Monday, August 8, 2011

Do you care what I teach?

Lucky me, lately I've had to write my bio a couple of times: you know, between 50-150 words that describe who I am and what I do, to accompany an article I've written, a textbook I've edited, a public lecture I'm giving. You know the drill: you write about yourself in the third person, trying to balance out a recitation of your credentials strong enough to add gravitas to whatever it is the bio is accompanying, against an impulse not to brag or be over-wordy or do it wrong.

I hate writing these. And every time I have to write one for a new context I write a fresh bio, because I want to give the right info to the right audience. And I figure out what's the 'right info' by cruising for similar bios written by others.

Here's some of what I've noticed, generally:

  • Often, graduate students write the most about themselves in their bios, and this can be a little off-putting. ("Janey Ambitious (BA Podunk) is a pre-PhD student in the program of Arts and Culture at the University of Bigname, where she teaches several yearly sections of freshman comp and studies the grand literary theory of everything. Her research combines new criticism, poststructuralism, new media studies, and continental philosophy to propose that everyone is wrong. She was a valedictorian of her high school and published a poem on the Arts Student Association website, which earned three comments.") Otherwise, they say very little, which I kind of like for its clear-headed brevity. ("Janey Ambitious is a Masters student at University of Bigname.")
  • Early professors sometimes couch their whole records like a selection -- this was my particular trick. ("Aimée Morrison (PhD, Alberta) is an Assistant Professor in English at the University of Waterloo. She has recently published on videogaming in 1980s popular cinema, blogging, and rhetorics of internet democracy.") The trick here is that 'recently published' was in fact everything I had ever published. It just sounded less shitty that way ...
  • Some really senior people write damn near nothing and are intimidating as a result ("Susan Accomplished is CRC of Magnificence in Scholarship at Hyper Competitive University, as well as President.") Of course, when they list out even a representative sample of what they've done, it's huge, and still totally intimidating. ("Susan Accomplished (PhD Oxford, FRSC) is CRC of Magnificence in Scholarship at HCU, as well as President. She has published three mongraphs on That Very Cool Thing No One Else Does But Everyone Cites since 2004, earned a Nobel Prize for Literature as well as a Pulitzer Prize for journalism for ... [Oh God, I can't go on. I'm getting depressed]") 
It's just generally awful for everyone, let's admit. Awful because it feels important and risky and fraught with rhetorical danger.


One thing that's increasingly becoming clear to me is that the bios that accompany Serious Scholarly Writing, like a peer-reviewed article, don't mention teaching. Better more words devoted to where you've published and who funded your work, than to describe what you teach in the graduate (or, heavens! the undergraduate) program at your institution.


I myself have begun to remove references to my teaching from my bios in these venues: it just doesn't seem like the done thing to talk about my teaching there. I almost feel like it takes away from my credibility if I give the same number of words to my teaching career as to my research. So now I just list more publications, and talk about my external funding. Because it's the done thing.

Bios are important. For me, the are one of the filters I apply to the database of 800+ things I have lined up as possible research sources. A bio will tell me what field an author works in and that matters: a communications scholar's take on Facebook is one among a million, but a literary scholar's is much more rare. A bio will tell me someone's rank and experience level, and it is (true story!) often the case that this knowledge forms part of the context by which I decide how and if to read something. I will even admit to you that I can get a little judgy reading bios: worse, lately, I find myself wondering if someone is really a serious scholar if they put too much emphasis on their teaching in their bios.


Teaching is a huge, esssential, fundamental, joyful, exasperating, rewarding part of my career. I love teaching. Someone asked me recently if I (hypothetically) would like a lower teaching load (2/1) than I have now (2/2) and I said no, because, dammit, teaching is a big reason I became a professor. If you glance your eyes over at the tag cloud on the sidebar to your right, you'll see that this blog, even, has way more discussion devoted to teaching than to research: it's a huge part of our lives and our self-image as professionals.

So why the bias against teaching in the bios? Have I unveiled a conspiracy, or does it not matter? What do you think?

When you write your own bio, how do you balance out the different aspects of your life as an academic to tell the story you want to tell about yourself in the context of your research?


  1. Isn't this just symptomatic of the larger research > teaching in academic affairs?

    FWIW, I describe myself as "an associate professor at X university, where she teaches X, Y, and Z." Mainly because those would seem more broader & more interesting to a mixed audience. If I indulge in a second line, I'll give my most recent books. That's it.

    I admire the no-need-to-prove-anything simplicity of the shorter bios of established scholars, and I figure the audience will learn about me from hearing me in person/reading my work, anyway.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Claire -- I admire your confidence in choosing to let your scholarship speak for itself. I know that I really seem to try to oversell mine (and myself) in my bios. Perhaps this contributes to a bio "arms race" of sorts. Probably not helpful, which is a diagnosis I often bring to my behaviours that spring from insecurity!

  3. I think perhaps one of the reasons some academics (particularly if they are off the tenure-track) leave off their teaching is because often the teaching has nothing whatsoever to do with their research. For instance, I teach Freshman Composition, but I don't publish in rhetoric or composition journals, because I don't write about those things in a formal setting (leaving aside my less formal writing on my blog). I write and publish on Haitian writers (who are writing in French, no less), translation, science fiction, etc...

    Now, I'm not sure why this is. Part of it, I think, is that we are supposed to be teaching in our field, so to speak, and especially in rhet/comp circles, it is a touchy subject, those people (let's say a lot of us) who don't have a degree or research base in the subject, but teach the courses. On the flip side, if I ever want to get a job in my area, I need my biography to reflect that I am "focused" on my area of expertise and not distracted by all this composition stuff.

    I think a lot of young academics are not ashamed that they teach but ashamed (or have been shamed into being ashamed) by what they teach. I teach five sections of freshman writing every semester is way less "sexy" than, I have edited collection of essay on Anne Hebert.

    Does that make sense?

  4. Your example entries are hilarious. I think I may just send them out to the authors next time I edit a collection of papers. Authors will take them as cautionary, of course. But if some poor soul takes them as exemplars, the result will at least be something worth reading.

    For bios that accompany a publication, though, I think the focus on scholarship makes sense. They're essentially an advertisement for the paper, something people will use (as you do) to decide whether to invest their scarce time into reading what you've written (when there are thousands of other interesting articles out there that they don't have time to get to), and your scholarly track record is more relevant to that question. While in general I think it's right that good scholarship and good teaching are mutually reinforcing, it's no universal law. It's pretty common for us to whisper (not when government officials might be listening) that some high flying researchers are really not much as undergraduate teachers. But the converse is also true, alas---not every great teacher is worth reading.

  5. Lee -- those are some EXCELLENT points you raise. I become conscious that in my Janey Ambitious overlong bio sample above, the teaching that I've noted is, of course "several yearly sections of freshman comp". Because in the journals I read, absolutely, teaching first year writing is not relevant to the research at hand.

    I'm very intrigued to consider the linkages (or not) between what we teach and what we research. It probably varies by institution, by department, by type of job, by the research field, etc. For me, 90% of what I teach is directly related to my research, but I suspect that's an accident of my field and department and institution (and position).

    DDVD: Thank you for laughing. I chuckled while writing them. I wonder if sometimes our bios don't advertise just our scholarship, but also ourselves as branded academics?

  6. Aimee (sorry, my keyboard isn't accent-friendly), I have to say, I've had a great time this summer writing biographies for myself for non-academic opportunities. Lots of tongue-in-cheek stuff, finding other accomplishments, trying to make myself NOT sound like an academic bore.

    It hasn't been easy. I can massage my bio to make myself sound like a solid academic. Can I also be a solid, interesting non-academic? That's more of a challenge.

  7. Thanks for posting this - it's a question that has come up for me in the past as well. These days, I actually do mention my teaching because I consider it the most important part of my work at this particular moment - but that's not always the case and I can envision a (hopeful) future with monographs where they would be the trump card. Who are the audiences that we would not communicate ourselves as teachers to? Outside academia, being a prof is a heck of a lot bigger deal than being a published researcher.

  8. Colin, that's so true! I know that people in my own extended family are much more impressed that I teach at a university than they are that I publish. They are particularly impressed when I have a class of 200+ students, which is funny, because IN the academy it's much higher status to teach a 5 person grad seminar than it is to teach Business Writing to 200 accountants (for example.) There certainly is a very strong disconnection between professorial markers of status in the academy and out of it.

  9. For me, one of the more distressing features of the whole academic game is how much success depends of self-promotion. But I probably only find it distressing because I'm so bad at it. (Tangentially: Ever notice how some of one's more stolid colleagues will confuse self-deprecating jokes for attempts at accurate self-assessment?)

    So, quite right, sometimes bios are an exercise in personal brand-building and self-promotion. Sometimes that's compatible with the goal of getting people to read your stuff. (Both immediately and longer term: sometimes it's important to try to talk grad students out of trying to publish something that's publishable but not really good, because long term that half-baked article might be the only thing by the student key scholars will ever read if they take it as an indication of what the student is capable of.) Personal branding can be a worthwhile scholarly goal in small doses---or at least a necessary condition of professional survival (and I wish I was better at it).

    But I think that while that's lamentable in some ways, it's also unavoidable. People are just being rational when they use author reputation and track record as key criteria for deciding what they will read, given the available time and quantity of published material on any interesting topic. When you don't yet have the reputation, you have to rely on providing evidence (or if necessary suggesting the existence of evidence, even if it doesn't really exist) of a worthwhile track record, or many readers will just move on to the next article.

    That's what I love about the "has recently published" tactic ... cool understatement is the best tactic for impressing most academics, when it's available (see the senior scholars section of your post!). What could be better than a truthful way of faking that? I'd like to think that really getting the reputation that makes real understatement possible will eventually involve people actually reading your stuff and thinking it's good. (More naivety on my part, probably. My thesis supervisor acquainted me with the phrase "Cream and scum rise to the top," though we both figured that the latter did so more reliably than the former.) But you do gotta get 'em to read it.

  10. Please send CRC in Magnificence, plus presidency.

  11. Great questions, and I think that your set up also hints at some important factors. You rewrite these things because you want the particular bio to be relevant to a particular audience.

    If something you write might be used in teaching, and you teach a relevant class, isn't your teaching experience also relevant to the scholarship behind this article? To take one of your examples, if you are a literary scholar who teaches about new media in the context of an English department, you might be looking for that article on FB by a literary scholar and the fact that that scholar also teaches digital media might be a factor in you deciding to read this particular article.

    Which also links to Lee's point about the relevance of ones teaching to the particular occasion for writing a particular bio.

    DDVD's point about self-promotion is also instructive. This is NOT just an academic thing. It is important in all fields. It is an important skill to learn how to promote your strengths without being arrogant. Self-promotion is not something to be ashamed of.

  12. Thank you for bringing this up. I am currently researching Doctoral programs and find that slogging through professor's bios is very difficult. I would love if more professors who have supervisory privileges would provide a short, point form, section on what areas they are interested in/qualified to supervise. That would take a lot of the guess-work out of it and cut back on the unsuccessful inquiries they receive/grad students send out.


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