Validation and Sassiness in Academe

When a professor saw herself heading toward the jaded attitude she'd noticed in senior colleagues, she decided she had two choices.

January 11, 2019

Recently, my 7-year-old arrived home from school with tears in her eyes. “What happened?” I asked my typically spirited, talkative child.

She went on to tell me about kids at school who had started something called the Sassy Club. When I asked her what the Sassy Club was about, she told me, “It’s a club for girls who like to be mean to other girls. It makes them feel like they are more important than everyone else.”

This entire conversation had me thinking. Do we have a sassy club in academe? I would like to think not, but I am afraid that we do. And I almost became a member.

In the first decade of my academic life, I was living in a bubble of positivity. I knew exactly what was expected for tenure, and I relished my time teaching classes, writing grants and presenting and publishing research that I cared about. I earned tenure without any issues, and five years later, was asked to put together my materials for promotion to full professor.

I was granted full professor in my early 40s, and I felt validated in all of my work up to that point. I felt the acceptance that I so craved and began to gain a national reputation in my field.

That’s when it started. “It’s time for you to stop trying so hard,” one male colleague said after I won an award from the university. Another continually found fault with my research, saying that it wasn’t “appropriate scholarship.” “One day you will be just like us,” another male colleague told me angrily, “as the joy that you have in the classroom will be gone and you will be old and not willing to change.” One female colleague in the field accused me of sleeping around to gain grant funding, while another female colleague told students that I didn’t deserve a Ph.D. because I finished too quickly.

The remarks pushed me to prove everyone wrong. During the first years of my promotion to full professor, I wrote more, served more and probably taught some of the most meaningful classes of my career. However, in just a short amount of time, I noticed myself heading toward the bitterness and jaded attitude that I saw in my senior colleagues.

Was I becoming jaded like them or because of them? I began to trust no one and, for the first time ever, I began to dread going to work. Not to my classroom, but to the office. I didn’t want to be around anyone except my students.

I sent the following email to a senior colleague, an international “superstar” in my field whom I was fortunate to meet in the earlier days of my career: “I just pulled out of my third search committee, canceled a presentation at a regional conference and canceled my trip to collect research. I didn’t like who I was becoming in the classroom, and I was just getting incredibly hateful and just tired. It has been a horrible month, but I can now see the light and am back to focusing on what matters. I will tell you that I am starting to see how people can get really bitter in this field. It seems that everyone is out to one-up everyone, and that’s just not the way I play. Why do we as academic types feel the need to constantly prove how incredible we are, no matter how much it destroys relationships with others? Seriously. It needs to stop. I’m focusing on my writing, my students and most important, my family. I’m beginning to trust people less and less.”

What was happening to me? Just two years ago, I would never have sent an email like that.

I began to understand the negative comments and my own negative thoughts were coming from a need for validation -- which we all have a need for, no matter the field, the rank or the gender. On her final show, in fact, Oprah Winfrey encouraged her audience to think about the need for validation saying, “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: they all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?’”

We, as academics, need to hear that we matter at all phases of our career, which leads me to the most important reason for sending the email above.

When you first go on the tenure track, you are typically given a mentor and opportunities to participate in an abundance of workshops and programs geared toward junior faculty. In the best cases, you are surrounded by people who truly want you to succeed. You call your people in your graduate program weekly and gain insight, knowing you are all working toward the same goal. Once tenure is achieved, you find yourself gaining more reputation and throw yourself into major projects that once felt elusive as you begin to mentor students and junior faculty.

At full professor, you look around and feel alone. Those friends from graduate school quit calling because you no longer need the same advice. In some cases, they are burned out from the field and opting for other careers. You are now leading those workshops and reading tenure case files from other universities. Everyone wants your opinion on something. But you find others aren’t willing to freely give their opinion to you for fear of dismissal or retaliation in a tenure decision. Everyone around you will say that you have “made it.”

But personally, I don’t want to feel like I have “made it,” because that basically says to me that I am done and have no more goals to achieve. I still want goals to reach for. I still crave a mentor. I have come to the realization that I know less now than ever, and that is both humbling and scary. The impostor syndrome that has been creeping around is at an all-time high. And I still need validation -- not praise, but simply validation that I am still being heard, that I’m relevant and important for something other than chairing a committee or conference.

This is truly a turning point in my career, and I now have two choices:

  1. I can simply quit trying, as some of my senior colleagues have, and develop their bitterness toward others. I can stop evolving in my research or teaching and rest on my laurels of 20 years of publications and accolades. I can look at the junior faculty members as the “young ones with idealist dreams” and make fun of them behind their backs, talking about how I was the one who revolutionized the field and how they “don’t get it.” In other words, I can be a member, or even president, of the sassy club.
  2. I can refuse to become a member of the club.

I now have a group of all female colleagues through a private social media group that I turn to for advice and who keep me grounded and real. What started as a small group of friends has turned into a virtual support system where we share our successes, failures and concerns in an open and honest way. These women serve as my muses in my teaching and scholarship and are my go-to when I find myself on a pedestal or, at the other extreme, in the depths of insecurity.

And I am also now turning to junior faculty for support and advice. On the way home from a recent conference, a colleague and I stopped for dinner. I serve as this faculty member’s official mentor and decided to engage in an honest conversation about my impact as I move into the last half of my career. The dinner lasted well over two hours as I expressed to him some of my insecurities, my desires for the department and my need for validation. It was one of the more meaningful conversations of my career, and our relationship is forever changed. In many ways, he is now one of my mentors, as I am his.

I’m beginning to trust again and know I have so much more to give to the field, my colleagues and, most of all, my students. I am constantly learning. And with my support system and by seeking out validation in a positive manner, I refuse to quit trying -- no matter what the norm is for a full professor at my university.

But most important, I won’t be lured into the sassy club of academe. I have people around me to keep me in check, and I will continue to push the academy to support those who have achieved tenure. And I would encourage all mid- to late-career faculty members to seek out support through junior faculty and trusted colleagues.


Elizabeth Triplett is the pseudonym of a fine arts professor at a teaching-intensive university in the Southeast.


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