Friday, November 5, 2010

If I May Be So Bold ...

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.

Yeah.

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?

11 comments:

  1. Hi Aimeee,

    Nice post. I am on tv and even had a radio show because I do research in popular culture. I see that work as part of my job, and I enjoy it. But what I also enjoy are people who come up to me at conferences or write to me and say that something I wrote really was important to them. So I think that both aspects of my work have an impact, and that is what matters to me.

    Anyway, good for you. It's true that we don't as women do enough of the big stuff because we don't believe we can. I still think that in Canada we don't celebrate each other's accomplishments enough though....

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  2. Hey! I work on cycle plays! Wait a second....

    You're absolutely right, though. I struggle with celebrating my own accomplishments (which are 'clearly' transitory as opposed to my failures). Not surprisingly, I find it easier to put myself out there if I can believe that it helps someone else. Ask the Dean for $200 for a conference, no way, but ask him for $5000 to take four students with me to that conference, absolutely. Similarly, I'm happy to speak about the drama program for th rest of my team, but it never occurs to me to promote my own research. Something to work on....

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  3. Thank you for saying this. It is so important.

    How are people going to know about the great work you do unless you tell them. And those "people" could be a bunch of different groups: media, colleagues in your discipline, colleagues in your institution, friends, local librarians (who might know of other public audiences)...

    There are some simple and fun ways to do this, too. If you publish a book, organize a book launch. Use a local bookshop space. Ask your dean for money for wine & nibbles. Invite colleagues, local media (if relevant), other people that might be interested.

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  4. Thanks for this Aimee. These are issues that I'm struggling with at the moment.

    I just copy-pasted "One of the big skills is to be able to do what you want to do without caring what other people thing" in 48 point font onto a sheet of paper, printed it and put it right over my computer screen.

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  5. I really like this post, Aimee. I think about this all of the time in my current role. I was part of a colloquium this week and I facilitated a round table introduction of an interdisciplinary group of researchers. One of the researchers pointed out that I hadn't introduced myself. I flushed. I stammered. I felt totally out of place. I love participating in intelligent discussions, but when it comes to talking about my own expertise I lock up. I frequently struggle with asserting my expertise. For me personally, I feel like I am being impolite or presumptuous if I 'toot my own horn' on one thing or another. Could it be my blue collar roots? Maybe it's my background as a humanities graduate working in a new field? I'm not sure.

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  6. Hi Al -- Yes, certainly, class is a major issue--just as much as gender--in our willingness to put ourselves forward in the ways you so eloquently describe being flummoxed by. I feel the same way, usually. Gender is certainly not the only factor that leads many of us to discount our own work, to not feel entitled to attention or praise.

    Venus in Furs -- I am *always* printing stuff out and sticking it to my computer. Top of screen == top of mind :-)

    JoVe -- my chair organized a collective book launch party this year for authors in my department. We'd never had one before and it was AWESOME! (I didn't have a book to celebrate, but it was really great to help others celebrate their achievements, actually)

    SC --I know you work on cycle plays; I was thinking of you :-) I think that situation you describe, of promoting others but not asking for things for yourself, is very common.

    Dr. Identity -- thanks!

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  7. Awesome post. You are exactly right. For me it's not about talking to media (I don't think I'm good at it, don't seek it out - but look forward to the day YOU take over CBC) but about feeling professionally tongue-tied in any number of other situations, and then seething away while Some Guy promotes himself.

    As anybody with an internet connection knows (sorry....), I'm at mozilla drumbeat in barcelona this week. One of the really nice things has been how well balanced this event has been gender-wise. Even I am surprised by how much more relaxed it makes me.

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  8. This came at a lovely moment; there's about to be an announcement for a major 'state of the field' conference next spring in my field, with fifty featured speakers. And I thought, more forcefully than I would have otherwise, "You know what? *I* deserve to be be in that fifty."

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  9. You go, Claire! Of *course* you should be out there, front and centre. And for godssake don't let them try to tell you to wear a short skirt while you do it. (Ahem.)

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  10. Good for you for putting yourself out there! I am a masters student in music composition and in a creative field you have to realize very quickly that you need to promote yourself, or you just get nowhere at all. I have also been very lucky with my supervisor: he promotes my music very actively. Because of him I've been interviewed for local papers, one of my pieces was on the radio and another is being programmed into a professional new music festival. But like that one quote said, men put women forward sometimes, but women don't put themselves forward. Self promotion is something I've really had to work on. I totally understand that timidity and that feeling like what you are doing is not really good enough to push on people. So way to go!

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  11. Anna, that's fantastic! I imagine that in music, it is absolutely *essential* to develop the skill of self-promotion. It's just not possible to be a performer who toils in obscurity, and I imagine it's hard to get your work performed if no one hears about it. How great that your supervisor is modeling this work for you, and supporting you -- and that you're supporting yourself! Fantastic!

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