17 Dec 2016
by Laura Sjoberg
So why a series of posts on a political science blog called TIFU (inspired by the subreddit of the same name)? I, and others, have written about failure recently (in a liberal, failure-conscious definition of recently), inspired both by everyday life and by Johannes Haushofer’s post of a CV of failures. But I’ve decided that’s not enough.
It started on a panel hosted by the committee on the status of women at the Southern Political Science Association in Puerto Rico, which addressed navigating networking and other professional development musts. I was giving a talk on the best practices for networking, and many of the people in the audience looked intimidated. Then I realized a lot of professional development talks on best practices suggest there is not room for error. But I (and almost everyone I know) have learned at least some of the lessons about what to do by screwing it up – by doing the wrong thing first, and then learning, or by being put in my place by someone who knew better to begin with. I never think to say that in a professional development talk (or rarely), though, because its about imparting what I’ve learned that works. That, combined with being socialized to hide weaknesses in professional settings, means that it can seem like the people giving professional development hints got to where they are by walking some sort of tightrope perfectly. I had to let that audience know I’d screwed up (a lot) and it’d still turned out ok. And I think some of those stories (not all of them, of course, because I still have some dignity, I think) might contain useful professional lessons as well. Some of my TIFU’s (which seems more sanitary than fuck-ups) in networking and professional socialization will be a part of this post.
Then the CV of failures thing came around. Part of me loved that move because it said – these things did not work out for me, and yet stuff all worked out. My initial reaction was more piecemeal and tangential – that I was interested in the failures that I couldn’t put on a CV of failures. Sure, I’ve had a lot of rejections for journal articles and books and jobs and stuff – and those could go on a CV of failures – but that my biggest failures (and the hardest to overcome) have been failures of anxiety, failures of willingness to show my voice and be seen – failures that are even more invisible than rejections and even harder to show. I still think that this is an important point, and want to write more about several elements of academic failure. First, I want to write more about those quiet, anxious, personal failures. Second, I want to write explicitly about rejections and the lessons one should (as opposed to the lessons one often does) take from them. But third, and perhaps more importantly, I want to write about how to deal with the notion that it might not all be ok in the end. The CV of failures came from someone who made it, as do most of the stories of things that got fucked up or lost or messed up along the way that others in the profession read. My stories are – and can be – no exception – so far, this career thing is turning out just fine for me, and even were something to stop that – my writing would still be from a position of enormous privilege. Still, it is important to acknowledge that stories where it all turns out ok are not representative. Some of the posts in the TIFU series will be about all three of these things – personal failures, rejections, and grappling with stuff that might not turn out ok.
Then there was a panel at ISA-Northeast on navigating the profession as a woman, organized by a lot of junior women. At that panel, another panelist opened up about something personal that had been difficult, and I shared something personal that I’d only told a few people in the profession. The reaction in the room suggested relief at both the admission of something less-than-positive and a sense that it helped understand some contexts and stuff like that. I’m being vague because that’s not a thing I’m ready to share with the internet as a whole (or even the small, five-digit part of it that sometimes reads Relations International) – but I learned at that panel that some people ignore your weaknesses when they can’t figure them out and others attribute a reason for them – but, when possible, admitting them might increase understanding. It also might increase online trolling. So I’m not advocating it as a solution for everyone, and it may be a mistake for me. But some of the TIFU series of posts will be about explaining weakness to provide context.
At that very same panel at ISA-Northeast, there was a discussion of nervousness about sending out pieces of work for review and publication that might not be perfect, or might not be right, or something like that. I’ve always been a big advocate of the strategy of write stuff down, then send stuff out – but that strategy does risk getting reviews that suggest that you are wrong, or being silly, or have missed something; it also risks, on the flip side, publishing something that is wrong, silly, or has missed something. I’ve often told stories at professional development panels about stuff that I wrote and presented at conferences but never sent out because it had some terrible flaw that I hadn’t seen in the writing. But I’ve never talked about published work that I’m not sure about in hindsight. Some of the TIFU posts will talk about the former in more detail – when writing stuff down ends up showing that its not any good. But the very first one (coming soon) will talk about the latter – a piece of my published work with which I now disagree – and how that is/can be situated professionally.
In sum, the (forthcoming) series of posts about things I’ve screwed up over the years is meant to think about, intellectually and emotionally, professional imperfection, and how that does (or should) factor into professional development.