Prof. Alex Clark has tweeted again about academic failure. I agree with him, yes, failure can be educational, yes, it can be transformative. But in this post I want to write about academic failures (they were legion) the way I have experienced them over the years.
My first serious failure was when I submitted my first papers to internationally refereed journals. I had published before, but only in local Polish journals and I so wanted to go beyond Polish academia. Unfortunately, the reviews were negative, very negative. Two articles, two rejections. They almost crushed me. The problem was that they were quite fair and I sincerely thought academic life was not for me. I didn’t care about that failure very much.
Unfortunately, this was just the beginning. Ever since then, rejection has been my other name. Articles were the small beer, it’s the grants that really hurt. Much preparation and then too often reviews suggest that the reviewers had no idea. Although a failed grant which I saw funded a year later (it was literally a copy of a grant I had submitted earlier, just with a group of immigrants) was really hard to take. I must admit that I didn’t care for that failure, either, especially that it significantly undermined my trust in peer review. And then there have been the little things, job here, interview there, rejection by a publisher, being passed over for this, that and the other or being used for floor wiping at a conference. All these little things were sometimes fair, sometimes unfair, always painful, though. Sometimes very painful.
And then there is the special category: the failures because I am Polish and I often write about Polish things, so my research is assessed differently. It somehow becomes ‘intercultural stuff’. The same thing with English data would have received positive feedback, after all English is just universal (in Star Trek the whole galaxy speaks it!).
I still remember a rejection letter from a Danish university in which I also received the assessments of myself and other candidates. Except that under my name the last sentence was
He is Polish.
and somehow the successful candidate did not have ‘He is Dutch.’. Given that the procedure lasted about a year or so, I decided not to complain, the successful candidate also had a life, but, believe me, I was livid. Needless to say, there are all sorts of other things about which I cannot write publicly.
So, have I learnt from it all? Probably, but not necessarily the things I was supposed to. I learnt, for example, that behind the rosy academic rhetoric is a reality which is very different. I have also learnt that writing against the trend makes little sense and if I continue I will not be invited to plenary lectures (I’ve been right, though I do understand that I might be deluding myself and my stuff lacks quality). Have I become more resilient? That too, but I’m not entirely certain I want this resilience, because too often it is resilience to incompetence and other no so nice things. But no, I cannot be crushed by rejection of an article any more. Have I become a better academic through those failures? Not certain. I continued to write things attracting inconsistent, often contradictory and very negative reviews. But yes, comments which are to the point, which fairly, relevantly, wisely take what I write apart have made me grow as an academic. But as much as I fail in not getting, say, my paper published, I also think that academic debate should not be seen as failure.
And here I come to my two main points. You see, I really would prefer not have gone through all these failures. Behind this brief account there is much pain and it’s a pain which I carry with me and I would be much happier not to. This is because every time I failed fairly, it was a little piece of me which I put into the idea behind a paper or a research proposal that failed. When I failed unfairly, well, it’s obvious.
My second point is that it’s not failure that is this wonderful thing that makes me grow. No, in fact it’s success. After the disaster of the first two articles, my third paper in English was accepted. The anonymous reviewer, who identified herself, said she did it because the paper was so good. Oh, yes!! Or when a publisher cancelled a contract for one of my books and another one gladly picked it up and welcomed me. This is what helps me survive.
So, I would like to end this post with best wishes for all the readers of this blog, to each and every one of you I am grateful for every read. I wish you as few failures as possible in 2017 and may every one of them be countered with a series of successes. Happy 2017!