On Academic Bios

Be proud of doing it your own way

Branko Milanovic reads the bios of “several contemporary economists” and is struck by their “bareness”: “The lives sounded like CVs. Actually, there was hardly any difference between their CVs and their lives (to the extent that I could tell).”

He continues:

The lives (i.e. CVs) typically went like this. He/she graduated from a very prestigious university as the best in their class; had many offers from equally prestigious universities; became an assistant professor at X, tenured at Y; wrote a seminal paper on Z when he/she was W. Served on one or two government panels. Moved to another prestigious university. Wrote another seminal paper. Then wrote a book. And then…this went on and on. You could create a single template, and just input the name of the author, and the titles of the papers, and perhaps only slight differences in age for each of them.

Surely there are some generic conventions at play here — indeed, Milanovic could be describing his own academic bio in the paragraph above — but is the boringness of so many academic bios indicative of some special paucity of life among the contemporary professoriate?

If so, Milanovic wonders about the implications:

[H]ow can people who had lived such boring lives, mostly in one or two countries, with the knowledge of at most two languages, having read only the literature in one language, having travelled only from one campus to another, and perhaps from one hiking resort to another, have meaningful things to say about social sciences with all their fights, corruption, struggles, wars, betrayals and cheating. Had they been physicists or chemists, it would not matter. You do not have to lead an interesting life in order to understand how atoms move, but perhaps you do need it to understand what moves humans (cf. Vico).

I think Milanovic has point, but again, part of this is genre. Academic bios elide all kinds of interesting stuff. That’s what makes them academic bios. Remember, too, that Milanovic is talking about economists. Yet I also wonder if the template he skewers has a normative function. There is a danger, it seems to me, of trying to live a life that might lead to one of these conventional bios, rather than a life that flows from other concerns. If you’ve ever warily asked yourself, “How would X look on my CV?,” where X is something that’s maybe just slightly unusual, and which is a question academics (particularly junior academics) are encouraged to ask themselves, you’ve submitted to the subtle tyranny of the boring academic bio.

I imagine such self-disciplining happens in other professions, too.

One school of thought says, as per Flaubert, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” But another school of thought — the school I increasingly find myself admiring, if not fully a part of — wonders if something about Flaubert’s formula doesn’t add up, or is at least a kind of privilege. “Orderly and boring lives are a privilege of rich and orderly societies,” asserts Milanovic.

Recents events have exposed the fact — if it was ever really hidden — that maybe we aren’t living in as rich or as orderly a society as we might have once liked to think we were. Paths that once seemed straight have become more obviously crooked. If the perfectly neat and tidy academic bio was always a sort of humblebrag by those who made it to the top, the résuméic equivalent of a millionaire wearing jeans, now it seems fanciful in its lifelessness.

Let us turn instead to unconventional, unacademic bios and advice for inspiration, as I have long found myself doing.

For example…

Sinclair Lewis argues that aspiring writers should “become a doctor or a grocer, a mail-flying aviator or a carpenter, a farmer or a bacteriologist, a priest or a Communist agitator” in addition to seeking to become a writer. Decades later, Werner Herzog would proffer advice to aspiring filmmakers, encouraging them to “work as a bouncer in a sex-club, a warden in a lunatic asylum or in a slaughterhouse. Walk on foot, learn languages, learn a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema.” This, needless to say, isn’t the advice given to aspiring academics. If, for example, you’re an academic who dabbles as a dominatrix, you might be blackballed.

Writer Charles Bukowski famously worked a number of odd jobs while cranking out poems and stories. Composer Philip Glass worked as a taxi driver, plumber, gallery assistant, and furniture mover until he was 41. Before becoming a bestselling author, Louis L’Amour was “a longshoreman, a lumberjack, an elephant handler, a fruit picker and an officer on a tank destroyer in World War II. He had also circled the world on a freighter, sailed a dhow on the Red Sea, been shipwrecked in the West Indies and been stranded in the Mojave Desert, and had won 51 of 59 fights as a professional boxer.” Compare these biographical sketches, which I draw energy from, to the one Milanovic puts forward above, which puts me to sleep.

Similarly, before he was an actor, James Garner worked as “telephone installer, oilfield roughneck, chauffeur, dishwasher, janitor, lifeguard, grocery clerk, salesman and, fatefully, gas station attendant.” Kris Kristofferson was a “Rhodes scholar, a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, a boxer, [and] a professional helicopter pilot” before becoming a songwriter and actor. Viggo Mortensen’s “previous careers included driving a truck, delivering flowers, and loading ships in Denmark. For years he lived from gig to gig, check to check, mostly broke. It probably didn’t help that, on a whim, he left L. A. and moved to Idaho. He supported his acting career for years by bartending and waiting tables.” These were jobs these guys did before they made it big, yes, but they weren’t merely that; they were constitutive of who they were/are later as people and artists.

Even if an academic once worked as, say, a bartender, and I imagine a lot of academics have done some bartending, it’s not something you expect to see listed in their bio, which is a shame. Something like bartending, as Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner write in Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), “can be taken as evidence … that the teacher has been in contact with reality at some point in his life.” “One of the common sources of difficulty with teachers,” they continue, “can be found in the fact that most of them simply move from one side of the desk (as students) to the other side (as ‘teachers’) and they have not had much contact with the ways things are outside of school rooms.” Putting aside the eternal debate over whether the classroom is part of the “real world,” I’ll simply say this: rather than omit bartending stints from their bios, academics should be encouraged to include them.

The above are all examples taken from this blog, and admittedly white and masculinist ones at that. But there are many more such cases. And there has never been a better time to draw inspiration from them, whatever your career. Don’t worry if your story is messy, I say. Shun the boilerplate bio, and the conformity it hints at. Embrace the idiosyncratic and vibrant path you surely are already on, and let your bio be a testament to as much. In the end, those are the ones people like to read, not CVs.

5 responses to “On Academic Bios

  1. Terrific post, Matt, and I’m happy you have comments back on.

    These bios are performative, no? Like a badge at a conference, they show what you’re made of, so to speak, or what you would like people to think you’re made of. I think of a possibly related matter:

    When I was buying dozens of books on “theory” in the 1980s, I was always struck by the absence of author photos from covers: “X is the Y Professor of Z at Major University.” A badge, but this time without even a face to go with it. A New York Times Magazine piece on Bloom, Derrida, de Man, and Miller was a big deal at least in part because of full-page photos of three of the principals.

    • Thanks, Michael. Comments are back on for posts where I think they might be appropriate. Thank you for yours.

      And these sorts of terse bios are definiately performative. I like your examples. I am also reminded of the scene from Wonder Boys wherein Rip Torn’s character begins his speech by simply declaring, “I am a writer,” which elicits applause from the crowd but a “You’ve got to be kidding me” look from Michael Douglas’s character.

  2. Ideally, I would have preferred a random sample of academic bios, since one would expect boring bios from economists (the dismal science) …

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