How valuable is your scholarship? How much do your ideas contribute to knowledge about the world, about one small part of it, about the small part of it concerned with Milton's poetics? Are you an expert?
Try this (say it with me): "My work has value; my ideas are interesting and my research is thorough. I know my field very well. My ideas add something new to the conversation. I am an expert on [X]."
Was that really hard? Awkward? Maybe, in fact, actually painful?
I work in contemporary digital media studies--stuff like blogs, and Twitter, and Facebook, and YouTube, and media design. Issues I research are in the news all. the. time. And in the news, there's always some professor opining on privacy in the digital age, on social media in municipal political campaigns, on 'kids these days' and their dumbass online behaviours. Usually, that professor is someone who is not me, and you can ask my husband what I do when I see this: there's usually a smacking of the newspaper page, a shout of "I read that guy!", and then briefly "why why why don't they call me?" which is immediately followed by (can you see this coming?) ...
I'm not worthy. My scholarship is lame and no one reads it. I'm not important enough. I'm dumb. I should just quit right now and crawl in a hole and eat some worms and then self-flagellate.
I was listening this summer to Brooke Gladstone interview new media scholar and pundit Clay Shirky on On The Media on the question of the lack of women doing precisely these kinds of interviews in popular media [transcript here!]. He said this: "Women put each other forward, men put women forward, men put themselves forward. Women never put themselves forward" for media notice.
Then he said this: "I think the concern for how other people think about you is one of the sources of essentially work paralysis among women [....] One of the big skills is to be able to do what you want to do without caring what other people think."
I've been thinking really hard about this for a couple of months now. Earlier this week, screwing up my courage, I wrote an email to a national radio show and told them that they should put me on their [virtual] Rolodex. I told them that my work was innovative and valuable and that I'm fun to talk to and that I have skills at making scholarship interesting to a general audience.
Then I blamed Clay Shirky for my forwardness, in a kind of cop-out. Because it made my skin crawl to be so forward.
You know what? They emailed me back within two hours, told me they're always looking for better gender representation (remember, I work on digital media). They said they'll call. They thanked me for reaching out. They thanked me. I almost passed out.
That was really hard to do. And it's hard to even tell you about it, because I feel like a self-aggrandizing jerk. I feel I will be judged, as Brooke Gladstone suggested to Shirky, like women tend to be: "[You] have to acknowledge the fact that when women put themselves out there, they're called 'biatches.' The word 'shrill' is applied to them. They are not called 'leaders.' They are not called 'strong.'"
Do you hide your light under a bushel, dear reader? Maybe you work on cycle plays, and there's not a lot of media calls for that. But when the university is looking for someone to participate in a lecture series in honour of a big anniversary, do you put yourself forward? When you get something published, do you make sure your colleagues know? Maybe there's a brag-board in your department: are you on it? Or more simply, when someone asks you about your work, do you tell them your big idea, or do you tell them everything you think is wrong or inadequate about it?
Increasingly, I think, this is a world in which good things come to people who go out and get them. Toiling in obscurity hoping to one day have your obscure labours rewarded or even simply recognized is ... well, it's not likely. Talking yourself down in the hope that someone might correct you is a self-defeating strategy.
Maybe you don't want to be on TV, or interviewed on the radio. I understand my dreams of a total takeover of CBC, one talking-head interview at a time, are perhaps not universally shared. But I'm sure you do want your work to be read, to have an impact. Otherwise, why do it at all? Is there something you can do to make that impact more likely, to shine your light for all to see?
If we can't talk ourselves aggressively up, do you think we might manage to stop talking ourselves down?