When I was thinking about going to grad school, I was asked to provide the usual array of stuff: undergrad transcript, statement of purpose and research agenda, letters of recommendation, writing samples. But one of the requested items was entirely alien to me—they asked for a CV.
I had no idea what a CV was. I knew that it was kind of like a résumé, and I learned that the letters stood for curriculum vitae (or course of a life), but I’d never seen one. I went to the bookstore reference section and all the books on résumé construction, and none of them had an entry for CV. I managed to patch something together, which I’m sure was awful, but they took a chance on me anyway.
A singular mark of the scholarly enterprise is the overreliance on Latin, a holdover from two earlier conditions: that the academy was largely humanistic, and that the reading of Ovid was part of the early schooling of every one of the tiny cohort of privileged children who were aimed at Yale from birth. Now that higher education contains a much broader array of intellectual and professional fields, and an expanded cultural community, the continued embrace of Latin is simply one of the secret handshakes that divides insiders from outsiders. We could refer to the CV as an extended or expanded or full résumé, but that wouldn’t be nearly as impressive.
One of the very best things about my current professional life is that I don’t have to update my CV every time somebody gives me a participation medal. My most recent CV is dated April 2018; I’ve done some stuff since then, but I haven’t had the need to enumerate every scrap of it to defend myself. I know what I’m good at, and I can give you examples as needed.
There’s something kind of sad about a culture whose members must all maintain a document listing their every single accomplishment, both major and minor. It’s as though we’re keeping our own notes for some imagined posthumous biographer, a laser-printed proclamation that our work really has mattered. There’s no other profession in which a résumé goes on for more than a page or two, even for senior executives. But academics are often greatly afflicted by the fraternal twins of vanity and insecurity, and the rabbit’s foot of a growing and well-tuned CV is a comfort in an uncertain world.
As is true in most endeavors, size matters, and we invent creative ways to compare ourselves against others without being caught looking. A twenty-page CV feels more important than a ten-page CV, and so people are tempted to pad. We report every single committee and task force, every single presentation, every time we’ve been mentioned. Like seventh-graders, we get creative about increased margins, double spacing, doing anything we can to add one more sheet to the stack of our significance. (If it matters to you, the round, chunky Palatino is a great typeface for making the same number of words take up more space.)
We invent metrics for the publications themselves: the total number of times we’ve been cited, the h-index, the g-index, the i10. And trust me, we all know our own. 377. 7. 13. 6. So there. I just got my six-month royalty statement from The University of Chicago Press yesterday, which shows units sold both during the current period and LTD (lifetime to date). Neither book is at Harry Potter levels, but they’ve both done their work in the world, much of which I’ll never know about.
And that’s the problem. We don’t know. We’ll never know. We can’t know. And so we cling to whatever scraps of evidence we can dredge together, prepared to show our papers at every border crossing, hoping for safe passage.