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.