By Amy Clukey
Assistant Professor, University of Louisville
My academic friends and I sometimes joke about what failures we are: the big conferences we never get accepted to (American Studies Association, I’m looking at you); the journals that won’t even send our work to readers for review; the many, many, many jobs and fellowships we’ve applied for, but didn’t get.
On paper, though, we’re all pretty successful. We have jobs. We design and teach interesting classes. We publish in the “right” places. We sit on steering committees and award committees. But there’s a whole lot more going on behind the scenes of our individual careers than you might guess from looking at our CVs or our tenure binders.
So when the Chronicle of Higher Education published Devoney Looser’s article “Me and My Shadow CV,” which argues that “even successful professors face considerable rejection,” I saved it in my files to give to my graduate students. Looser thinks of her “history of rejection as my shadow CV — the one I’d have if I’d recorded the highs and lows of my professional life, rather than its highs alone.”
Looser looks at her CV and sees the shadow of many failures, but I tend to think of my CV as containing Hemingway-esque icebergs (I am a modernist scholar, after all). Every line of my CV hides an iceberg of rejection, not to mention debt, doubt, panic, and/or tears:
- The great postdoctoral fellowship: I applied for dozens of them. I had no idea how a fellowship application differed from a job application, and I grumbled the whole time I worked on it because “what’s the point of applying to another postdoc I won’t get.”
- The award for best article in my subfield: the article that won it spent over a year in revise-and-resubmit purgatory before being summarily rejected by the editorial board. Then I had to do it all over again at another journal.
- The master’s paper published in a top journal: it’s my favorite story about the hidden failure behind academic success. It was rejected six or seven times—honestly, I lost count—mostly by middling venues who wouldn’t even send it to readers. One editor told me that the modernist writer I was writing about was an “odd duck” and he didn’t think anyone could convince him to read her fiction, but I most certainly hadn’t (ouch).
More surprising, perhaps, is that the prestigious journal which eventually published it had already given me a desk rejection a few years before. On the advice of Stephen Schneider, I sent it back to the editor with a note saying “I know you already rejected this, but I revised it significantly, can you take another look?” He did, it went to readers, and it was accepted.
Looser is right: being a successful academic—whatever that may mean to you—means facing considerable rejection and carrying on. I’m not saying failure is easy. It isn’t. No one likes it. But like death, taxes, and the job market, it’s inevitable. Sometimes commiseration sessions and gallows humor can help. Sometimes a good therapist can help more.
Whatever the case, graduate students and other junior scholars need to develop a thick skin when it comes to rejection and failure. They need to figure out how to take constructive criticism without becoming defensive or defeated—and learn to laugh at the not-so-constructive criticism. If you’re not failing all the time, then you’re not reaching far enough.
I teach broadly in transnational Anglophone literatures, and my research focuses on global modernism and the U.S. South. I’m currently completing a monograph entitled Plantation Modernism: Transatlantic Anglophone Fiction 1890-1950 that compares American, Caribbean, Irish, and British plantation fiction by modernist writers like James Joyce, William Faulkner, Arna Bontemps, Eric Walrond, and Jean Rhys, among others.