The Genre of Self-Evaluation

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

October 08, 2012

Early on in the process of preparing my tenure file, I asked a close friend—a tenured economist at another university who has been on many hiring and promotion committees—to read a draft of my narrative statement.

I had written what I thought was an honest, clear-eyed assessment of my strengths and weaknesses as a researcher, writer, teacher, and member of the university community. I had laid out my failures, dissected them, and showed how I had learned and grown from the experiences. I tried to be fair to myself and not underplay my successes, but neither did I brag and boast about my accomplishments.

"Oh no," he said. "You don't understand. You have never failed at anything. You. Are. Perfect. That is the message you want to send."

Oh. Right. I am perfect. How could I forget?

As a writer of first-person personal essays and three book-length memoirs, I knew that the key rhetorical skill required of the tenure process was something I should be familiar with. It's something I try to show my students in every class I teach in creative nonfiction: When we write "I" we are referring to a crafted character, a creation that reflects a person we want the reader to see, know, and like—someone who is based on ourselves, but is constructed with care and with an awareness of how the reader will respond.

Online comments on first-person essays prove how often readers see things differently from what the writer was trying to show. I can think of lots of first-person essays that generated harsh, ungenerous, and personal attacks. Where I saw a writer trying to portray herself honestly, owning up to prejudices and mistakes, a chorus of anonymous haters read the narrator as self-important, misguided, or obnoxious, and then piled on with "and another thing."

Usually there is something in the tone of the prose and in the presentation of the writer's "I" that incites certain readers to hostility. Confessional narratives can generate jealousy or come off as unseemly. Sometimes the writer sounds pompous and is unaware of that. Maybe it's true intellectual disagreement between writer and reader. Or maybe it's the byline itself: Seeing a certain writer's name alone can be enough to send some people into conniptions because they believe they already know what the argument will be and dismiss it ad hominem.

We who choose to write in the first-person style are well aware of the ego-battering dangers of exposing our tender parts. As a writer, you can choose not to engage, to play it safe behind vanilla academic prose and niche-filling arguments, and toil in comfortable anonymity, publishing safe articles in journals that are little read and books that mostly gather dust on library shelves. Many, if not most, scholarly careers attract little attention or comment.

But if you want tenure or promotion, you must write about yourself in the first person, and you ignore the constraints of the genre at your professional peril. You are writing for readers as close as your departmental colleagues, and as distant as the provost and/or the president. If you rely too heavily on the jargon and cant of your discipline, you will not be understood. If you believe every reader will know that the The Journal of Chocolate-Covered Dried Fruit is the biggest and most prestigious publication in your field, your achievement in having an article published there may be overlooked. And if, like me, you tend to dwell on your failures and use them to discuss how and what you've learned, you could be handing people slings and arrows to chuck at you while you stand blindfolded.

David Perlmutter offers excellent practical advice in his Career Confidential column for The Chronicle about the substantive issues in preparing these kinds of professional documents. But until you sit down to write one—and really, until you have someone else read what you've committed to paper—it's hard to know the impression you're making on the reader. How do you portray yourself as perfect without pissing off your colleagues? How do you lay out your accomplishments without seeming arrogant?

The first drafts of my narrative statement were all wrong. After I got rid of the self-deprecating tone, I was still writing too narrowly. I was focusing on my subfield (nonfiction) within a program (creative writing) within a department (English). No one outside of your field cares about the specifics of what you do, an administrator friend told me. You have to write something other people in the college can relate to.

To my horror, my early drafts may even have deployed jargon-ish language (God help me, I think I used "workshop" as a verb). For decades I have railed against academic prose that is too insidery, so that revelation came hard. In writing my tenure statement, I had assumed too much knowledge on the part of my readers. I had forgotten a bit of advice I always give my students: Even the most astute reader will appreciate a graceful explanation of something they already understand.

While I had samples of other people's tenure documents, I didn't know which of them did the job well. Just because someone earned tenure doesn't mean it was because of his or her personal statement; it might have been in spite of the statement. I didn't want to mistake correlation for causation. After working in college admissions and reading thousands of application essays, I always cringe to see books that compile such essays under a title like, "100 Essays That Worked!" A lot of those essays aren't very good; clearly the applicants had other things going for them that led to their admission. So a compendium of "successful" narrative statements for tenure wouldn't have helped me unless someone had pointed out exactly the elements that made the statements good.

One thing I did benefit from in framing my personal statement was an offhand remark made by a colleague. While I don't think she meant to minimize my productivity, she said that writing and publishing was easy for me because of my field, unlike the experience of faculty members in other disciplines.

Really? Easy? So in my statement I made sure to discuss that perception. It's not like first-person essays and columns write themselves. I could understand why my colleague thought I might be more comfortable writing the personal statement for the tenure file—I write personal stuff all the time. But it just wasn't true. I didn't understand the genre, and that made it hard. Plus, for the record, writing is never easy for me. That it sometimes reads that way means that all my stitching and unstitching has worked. As Yeats pointed out, "It's certain there is no fine thing/Since Adam's fall but needs much labouring."

Our dean met with the group of people going up for tenure and promotion and hit on some of the important ideas about how to prepare the file. But again, that's different from having good models. Some of the things she pointed out seemed obvious: If you're told you have a page limit and need to create three separate sections for teaching, research, and service, you color within those lines. That she felt the need to say that signaled that not everyone followed even the simplest and clearest rules. However, that's only a start and leaves a lot undefined.

I received contradictory advice from different people about what information to include and how to present it. Since I spent my entire adult life connected to the academy before I got a faculty job, I was fortunate to have friends at other institutions I could call on. I worry about people who don't have that kind of network. Plus, to be honest, it's hard and embarrassing to ask for help on this stuff. I thought about going for help to people with whom I have had friendly e-mail exchanges—other writers and senior faculty members I respect—but balked. While I knew that asking them to read my personal statement would not have taken up much of their time and they likely would have been flattered to be asked (at least that is how I've responded to such requests), it still felt kind of humiliating, and I didn't want to do it.

So I had plentiful (if untapped) resources, I had experience writing in the first person, and I had clearly fulfilled the expectations for promotion and tenure, yet the process still befuddled me. While I didn't endure the bruising and battering many others experience—a trauma that can turn them into senior faculty members who do emotional and intellectual violence to those who come after them—it did make me wonder if there's a better way to help those seeking tenure and promotion prepare their materials. Any ideas?

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University's graduate writing program in Spokane. Her Web site is She welcomes comments and questions directed to