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Pannapacker From MLA: The Success of ‘Failure’

By William Pannapacker

An increasing number of graduate students and newly minted Ph.D.’s have decided that traditional academic careers on the tenure track are no longer a realistic option—and they are OK with that.

The decision has liberated them to pursue other things and, in the process, to begin redefining what constitutes a good academic career.

It has also freed them from—let’s face it—the paranoia that makes us afraid to say anything critical about the profession, even in the context of working together to become better teachers and scholars.

Ten years ago, the chances of finding a tenure-track position were poor, but not minuscule, and that made it possible to hold on to hope. And with that came the fear of making a public mistake such as posting something on a blog.

You couldn’t risk confessing that you were having trouble with a class. You couldn’t admit that you were having problems with your dissertation. Any such admission could be used against you in the hiring process. You had to present a seamless persona of success and superhuman productivity. Among the extraordinarily gifted, you had to present yourself as a solitary genius.

Only a few years ago, one of the most-read articles ever to appear in The Chronicle stated that, in this competitive environment, “Bloggers Need Not Apply.” How can potential employers feel secure that you won’t start blabbing about all their secret problems on the Internet?

One panel on the first day of the MLA Convention, “Hacking the Profession,” featured speakers who had found satisfying alternative careers in programming, journalism, and library work. One confessed his unhappiness in academe; another said that he could no longer survive on what he earned as a teacher.

Brian Croxall (photo from his Web page)

Brian Croxall, who became well-known last year for his paper on why he was not attending the MLA convention, urged a more collaborative, socially networked model of professional identity: one that’s not afraid to talk about “failure.”

Croxall sees online conversation, unfettered by fears about harsh judgment, as a means by which academe can reform outmoded and dysfunctional practices. He even advocated publishing one’s seminar papers and abandoned projects so others might learn from them—without concern that such publications might be used to discredit one’s candidacy for a job. He believes that admitting our mistakes online might even make us more sympathetic to the public: It will show that we are human.

Another panelist said, “I don’t want to be hired for pretending to be something that I am not.”

I think we are seeing a new way of narrating our lives as academics: One that is radically honest because the speaker is no longer seeking a traditional academic position but still believes in the value of higher education in the humanities.

It seems like a generational shift is under way. What was unspeakable 15 years ago has become the theme of an entire conference.

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