Self-Criticism and the Academy — Postac Post by Jessica Langer

by Post-ac Career Coach Jessica Langer

Jessica Langer

Jessica Langer

Academia is a climate of constant and unrelenting criticism.

This is obvious in a professional sense: our work is often called “criticism” as a catch-all, and in the process of building upon our field colleagues’ existing work it is often necessary to counter it. Some of this work is necessary: reading “against the grain” of dominant cultural or critical texts, for example, and identifying problematic elements in texts.

After a while, criticism may become the academic’s dominant mode of thinking. This can be great in a professional sense: you become attuned to minutiae and intricacies in arguments that you wouldn’t otherwise have identified, and you gain a more nuanced perspective in your work.

And if it ended there, it would be perfect. But most of the time – particularly, though certainly not exclusively, for women, people of colour and other people who are variously and/or intersectionally marginalized – it isn’t. Because when you are trained to look at everything with a critical eye, it’s almost inevitable that such a critical eye will turn inward.

There is no “you are good enough as you are” in academia. There is no “you are enough”, in fact. There is, instead, a constant drumbeat of necessity for accomplishment after accomplishment, paired with the constant risk of failure. And this doesn’t end when you pass your comps or go ABD or get your PhD or get a tenure-track job or even when you get tenure (especially since tenure itself is changing and, potentially, ending). There is an endless lineup of paper submissions and conference presentations and manuscript reviews and student evaluations, all of which represent instances in which you are being explicitly judged. Judgment after judgment, often carried out anonymously (and viciously).

In academia, you are your work – as I’ve discussed before, the academic system deliberately cuts its acolytes off from their outside support networks and from outside sources of income, so as to develop total devotion to the system on pain of failure that is not only professional but personal. And if you are your work, and your work is constantly criticised as part of its purpose, then academics live in a state of constant surveillance and criticism – and junior academia live in a state of constant self-surveillance and self-criticism, as they add ‘try not to piss off anyone senior or important’ to the list.

One of the most significant things I’ve noticed in my post-academic work with clients transitioning out of academia is the extent to which they have gotten into the habit of extraordinarily harsh and total self-criticism, to the extent that they are sometimes unable to recognize their own accomplishments as accomplishments. One of my clients teaches at an Ivy League university that everyone reading this has heard of; she actually didn’t mention it initially, and when I told her – incredulously and with no small amount of awe – that literally any employer would be impressed by the fact that she taught at this school, she demurred and said, “Oh, but I’m just an adjunct there!” (Protip for the reader: no one outside of academia cares if you were an adjunct. If you teach at Major Ivy, they will be impressed as hell.) My clients will have incredible things on their resumes, things that would impress almost any non-academic employer – years-long stints abroad doing fascinating work, major grants, speaking gigs at European embassies – and will demur because they simply cannot see these things as the impressive, high-status things they are.

What’s more, these people with these incredible experiences and accomplishments will often see themselves as failures because they don’t have a TT job in academia. For no other reason than because they aren’t on the tenure track. It’s astonishing. But I think I know why.

My theory: because academia trains you to be abusive to yourself. To constantly criticize your own work as well as others’, and never to be satisfied or even content with your work. To put yourself in situations in which you are infantilized and made powerless within a strict hierarchical system in which you are a waste product, not an intended outcome. To accept negativity from yourself that you would never allow to be directed towards someone you love.

This constant self-criticism and inability to see or accept success is very common among my clients and among people leaving academia in general, and it breaks my heart.

So here is my message to you:

Your accomplishments are worthwhile, and they mean something, and they are important. You are not a failure. The academy does not get to determine whether you are OK. You are OK no matter what.

And if you can’t accept that, then here’s a shorter message, especially if you’re leaving academia:

You are no longer obligated always to second-guess and think twice and surveil yourself. You are allowed to be who you are.

You are free.

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Self-Criticism and the Academy — Postac Post by Jessica Langer — 21 Comments

  1. This post made me cry. I am not an educator, but I am a student, a senior in a well-respected philosophy program. I have seen, in my years as student, this relentless self-abuse in my professors, and if I try to offer legitimate praise to my mentors, I am not only shrugged off as “obviously not looking critically enough and therefore stupid,” I am dismissed because I am female and most of my educators are male.

    “Your work is important to me for [such-and-such well thought-out reason] is NOT the same thing as “I want to sleep with you.” As a student, I am consigned to a role of silence or emerging self-critic, and I hate this about academia.

  2. “You are free.”

    I’ve always wondered what it is that I’m holding onto when it comes to academia. For years I’ve felt that it has taken more away from me than I’ve gained from it. Education is such a wonderful and important thing, so it might be the institution of it that leaves me so mentally out of breath. I wish I still loved it.

  3. I recommend looking at the ideas of Rene Girard. He links the drive for originality with the impulse in academia to compete with one another. I think this is tied to the need to criticize instead of looking for the strengths of an argument and trying to emulate these strengths. Inverted our need to criticize may help paradoxically increase creativity within academic communities.

  4. This essay put into words so many things I’ve been trying to articulate for myself since defending last October. One facet of the problem is that I don’t think it’s just academia that makes us (self-)critical–it also attracts people who tend towards unhealthy forms self-criticism. I had to learn that about myself–that part of what brought me to academia was the thrill of meeting others who were more critical of me than I was. Somehow, it felt safe. Now that I’m on the “outside,” I see this all of these tendencies through new eyes and feel, as you say, increasingly free–more so than I ever did in graduate school. Thank you for writing this!

    • “that part of what brought me to academia was the thrill of meeting others who were more critical of me than I was”

      This made me both laugh and cry because of how true it is for me. Thank you for sharing that.

  5. If you’re in some bullshit program like … oh anything in the humanities pretty much, then your self-criticism is just honesty. You’ve built your career on spewing reams of verbiage that you know well signifies nothing and has no meaning. Those moments of self-doubt are periods of lucidity when you see yourself through the perspective of someone who does something real for a living; the proverbial “eyes of the world”, so to speak.

    Renee writes about a “well-respected philosophy program”, good grief. What is it that you DO in this program? What is the product?

    You mull over angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin type discussions in which there is not only no right answer, but no idea what it might look like and no compass and chart for knowing whether you’re even approximately navigating toward one.

    Yet somehow you believe that some of you are ranked above some others. Based on what?

  6. Did anyone else notice the end of this article and the beginning of the next? 😀

    “You are no longer obligated always to second-guess and think twice and surveil yourself. You are allowed to be who you are. You are free.”

    “Don’t Be That Asshole”

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  10. I loved my years as a graduate student in Linguistics at UT Austin. I got to think long and deeply about my dissertation, pursue clues, dissect arguments and have discussions with Bob Harms, my wonderful chair professor.

    But I didn’t want to finish and have to move away and teach. There were few jobs in my field. I suspected that the foundations of theoretical linguistics were shaky (and in the century of neuroscience I feel this even more strongly). Mostly I didn’t feel confident enough to be an academic: I couldn’t imagine myself standing up and teaching or proposing theories that I wasn’t absolutely certain about.

    I’ve always perceived academia as being extremely competitive, a word not in the article because you’re looking at the flip side, the effects of criticism, something which I perceive as often delivered not in a spirit of inquiry but aggressively. We all know the academics who stand up after a talk and pugnaciously attack the speaker.

    One time I gave my chair professor a dissertation chapter saying that another linguist’s data seemed to contradict my shiny new theory. I said that it “seemed unlikely”, “maybe mistaken” or something like that. My professor told to me to state emphatically that my theory was correct and that the other linguist’s data were wrong. “It’s his job to prove you wrong, not yours!” I loved this advice because it did give me confidence. (By the way, I got my Ph.D. and still believe in my theory.)

    Then, when I’d decided not to pursue academia and to take a job as a publisher’s rep (traveling salesman to independent bookstores) for a major NY Publisher, someone gave me this priceless advice:

    “Academics have the least imagination of anyone. They think that the only thing you can do with a Ph.D. is teach.”

    I was free!

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  12. I’d really like to know if you think that academia is qualitatively different from any other area of endeavor when it comes to performance evaluation. More specifically, can you name a field in which “you are good enough as you are” pertains?

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