My Self Is Not a Tennis Shoe

Raise your hand if you’re an academic stuck in a mid-career funk, actively, perhaps even desperately, seeking ways to recover your professional mojo. (Don’t be shy. This is a brand new blog, so hardly anyone is here yet. No one will see what you do. Trust me.)

Now, raise your hand if the idea of rebranding yourself feels like the answer to your prayers.

No? Raise your hand if the idea of rebranding yourself brings a mild burning sensation to the back of your throat. Ah, yep — There are the hands. I knew someone was here!

No disrespect to Kerry Ann Rockquemore, whose series of columns on “Finding Your Mid-Career Mojo” at Inside Higher Ed is actually full of insight and useful advice for those who feel stalled at the middle rank, in the middle of life and career. You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?

You may well be talkin’ to this longtime associate prof, and I appreciate the exhortations to map my mentoring networks, identify my needs, and strategize ways to get my needs met, even if such suggestions focus my attention less on potential mentors than on potential therapists. Po-TAY-toh, po-TAH-toh, I suppose, eh?

Why, though, do I reflexively recoil from the assertion that jumpstarting a stalled career is fundamentally a matter of rebranding yourself? Why does such an idea make me want to shout from the nearest rooftop the line that I have used as the title for this post? Dammit, my self is not a tennis shoe, and I don’t think my career funk — if I am in one — will be dispelled by the academic equivalent of a new slogan.

Before someone calls me out on this, I will acknowledge that there is considerable irony in my revulsion from the notion of rebranding, given that I have spent more than a decade building and, yes, marketing an academic program and caring a lot about the program’s public identity or, yes, brand. I will also sheepishly admit that, just yesterday, I spent a considerable amount of time publicly rebranding myself in my social networks in connection with the launch of this blog. As I put down the dog, as it were, and put on The Madwoman, I redid my profiles on Facebook but especially on Twitter not only to call attention to the new blog but also to professionalize my online identity. I even joked on Twitter that I had finally figured out that madness is a clearer path to career advancement in the humanities than impersonating a dead dog, which I mention in order to underscore how much these questions have been on my mind as I have ended one online writing project and launched another.

Why, then, do I resist seeing rebranding as a solution to the challenges of mid-career slumps, funks, and stalls? It could simply be that I am reluctant, in this rare instance, to call a spade a spade. Denial aside, though, my resistance is also rooted in a desire for other ways of naming and framing our selves and our work lives. It would be naive to pretend that higher education is not a business these days, but I recall how thrilled we all were, five minutes ago, when the leadership crisis at the University of Virginia reminded us of the noble ideals and purposes that led most of us to choose careers in our various academical villages. We were reminded that such places are not corporations but communities of trust and that we all have a stake and a say in running them. I doubt that I’m alone in being slightly disappointed to see UVA President Teresa Sullivan claiming that the university’s just announced deal with Coursera, a start-up company aiming to open up university courses to the world, for free, “will in no way diminish the value of a UVA degree, but rather enhance our brand and allow others to experience the learning environment of [Thomas] Jefferson’s Academical Village” (emphasis added).

Talk of enhancing the brand may be Sullivan’s polite way of needling her nemesis, UVA Rector Helen Dragas, who tried to fire the president for moving too slowly in the direction of online education, but such talk is disheartening for what it reveals about university values and priorities. Universities overly focused on enhancing and protecting their brands can end up acting in ways that are profoundly — even catastrophically — damaging to the institutions as communities of trust. Excessive preoccupation with brand maintenance can cloud judgment and make smart, decent people do stupid, indecent things. I’m pretty sure, for example, that’s what happened to this guy, in this case.

So, if you’re in need of a mid-career pick-me-up — and, really, who isn’t? — , don’t think of it as rebranding yourself. Think of it as a recommitment, maybe even a reinvention. Go Mad if you have to and just do it if you dare, but bear in mind that your self is not a tennis shoe. And neither is your soul.

(Photo Credit: “Converse” by Flickr user Ian Ransley. Some rights reserved.)

Comments

  1. Dr. Crazy says:

    Recommitment and reinvention – EXACTLY! I didn’t immediately bristle at the “rebranding” term in Roquemore’s piece, maybe because I just ignored the word and read for the substance, and I’ve enjoyed the substance of her pieces on “being stuck at associate” this semester, as I have been thinking about what I need to change and do in order to go up for full. But do I think about what I’m doing as rebranding? NOT AT ALL. Recommitment and Reinvention seem like MUCH better words for how I’m feeling right now. I’m willing to accept that programs, majors, and institutions need a brand. And maybe I even contribute to those brands. But I, myself, am not a brand, and thus am in no need of REbranding. Madwoman, you are a woman after my own heart :)

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    • Re. “a woman after [your] own heart”: Yay! We Crazy gals have to stick together, don’t we?

      And I agree with you that the substance of Rockquemore’s advice is mostly spot on, especially for those of us who have languished at the associate level for a long time. There’s some truth to the idea that you might have to see and present yourself in new/different ways, but I still hate thinking of that as a rebranding. Despite my new avatars and usernames. ;-)

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  2. Dr. Crazy says:

    er, this SUMMER, not this semester. It is probably telling that I did a mental typo on that one… the SEMESTER is approaching far too quickly!

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  3. Dr. Crazy says:

    Yes we do! And, let me just note, one of the things that I loved about your new choice of moniker is that I will no longer be the lone Crazy Lady in our little corner of the blogosphere! Madwomen and Crazy-ladies must stand in solidarity :)

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  4. I think this “rebranding” shitte may just be a poor choice of term, because the suggestion to reorient one’s professional efforts is a good one, whether it be a rebalancing of teaching, research, and service effort, or a substantial shift in research focus.

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  5. Widgeon says:

    I too liked Rockquemore’s article, or at least its intent. But I am beginning to weary of the “writing 30-60 minutes a day” advice. This may be discipline specific, but I am a social historian heavily invested in the archives. It takes a long time to find, collect, and organize my sources. This work is not writing–it’s getting ready to write. And it never seems to count in these helpful “how to become full” stories. Having said that I rebranded myself by changing universities. Fresh slate and lessons learned from the past. Doing service that’s important to me, not getting caught up in too many dramas, and generally what the madwoman calls a “reinvention.”

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  6. Pleased to meet you, Widgeon. I know that “writing 30-60-90 minutes a day” stuff works for some folks, but it feels so antithetical to my own writing process that I’ve never even tried it. Of course, that may help to explain some of my stuckness-in-rank, though blogging is a writing practice/discipline that I’ve managed to sustain happily.

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    • Contingent Cassandra says:

      I’ve got some of the same problems with the 30-60-90 model, Widgeon. With a 4/4 load, it’s just not going to happen some days, and besides, once I get started, I don’t *want* to stop after 30, or 60, or even 90 minutes. And besides, just getting reacquainted with the primary sources can take longer than that (and finding them and getting acquainted in the first place does, indeed, take real chunks of time. But it is, you know, real scholarship.)

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  7. I’m not mad but I am grumpy. *grin*

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  8. Maybe it’s just me, slogging along in the untenured administrative ranks, but why the pressure to make full? One reason I opted out of chasing tenure is that after grad school the thought of that chase exhausted me: more years of either biting my tongue while those “above” me on the great chain of academic rank/being wielded their status with sometimes breathtaking disregard for we underlIngs or not biting my tongue and insuring the futility of the chase. Perhaps too I lack ambition. I just don’t get what’s so bad about settling in and doing a good job at the things you like, that sustain and engage you on the job, putting friends and family and other satisfactions high on the priority list, letting go of as much of the unenforceable demands and evpectations as possible and enjoying the languish. I’ve encountered many descriptions of the life well lived. They more often have to do with nonattachment and letting go of striving than with branding. It is a life, not a shoe. But if it was a shoe, that would maybe be ok too.

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  9. Dr. Crazy says:

    Kjj1 – at least for me, I’m motivated to go up for full because there are no female full profs in my department, and that means that there is a (minimum) of 10-15K salary disparity – and in some cases more like a 20-30K salary disparity – between the women and men in my department. I care about going up for full because I care about women in my department having the potential to earn equal pay for equal work. All of what you say you value, I value. I just have a problem with accepting that I will do that important work for lesser pay than my male colleagues, and I have an even bigger problem with the idea that the women who come after me can only expect lesser pay, because I never bothered to set another standard.

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  10. Dr Crazy–I definitely get those reasons. And they reflect some institutional/department “branding” problems as much as, maybe more than, slumps, languishing or stalls. Its a hard balance to find–the one between inner values and standards and institutional standards (obstacles).

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  11. bendprof says:

    I just wanted to raise my hand…..

    Now I’ll go back to reading….

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  12. Contingent Cassandra says:

    Hmm. . .I think Cassandra was/is considered mad in some circles, though exactly when she was mad (if she was mad) — before or after her truth-telling was considered madness by the (mostly male) establishment — is another question. The visual representations I’ve seen of Cassandra certainly bear a close resemblance to those of Bertha Mason Rochester, so I guess I’ll fit in just fine here (at the very least, I got the reference(s) immediately). I will, however, miss Roxie’s unique perspective. (By the way, I’ve been working on commenting rules for a blog-based online Bible study class for my church, and used Roxie’s not-quite-policy as one of my models. It got more than one chuckle when I passed a copy around the table at a committee meeting, as an example of a commenting policy that embodied the spirit of the community the blog wished to build. If I do even half as well, I will be very happy).

    And no, Madwoman (is that how we address you?), you’re not the only one disappointed by the UVA/Coursera news. I’m also profoundly discouraged that, after several weeks of quite good coverage of the Sullivan debacle, the Washington Post still doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a MOOC and a credit-earning class (you know, the kind where teacher/student interaction over readings and papers and such constitutes the major “value-adding” element — not terminology I like, either, but I think it captures the issue in this case).

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  13. Welcome to the circle of Madwomen, Cassandra. I am confident you will fit right in. (Mad Men welcome, too, of course, even if they do have a whole darn show already.) I’m truly touched by your story of taking Ms. Roxie’s not-quite-a-comment policy into church. The non-policy served quite well in that space, but perhaps no one wanted to be mean to a dog. I will miss Roxie, too, of course. I hope to retain something of her unique perspective over here, though I don’t know if The Madwoman will be able to manage the great tenderness and complete lack of judgment Roxie had toward homo sapiens. It could be that a Madwoman will be crankier and less generous than a sweet, trusting dog, but I hope not. On the question of address, I suppose, yes, that Madwoman it must be. I also like “ML” as a short version of Madwoman with a Laptop, because that is how I am known among good friends in Real Life. And no matter how cranky The Madwoman turns out to be, I do hope that we are establishing here a community of good friends. I have to say that the results so far are encouraging!

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    • Contingent Cassandra says:

      Ah, yes; the “ML” thing does work nicely.

      And it occurred to me that we can all have fun with “much madness is divinest sense,” and its corollary, especially in the current higher ed climate.

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  14. When I went mad it was because I discovered that sexism and homophobia are for real, and that they had had a disastrous effect on my career path. It isn’t an accident that so many women get stuck at associate. I was steered into certain kinds of labor rather than pushed ahead in my scholarship as the men were (Dr. Crazy spoke to this question in her mid-career post, which I responded to at my place — and she responded to my response.) Because I ran the search committees, tenure committees, university committees, chaired the program, the men who were my peers had the time to kick the second book out in a timely manner and create a standard for me that I couldn’t possibly meet given what I had been asked to do. And then, after everyone else benefited from my labor, I was blamed for getting stuck at associate because I couldn’t meet the new standard.

    My feeling is that women who are working in sexist/homophobic departments find the rebranding argument attractive because we got “branded” in the first place by structural discrimination. My guess is that this is why o many Ph.D.’s of color end up in administration as well. We simply understand too late the career implications of how our scholarly and institutional work are viewed, even though as the Wicked Witch warned Dorothy, we have “seen the others go before us.” When you are young it feels like you are part of the revolution: by the time you are in your forties, you just want the raise and not to be treated like the maid by people who could really use a rebranding themselves.

    I turned it around by deciding I had to start writing my a$$ off and see where it took me. It worked, but only because I was also able to sustain a serious job search at the same time. It was exhausting for me, and for my partner, but my conviction that I needed to leave Zenith despite the people and things I still cared about was sound. I must say I am skeptical that it is possible to be rewarded for reinvention if you remain on the campus where the damage was done, because the higher ups have acquired a stake in seeing you as lesser in order to sustain their view of themselves as deserving. People who had contempt for me exhibited greater contempt as I piled up achievements, which they rearticulated as meaningless: in turn, their contempt caused me to be viewed as entirely irrelevant by the people who mattered in the administration and might have responded to those achievements by supporting them institutionally. Instead, as I was on the way out the door, they offered me a job as an administrator and a program builder — not support for the public scholar I had become.

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    • Having a little trouble w. gravatar: edit the first line of para 2 as: “women who are working in sexist/homophobic departments”…..

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    • Tenured Radical wrote: “I must say I am skeptical that it is possible to be rewarded for reinvention if you remain on the campus where the damage was done, because the higher ups have acquired a stake in seeing you as lesser in order to sustain their view of themselves as deserving.”

      WORD. Sometimes you just have to move along.

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    • @TR – yes, I agree with this. My difficulty is that I never saw myself as part of the revolution — it was just clear that service and collegiality was what would get me tenure, not anything else, and that the lack of resources and the infighting meant that each day was so draining it was not possible to go on the job market in a realistic way — not to mention the expense of this, when I already had debt from playing the job market. A horrible set of realizations and hard to believe at the time, since any advisor of graduate students and new faculty would swear that it was I who had my priorities wrong, but it was true.

      I’ve tried the idea of recommitting before and it feels punitive — yet more nose to grindstone, yet more belaboring of self, why can I not get more done — and finally realized it is just to being myself, doing what I like, that I have to recommit.

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  15. TR’s comment and other aspects of this marvelous discussion remind me of a cartoon I made and posted on Roxie’s World during the Xtranormal vogue. It featured a (totally fictional) associate professor named Louise Sawyer (any Thelma and Louise fans out there?) who sat down with her department chair to discuss her chances of being promoted in part on the basis of her blog. I realize now that it might have been titled, “How I Became a Madwoman.” You can see it here.

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  16. J Liedl says:

    I like reinvention much better than rebranding. The first suggests an intellectual and self-driven effort. The second? I’m a steer that’s been rustled from one herd and now claimed by another!

    I’ve been fortunate that my department and the university administrators are very open to my current reinvention (I’m a historian, writing about popular culture topics and mostly for popular audiences). Here’s hoping the Faculty Personnel Committee will feel the same in a few more years when I apply for promotion to full!

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  17. As a long term lecturer (tenure’s not in the cards; promotion isn’t framed in the same way), I’d describe the issue in a slightly different way. My mid-career problem has been boredom. I’ve been teaching for close to 20 years and a few years ago I found myself almost terminally bored with my job. Boredom is the greatest enemy of good teaching, in my opinion, and my job performance is evaluated largely on the basis of good teaching. So I talked to my dean, who didn’t have any specific ideas but at least had then been informed that there was a problem, then set about finding new projects. I don’t like the word rebranding either. For me, it’s been more about figuring out one new thing at a time to explore and seeing where it takes me.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Lindemann observes that a midcareer “self is not a tennis shoe”: Why, then, do I resist seeing rebranding as a solution to the challenges of mid-career slumps, […]

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