of the people involved, we enable a culture that fails to hold us account for our personal actions and inactions. We need to do better than shrugging our shoulders and blaming the system. As a first step let’s not hide behind HR language, obfuscatory excuses and pretend there are anything other than people involved. At least we can be open about what we want, why we reject people, and how much we are recruiting people for their personal characteristics, including those that derive from their possession of privilege.

There is a risk that focussing on and being more open about the personal can be read as indulgent, overly confessional, and a deviation from the prescribed, gritty, male, norm. Recruiting managers perceive they need people who are going to help them ‘tough it out’. It leaves one exposed. This exposure is needed though to help edge the sector away from a ruinous overwork and self-destructive culture. However, this form of (necessary) emotional labour ends up being done by the very people for who it is most risky. What emerges here then is that what seems most personal is in fact a composite of deeply structural factors, such as class, or gender, and that which is read as ‘personal,’ such as our individual levels of ‘grit’ or resilience, are in fact predominantly structural.

4 thoughts on “Why it’s always personal… Rejection, failure and the University as a bad boyfriend

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