On Cooling the Mark Out

Although the term, mark, is commonly applied to a person who is given short-lived expectations by operators who have intentionally misrepresented the facts, a less restricted definition is desirable in analyzing the larger social scene. An expectation may finally prove false, even though it has been possible to sustain it for a long time and even though the operators acted in good faith. So, too, the disappointment of reasonable expectations, as well as misguided ones, creates a need for consolation. Persons who participate in what is recognized as a confidence game are found in only a few social settings, but persons who have to be cooled out are found in many. Cooling the mark out is one theme in a very basic social story.

Erving Goffman, 1953

In con games, the mark (victim of the con) is recruited by flattery. You’re smart enough to see the opportunity, you’re bold enough to do what others might not. And so the mark submits to the con, and loses. According to sociologist Erving Goffman, this moment at which the mark recognizes his loss represents a failure of an important self-concept, one that must be eased away from rather than simply broken and left behind.

For the mark, cooling represents a process of adjustment to an impossible situation — a situation arising from having defined himself in a way which the social facts come to contradict. The mark must therefore be supplied with a new set of apologies for himself, a new framework in which to see himself and judge himself.

Goffman identifies a couple of common ways of helping to ease the transition. The first is to offer “a status which differs from the one he has lost or failed to gain but which provides at least a something or a somebody for him to become.” The second is to offer “another chance to qualify for the role at which he has failed.”

In academia, the first strategy is called adjunct faculty or visiting scholar or professor of the practice, and the second is called postdoctoral fellow. The adjunct instructor is not the status that was hoped for, but at least it provides a role to play. The postdoc is also not the status that was hoped for, but the promise is that it represents merely a hold against payment sure to come.

We were all recruited by flattery, weren’t we. We were all separated from the herd, told we were special. We were given Greek terms like summa cum laude, mathematically demonstrated to approach or meet the 4.0 limit. We were welcomed to office hours, given special tasks, asked to speak at commencement. We were told by the undergraduate community that we were worthy, and that worth was affirmed as we were recruited by the doctoral community. Come to my school! No, no, come to MINE!

We performed well. No, not well. We were freaking awesome. We got straight A’s in the core, we killed the qualifying exams, we taught the intro courses and got the strong evals, we defended the proposal that allowed us to work independently, and then we defended the work we’d done. All five committee members agreed that we’d crushed it, they took us to dinner, told us we were the best ever. There’s never been another one like you…

And the phone never rang again. We were ghosted. We freaked out, asked our friends if we had spinach in our teeth or B.O. Or we went silent ourselves, hiding in shame, convinced of our failure. Or we got all needy at conferences, asking about job openings during the Q&A after the keynote, buttonholing a senior scholar over a drink as they desperately scanned the horizon for rescue.

And then we were offered a chance to be cooled: to adjunct, to be a postdoc. The time in the vacuum made us desperate for air, and we gasped “Yes!”