The Unbearable Lightness of Being Appreciated

No one loves Charlie Brown. Not even Charlie Brown.

In academia you always feel unappreciated. Ours is a profession of self esteem. That self esteem is often based on external evaluations: publications, jobs, annual reviews, promotions. We spend a considerable amount of time being evaluated as being good or as bad. Every year, for instance, I must orchestrate a complex and copy machine heavy process of printing and evaluating the teaching, research and service of all of the members of my department. It takes over $1,000 in printing and copying costs to send to the Dean’s office documents which give everyone a numerical score between 1–5. If the university wants to reward us in a given year, and after a lengthy negotiation with the Dean’s office, I can award raises to reflect how wonderful everyone is. The raise amounts to about $100 a month after taxes. We could still give the raise and not spend so much time and money on the process. It seems, however, that the process — not the money — makes us feel appreciated.

Even with an extra $100 a month after taxes, we often feel unwanted or not considered as good as we imagine ourselves to be. The easiest way to get a salary bump, we are told, is to go back on the job market. If someone else wants us, we must then be valuable. But that process can backfire, as it did when I was at Wayne State and was told to get an offer from another school first before I could receive a spousal appointment for my wife. I did get another offer. “Congratulations,” I was told by my chair and peers at Wayne State. We moved to Missouri.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is always looking out for academic self-esteem

Every summer, my Facebook feed is full of academics complaining that they are not compensated for summer (despite earning a full year’s salary), that writing letters or reviewing articles offers no compensation for hard work, and that, overall, no one respects them for their work on a subject no one has heard of or understands. Our department chair meetings usually focus on how the college is not appreciated by the university or how, within the larger process of money allocation to the colleges, no one in administration understands “research” in the Humanities. When I was at Wayne State, I felt unappreciated that I was not listed as one of the media studies faculty, even though I wrote a book about media and writing. My colleague in literature who studied Warhol was listed. He felt unappreciated that, as a Warhol expert who had much to say about Modernism and art, he had to live in Detroit and not in New York.

Process drives appreciation. Which process did you take part in? That is the one that will make you feel appreciated. Last year, in a department chair’s meeting, the chairs were scorned for not nominating enough faculty for college awards. The award process pretends to make you feel appreciated. One person wins; everyone else wins vicariously. It is, of course, cheaper to give one person a plaque and $1,000 than to give plaques and money to everyone. The gesture suggests that you, too, can one day earn the honor of having to get dressed up in a suit or elegant attire, attend a campus catered dinner of either poorly prepared chicken or poorly prepared fish, hear how not even sliced bread could teach/write/advise like you do, and spend $70 on the baby sitter for the privilege of being a part of this process.

When I was promoted to full professor and my wife was promoted to associate professor, we were invited to the college’s annual promotion award ceremony, also a campus catered affair. We declined because of how much we hated the person running our unit at the time. When we resigned from the University of Missouri to take the jobs at the University of Kentucky, we were invited to a ceremony to thank us for our four years in the English Department. We declined because we were mad at certain things colleagues had done. I also don’t own a suit. I now have to attend the annual promotion ceremony because, as department chair, it’s my responsibility to honor those who have gone through the elaborate process of being promoted. I wear jeans.

It’s easy to feel unappreciated when you are short. After all, Randy Newman told us that short people have no reason to live. In academia, like the rest of the world, height often determines respect. I sometimes think that if I were only five inches taller, I’d be Dean of Parking right now. That promotion, because of my height, will never come. I am probably the shortest chair in the college of Arts & Sciences. The process of being selected chair hinged on the fact that there was no one else to do it Even though my two year old beard and my tattoos should qualify me for many tasks such as running a brewery or being cool, they do not counter my height disadvantage. I was too short to be selected as first option for department chair.

Social media was meant to counter our issues with self esteem. Nobody knows how tall you are online. Likes. Hearts. Stars. Ratings. I once heard a This American Life episode about junior high school girls who only post to Instagram to raise their self esteem and be told how pretty they are. I don’t know who posts more “tell me you like me, you really like me” updates to Facebook: academics or the rest of the world. If I do a good deed or if I sympathize with a global disaster, and I don’t share it on Facebook, will anyone appreciate me for the humanitarian I am? Disaster posts are less about genuine sympathy for the welfare of others we have never met, and often more about being recognized for having such sympathy in the first place.

While we often feel unappreciated, we try and make students feel the opposite. Dean’s list ceremonies. Welcome to college ceremonies. Convocations. Graduations. The entire two weeks preceding class each Fall are devoted to making students feel good about choosing our university over others in the region. If you are a freshmen at my university and you don’t receive twenty new, free t-shirts with various campus logos on them during those two weeks, no one likes you.

In four tenure line jobs, and in a number of administrative roles, I have never attended a convocation or graduation. I didn’t attend my own graduation when I completed my PhD. I don’t even own regalia. Wearing the robe is meant to make us and those who work with us feel appreciated. When you put on a robe and wear a flat shaped hat that doesn’t actually fit on your head, you become elevated to a status equitable to Supreme Court Justice or monarch. We’re special, the robe declares. We are the main figures in a ceremony. The robe says so. We create ceremonies to reflect that specialness. Robes declare the “specialness” of teaching college level courses, having a small cinder block office, and having to pay $70 for the baby sitter while you sit on a stage elsewhere in town sweating under the robe. Or, at least that’s how I imagine wearing that robe must feel in a crowded auditorium with the lights on the stage, sitting uncomfortably on a folding chair, jammed extremely close to a colleague who chairs another department, looking at one’s phone the whole time. When I attend the Dean’s list ceremony as representative of my department, I wear jeans.

Oprah tells us that we’re all winners. But we’re not. Kenny Shopsin reminds us that we’re not special, none of us. And when we do win — promotion, good job, book award, prestigious publication — we still think no one likes us. Second prize gets a set of steak knives. Academics live for those steak knives. Second prize always feels like first prize because first prize — it doesn’t really exist. It’s imaginary. The process is first prize. I finished my tenure portfolio! I submitted a grant application! I applied to be Dean of Parking!

In his witty political commentary of U.S. low self esteem within global relations, Randy Newman sang, “No one likes us/ we don’t know why.” He concludes this lament with, “they don’t respect us anyone/so let’s drop the big one now.” If unappreciated, Newman joked, we should bomb the rest of the world. That is, let’s go unappreciated in style. If there is one character in cinema history who is unappreciated and goes out in style, it is Reservoir Dog’s Mr. Pink. He doesn’t even get to choose his own name. He’s the doofus who won’t tip. Yet, he survives the final carnage.

Mr. Pink

As department chair, I think of Mr. Pink quite often. “Why can’t we do X,” always yields a response in my throat: “We tried that once. It didn’t work!” Telling someone an idea won’t work — that doesn’t solve the appreciation dilemma. We want it all to work out. The awards. The publications. The job offers. The counter offers. The robes. The process. Without any of this, do we really have appreciation?