I will never be likable.
I learned this several years ago at a dinner party celebrating the publication of a senior scholar’s magnum opus. The guest list included four male scholars and their wives, plus my husband and me. I was keenly aware of being the only female scholar present at the party, as well as the youngest person in the room.
After dinner, when all the other wives went into the kitchen to clear up, my husband winked at me as he joined them and I retired to the living room with the men. I was having fun, and perhaps a bit too much wine, and after a while, I turned to the distinguished elder scholar next to me and asked why a peer of mine at another institution had gotten tenure with so few publications.
“What was that about?” I asked.
The white-haired gentleman smiled amiably and answered, “He’s just so damn likable!”
Suddenly I was stone-cold sober. I was grateful, in a way, that my colleague had said it out loud. There is no pure academic meritocracy, and even philosophical thinkers resort to fuzzy concepts such as likability to tip the scales in favor of some over others. The young, white, straight cisgender man we were discussing could be charming indeed. But in this context, likability meant that my older, white, straight, cisgender male colleague felt comfortable in his presence. The young man was presumably likable, in part, because he reminded the old man of himself, which made the world seem stable, the norm normal and the future a steady stream forward from the past. Promoting one affirmed the other.
No one will ever call me likable. Even as a straight, white, cisgender woman, I still present -- in both my work and my being -- a discomfiting challenge to the ways of the past and the values of patriarchy. There are very few senior female scholars who would see me as a younger version of themselves. What few there are -- those mentors from whom I have learned so much -- are not interested in homogenous self-reproduction. They believe that academic excellence is fostered by different perspectives and stultified by the continuing dominance of one tradition.
This dinner party conversation crystallized something I had read about for years and witnessed firsthand throughout graduate school and the long slog toward tenure. Kind, thoughtful academics -- people who supposedly reject racism, sexism and heterosexism -- reproduce existing power structures through implicit bias that makes them find some people more likable than others. Such scholars would not consciously withhold opportunities from women, people of color or LGBTQ people. Yet unconsciously, in myriad tiny ways, they tilt toward people they perceive to be like themselves. Doors are offhandedly opened, names generously mentioned and obstacles casually removed.
If you are reading this column, you probably aren’t “likable,” either. Without that extra push of likability, and often without senior scholars like us who can mentor us along the way, we have to work harder and smarter to succeed in academe. The goal, as I see it, is not to become likable, but rather to learn to smooth our own paths in small ways. In this and future essays, I will offer concrete suggestions to this end in four different areas: secretarial work, editing, letters of recommendation and keeping track of work. Take only what is useful and all with a grain of salt.
On the Importance of Secretarial Work
Never underestimate the value of good secretarial work in academe, and by that I mean secretarial work very broadly defined: that is, all the effort put in to create clear, well-organized communication outside the actual production of research. Typos and errors can kill any application, and the margin of error is smaller for female scholars and scholars of color. A tenure file filled with solid scholarship can be sunk by disorganization. Conversely, a clear and elegant presentation can do wonders.
Also, under the heading of secretarial work more broadly construed, embrace extra correspondence and organization in service to your own work. Four specific points:
First, appreciate the secretaries and administrative assistants you encounter. Much of the world runs due to women (and a few men) behind desks who are never paid or respected enough for their efforts. Be appreciative, respectful and inquisitive. Do not take these people for granted or underestimate their professional expertise.
Unfortunately, some senior scholars treat administrative assistants as servants. Newer scholars can emulate that behavior when they, consciously or unconsciously, accept the hierarchical thinking upon which it is based. Don’t. In addition to being excellent colleagues, secretaries and administrative assistants have saved my sorry ass with knowledge, kindness and generosity. And at least once with a pilfered bottle of the dean’s good wine.
Second, if you would like secretarial work done that is beyond the norm for the administrative assistants in your place of employment, do it yourself.
For example, at one institution where I worked, when a professor was up for promotion, the department had the administrative assistant send an email to outside reviewers with attachments containing copies of published articles and a CV. I found that to be very clunky and unappealing, and I knew of peer institutions that sent hard copies of books and articles. I joined forces with another faculty member up for promotion, and we thought about what would be ideal.
In the end, I sent each reviewer a copy of my book and an old-fashioned three-ring binder with color-coded tabs. The first thing in the binder was my CV. Each tab after that coordinated with items on my CV, so that if a reviewer saw a title of an article, she could easily flip to it. A flash drive with all the documents in electronic format was clipped to one of the rings inside the binder.
I later heard that at least one of the reviewers appreciated it. That level of effort was above and beyond what was typical for the administrative assistants in my department, so I talked with them about what I wanted, asked them to do a small part and did the rest myself. It was extra work, time and money that I decided was a worthwhile investment in my own career.
Third, correspondence can be useful in connecting with other scholars. When you publish an essay that refers to the work of another scholar in your field, it is not a bad idea to mail them an offprint. A long letter is not necessary -- just a Post-it note saying, “I thought this might be of interest.” This can be helpful in making sure that, when it is time for review, there are scholars who are already familiar with your work.
Fourth, when you publish a book, consider investing the money to purchase a number of copies with your author’s discount and send them to various colleagues in your field. That will help scholars to get to know your work and signal to particular ones that you see your own scholarship in conversation with theirs. It might spark someone to use the book in class or to write a review. And what academic does not appreciate a free book?
Paying attention to the administrative assistants in your workplace, and to your own secretarial skills of organization and correspondence, is one small way that “unlikable” scholars (i.e., those of us on the margins of academe) can smooth our own paths.