Grow Your Own Rejection Garden

If rejection is something that we all face in academe -- some of which can make us better scholars, some of which just makes us needlessly hurt -- we should become more proactive than reactive, Max Perry Mueller urges.

June 6, 2018
 
 
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Springtime is the return of warm air, songbirds and budding flowers. Springtime is also graduation season on well-manicured college lawns and in university arenas. And, on other parts of campuses, springtime is rejection season.

In a spring not so long ago, I got rejected from what I believed was my dream job. I had thought that my campus visit went all but perfectly, which was not a usual feeling for me. Normally, I dissect such encounters to such a degree that I convince myself that not only will I never get the job, but also the search committee will petition the guild to exile me from the ivory tower forever.

This time, however, after leaving my would-be colleagues so impressed by my well-executed job talk and immaculately tailored syllabi, and so charmed by my wit and humor, I made plans for the next decades of co-taught courses, research projects and family vacations together. But just as the flowers poked their heads above the ground, I receive word that the dream job was not to be. And the end of that dream was devastating. It felt like a death of a life already envisioned, but one I’d never live.

So, instead of grading or writing -- doing anything productive -- I went searching on the internet. I typed “how to get over academic rejection” into my favorite search engine.

Part protest literature against our often inhumane profession, part lament over the gutting of higher education funding, part personal memoir and part advice column, “How to get over academic rejection” is a genre of academy culture writing that exists alongside quit lit. Such essays usually have four parts. The first is the reminder of a truth we all know but need to remind ourselves of over and over again: from grad schools to grants, from academic journals to jobs, rejection is inevitable in our profession.

The second part is a recognition that feelings of sadness, even self-loathing, are understandable. Like Rebecca Schuman’s fantastic piece “Why Is Academic Rejection So Very Crushing?” the essays acknowledge the real costs of such experiences: depression, loss of work, emotional absence from family life. Such feelings compound when we factor in the sunk costs of time, energy and money poured into projects that will never have the chance to flower. We who are rejected grieve for dreams dashed -- funded graduate study or research, publication in a journal that would have set us in good stead for tenure. For those on the market lucky enough to get to a campus visit, we mourn the lives that we had chance of living in that amazing college town, teaching those incredible students we met during the visit, dining in those hip bistros where the search committee members took us after our job talks.

The third part of such essays is the reminder that rejection, handled well, can lead to growth. We are told to be resilient. Get feedback from generous would-be mentors, anonymous reviewers and search committee members. Apply that feedback to our work and teaching so our scholarship becomes stronger, our presentations sharper. And, as Nate Kreuter and others recommend, use our own experiences of rejection to cultivate empathy and compassion for ourselves and our students and colleagues (more on compassion in a minute).

The fourth part is a call for the rejected to engage in self-care. Exercise. Call your mom and your best friend. Have a good cry. Get a massage. Go to a movie. Have a drink -- or a few.

I have found all of those recommendations helpful. But I’ve always felt the last one -- some well-earned and well-understood self-indulgence -- was more like a Band-Aid than a cure for experiences that often throw our minds and bodies into real and visceral disarray. And if rejection is something that we will all face -- some of which can make us better scholars, some of which just makes us needlessly hurt -- I propose that we become more proactive than reactive to rejection.

As a scholar of religion, I know that human cultures throughout the ages have developed ways of confronting such inevitable seasons of anguish. They are called rituals. Rituals mark times of celebrations: births, marriage, coming of age. But rituals are most often used in times of loss and suffering.

After receiving the rejection from that dream job a few years ago, I developed a rejection ritual. After every rejection -- and I’d have many since -- I buy a rejection plant. As a son of the mountains, I crave greenery and topographic relief. That is especially true since I’ve now made my home on the Great Plains, where I have a wonderful job at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. But even my magician-like colleagues there, who can seem to make anything grow, haven’t yet figured out how to grow mountains. So these rejection plants give my home cleansed air, vibrancy, texture and a sense of vertical scale.

In the hot moments after a significant rejection, selecting rejection plants from my favorite local plant store -- I give myself a budget of the cost of a few beers -- has allowed me to concentrate on a task outside myself. Rather than focus on the sunk cost of all the effort gone into the job not won or the journal article not published, I visualize the small plant before me that, with nurturing, will sink deep roots into its soil and grow tall branches, leaves and flowers reaching toward the sun.

But as the cutting-edge research on “happiness,” along with millennia worth of Buddhist and other wisdom-tradition teachings, tell us, the best way to feel better is not to focus on our own but on others’ well-being. In other words, to cultivate compassion. So a key -- perhaps the key -- part of my rejection ritual is to give plants to others. In my adopted home state, that is easy.

Nebraska’s first Euro-American residents planted trees out of necessity -- to provide canopies of protection against the unrelenting wind and sun. And today wonderful local organizations, like Community Crops, teach Lincolnites, including our city’s invaluable refugee community, how to grow their own fresh foods.

There are also international organizations like the Arbor Day Foundation. After last year’s devastating hurricane season, which leveled countless numbers of trees, Arbor Day launched a campaign to plant five million trees in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

So whatever I spend on my rejection plant, I donate to organizations that grow plants and trees for others. (I have also volunteered for such organizations, though admittedly I should and can do more. Like any ritual act, the ritual changes and grows and adapts to circumstances.)

My rejection ritual is particular to me. But the idea of creating a ritual, one that we turn to each time we are rejected, I hope might be useful to others. Such rituals do not let us escape the real pain of rejection. But they can help us establish a path to move through when rejection inevitably arrives in our email inbox.

To close, I’ll borrow, fittingly enough, from Candide, the great satirical takedown of optimism -- replacing it, perhaps, with an acceptance of what is:

We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow …
And make our garden grow.

Bio

Max Perry Mueller is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. He is the author of Race and the Making of the Mormon People.

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