Grad students tend to veer between two extremes: I know nothing and I know everything. The latter position is an over-compensatory response to fear of the former.
As you gain experience you find a middle ground of calm confidence. However, at the point of applying for your first tenure track job, these two extremes predominate.
Most of my writing attacks the former, ie, the grad student default to “I’m not worthy.” However, this Fall I’m inundated with cases of the latter: “I am a genius, I tell you, a GENIUS.”
This position is of course communicated not directly, but indirectly through what I’ve come to call “grad student grandiosity.” Grandiosity can be seen in purple prose, pretentious verbs and adjectives, pedantic or tendentious claims for the originality of the work, bragging and judging. In this post I give examples, adapted from actual client documents, of how grandiosity appears in job application documents.
Grandiosity is most often found in excessive claims for the work’s import:
My work transforms understandings of civil society
My book will serve a milestone function in the academic panorama and all major academic libraries will be interested in this work.
My work represents a case study of balance between the academic mission of uncovering understudied phenomena and the intellectual duty to spur global debates on the current world.
This is an essential topic in our own time
I call this framework XXX/XXX, much like Michel Foucault’s knowledge/power paradigm
As Western academia’s first comprehensive work concerning…
My research not only contributes to XXXX history and politics, but pushes the boundaries in understanding the implications and contributions of
My dissertation, then, not only offers a novel interpretation of a central figure, texts, and topics in the history of Western thought; it enlarges disciplines and discourses of crucial interest to academic and wider public audiences.
And self-important fancy words:
The abiding concerns of my research pertain to the relationship of…
My next work recalibrates the concluding arguments of my dissertation
The dissertation draws together nascent theories of
The significance of my research is captured in two interdependent points of contribution.
Understanding this past complexity prepares us for the challenge of working to improve
Pretentious modifiers are always a sure sign of grandiosity:
The relationship between xxx and xxx has been a troubled and, at times, tragic one in both the distant and recent past. Untangling its intricacies requires a perspective hearkening back to a point at which the traditions were indistinct.
As is the impulse to judge and condemn other scholars’ failings:
“The ill-considered tendency, here, to rationalize the xxx as merely illustrative of narrative xxx exploits or symbols of elite status limit the interpretative potential of these objects. This narrowed perspective undermines the dense materiality of the xxxx themselves, from which a broad field of valuable insight is lost.”
Postures that correctly see in the xxx century “the first century of xxxx” (e.g. cite and cite) risk presenting those traditions as spoken into being by xxxx , thus relying on xxx for the very definition of their objects of inquiry.
The very act of making the term xxx plural is enough to bring the ire of several scholars in the field.
To date, even the most thoughtful proponents of a model of continued interfusion between xxx and xxx in the middle ages (e.g., cite and cite) leave unanswered questions of…
There is pedantic lecturing:
The 21st century can be characterized by change and transaction. In this environment it is important that undergraduate education teaches students how to learn. It is more important that students know how and where to find information than to know all of the answers. Be able to challenge core assumptions rather than share the standard one. Recognize a variety of viewpoints rather than molding experience to a single viewpoint.
Besides classroom and labgroup responsibilities, community science outreach is an increasingly important and relevant aspect of science education. Whether it be through demonstrations and conversations in high schools, malls, and community organizations or media and public lecture discussions, scientists, and especially xxxx, should reach out and describe what we are doing to the general public and how the field of xxx improves and affects lives in a positive way.
And there is pretentious posturing about teaching:
These methods play to my strengths as a pedagogue
Both my dissertation and classroom work evince a strong interest in
Because skills acquired in the classroom can perdure for a lifetime
My emphasis on rhetorically-situated teaching reticulates well with service-learning courses
My classes are also praxis spaces, which require my teaching to be iterative
A meaningful problem within which the student is invested and the resolution of which will stimulate the student’s creative and analytical abilities.
Experiential learning dovetails with ethnographic training and complements in-class instruction.
My teaching is motivated by a deep commitment to probing the ways that
This approach brings balance to considerations, piquing the thought of the student, while pointing to their potential to develop new insight.
One of my primary teaching goals is to “de-fetishize” both the triumphal globalization of the modern and the obstinate parochialism of the past, and show why both are true but partially
It also arises in the tailoring sections, when a candidate “presumes to judge” the department and its faculty:
I find XXX’s work on xxx particularly intriguing, as it is consistent with my own approach…
I am impressed by the department’s commitment to xxx
I find the program’s position on xxx correct and would support
Sometimes candidates claim a broader view than they are really entitled to:
“Over the course of my academic career, I have always…” [candidate is ABD]
And sometimes candidates combine the grandiose and the over-humble:
My thesis hopes to be part of this crucial conversation…
It is easy to see why job candidates fall prey to grandiosity. Their position could not be more insecure; it’s natural to overcompensate. However, effective documents will eschew grandiose claims, and will present the record calmly, without excessive rhetorical flourishes, and with a focus on just the facts. As Julie Beck notes in this month’s Atlantic: “Counterintuitively, grandiose vocabulary diminishes participants’ impressions of authors’ cerebral capacity. Put another way: simpler writing seems smarter.”*
*Julie Beck, How to Look Smart. Atlantic, August 13, 2014; citing Oppenheimer, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity” (Applied Cognitive Psychology, March 2006).