[George Clooney’s wife] Amal Alamuddin is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an advisor to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person UN commission investigating rules-of-war violations in the Gaza Strip. So tonight, her husband is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.Tina Fey & Amy Pohler, Golden Globes 2015
We do love our round numbers. Whether it’s home runs in a career or the number of origami cranes we’ve folded this week, getting to 500 just feels like something different than having 496.
A couple of days ago, I got word that someone had mentioned The Adjunct Underclass in something they’d written, and in the roundabout way of hyperlinks, I ended up at my page on Google Scholar. And because we all want to verify that our lives have mattered, I counted the number of times that my work has collectively been cited by other scholars over the years.
If you’re in higher ed, by the way, this is not a trivial pastime. Citation count, and the various statistics drawn from it (H-index, G-index, I-10, and so on), are among the most central tools that scholars have to make their case when it comes time for tenure and promotion. Publish or perish, right? One of the things that serious scholars do is to contribute productively to the larger conversations of their field, and contribution (at least in part) means that your work has laid a path that others have pushed further. So looking at my body of work, I’ve written 13 books or articles that have collectively been cited in published scholarly literature 506 times. That means that at least five hundred times, my thinking has helped someone else move their intellectual work down the field or in a new direction altogether.
Now, is it the case that five hundred is a lot? Or is it like five hundred pieces of elbow macaroni, about half a box? I searched Google Scholar with the names of 25 people I know who’d had tenure-track jobs in the humanities and social sciences for twenty or more years, a meaningful comparison. And the answer is that I’m sixth out of those twenty-five in total citations.
And I’ve been that productive without access to academic libraries and databases, without paid memberships and annual travel to scholarly societies, without research assistants or grant support, without doctoral students and postdocs, without summers set aside for curiosity. Just imagine…
I was talking with a friend today about the end of my academic career twenty-five years ago.
School, from kindergarten to doctoral education, is carefully designed to offer you hurdles to cross, and feedback about how well you’ve cleared them. And because I never felt like I belonged anywhere when I was a kid, that need to belong got invested fully in school. I knew what my teachers wanted, and I did eight times that much so that they’d love me and want me to be with them. That worked in first grade, and sixth grade, and twelfth grade, and sixteenth grade, and twenty-first grade. I had found a community that valued me, that valued what I could do both as an individual and as a member of a larger body.
When that mechanism for challenge and feedback was removed, when I spent so many years sending letters to anonymous search committees whose first job was to remove as many candidates from consideration as possible and never let anyone know how they’d made their decisions, when I realized that there was nothing I could do that would let me continue to belong to the community that had once loved me, the word that came to mind for me today was terror.
I want that word to sink in. I want you to think about what it means to have your only social and emotional strategy suddenly be no longer successful, no longer welcomed. What it means to know that you will die alone in the wilderness, unable to speak, left to suffocate. What it means to go, literally overnight, from champion to discard.
And then think about knowing, twenty-five years later, that you’ve been so demonstrably productive for a community that didn’t want you. How other people’s real faculty careers have been furthered by the work you’ve done, even as you’ve been left to watch their safety from outside the airlock, as you hammer in panic on the impenetrable shell.
We all know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right? It’s not the definitive social science concept that it once was, but it’s still a pretty good tool for understanding emotional life.
First, we need to survive. We need to eat and breathe and not freeze or overheat.
Then we need to be safe, to be protected from harm and theft.
And once those two first bars have been passed (and I recognize that it’s a powerful privilege that I don’t have to personally worry about either), we need to belong. Way before self-esteem and self-actualization, we need to feel as though we’re part of a tribe, that we aren’t isolated. That other people want us to be there, value the work that we do.
We are social beings, and isolation is historically a social punishment: an exile, a shunning, an excommunication, an act of removal and exclusion. The epaulets torn from the shoulders, the buttons ripped from the tunic, the sword snapped and tossed out of the stockade gate.
I kept doing research and thinking in my field, publishing cited work regularly for over twenty years since my dissertation. I made plenty of money during my years in the wilderness. But I had no heart left in me. I had been broken.
I have since found other communities in which I belong. It took decades to do it, because I could only see the one.
We’re all taught to wrap up an essay with a summative statement, a moral lesson, a recommendation. I don’t really have one here, but I’ll lay out a few threads, one of which you might grasp.
First. If you’ve been exiled, from whatever community, please let go sooner than you think you want to. You can’t find a new community until you relinquish your futile grasp on the old one. You will never prove yourself worthy to them, so just stop, and walk away.
Second. You can be proud of the work you’ve done even if it hasn’t brought you the rewards you deserved. I mean, five hundred citations! That’s a marker of a lot of solid and beneficial thinking, from 1993 through 2019. And that’s enough. Give yourself your very own lifetime achievement award, sanctioned by no one and yet fully earned.
Third. If you’ve made it through the gates that have been closed to so many, take that opportunity you’ve been given and wring it dry. Don’t be the person with the sinecure who does well enough. Use all those resources at your disposal to be an all-star. That may not mean citations, but it does mean reaching every day for the very best of your own definition of scholar. (Or writer, or artist, or whatever competitive field you’ve entered that others have not.)
Fourth. Remember that word: terror. Remember that we are not talking about an objective status of hired or not hired, of economically safe or challenged. We are talking about the sudden and unexpected loss of our beloved community, of suddenly being rendered silent even as we try to speak. Try to exercise compassion for the exile, in whatever ways you can imagine.