Category Archives: academe

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.

Quality, Not Quantity

“How many scholars are there whose single book or article has generated more intellectual energy than the collected works of other, quantitatively far more ‘productive,’ scholars? The commensurating device known as the ‘tape measure’ may tell us that a Vermeer interior and a cow plop are both twenty inches across; there, however, the similarity ends.”

—James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism

A Job’s a Job

“…I was finishing a PhD in philosophy at Emory University. The obvious path before me was to drift into a full-time position at a decent institution, work my dissertation into a book, zero in on a specialty, publish some articles and reviews, and lick the necessary wingtips to get tenure. But some sense of destiny (I would have never called it that then) kept me from ever taking such a path seriously. Though I’d proven myself capable of publishing articles and giving papers in the world of philosophy, I rebelled against the prospect of a microspecialty and the bureaucracy of tenure. Moreover, I hadn’t gotten into philosophy in order to become a scholar of philosophy, however wonderful and necessary the work of scholarship can be.

“When my mother called me from Iowa saying that she’d read in the local classified that Kirkwood Community College had a full-time philosophy position open, it seemed a reasonable way to get health insurance. The saying ‘a job is a job’ is particularly poignant for philosophers. Diogenes of Sinope, one of our profession’s early practitioners, used to beg money from statues. When asked why, he replied, ‘In order to get used to being refused.’ But he didn’t have a pregnant wife. And neither my wife nor I really wanted to live in a barrel and relieve ourselves outside, as were Diogenes’s customs.”

—Scott Samuelson, community college professor, journalist, and occasional chef at the beginning of The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone (2014)

Academics vs. Scholars

“The demand to publish, to be competitive on the job market, makes reading breadth and depth, to be truly interdisciplinary and broad focused, increasingly difficult. The neoliberal university is a space for the production academics (and commodities) rather than scholars or intellectuals.”

David J. Leonard


“I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs. I don’t think people should be allowed to even hear the word ‘theory’ until they’re doing graduate work—for the very good reason that it’s impossible to theorize about texts before one has deep familiarity with them (not that that stopped anyone in the 1980s when I was in grad school). Undergraduates should be taught to have a clean appreciation of what texts say and how they say them, and learn how to write intelligently and clearly about that. If undergraduates had to have a model of criticism it ought to be popular criticism rather than traditional academic criticism.”

Daniel Mendelsohn

Overcome Your Fear of Rejection

“Strikingly original, quirky individual – ‘creative’ – ‘nonconformist’ – would not be admitted to most competitive universities & colleges. Great American writers – Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Whitman, Dickinson, Poe et al. – would surely be rejected by ‘top’ universities today.”

—Joyce Carol Oates on  Twitter


What It’s Like

“A good writer needs to know what it’s like, and ‘it’ can be just about anything. We have far too many writers today who have never ridden a horse, or fired a gun, or sharpened a knife, or fought with their fists, or been shot at. And so on and so on. They are like those professors who get a Ph.D. and a job teaching. Clearly nobody can try everything, but it’s possible to try a lot. I’ve sailed on a small boat, for example.  Also a troopship, and a luxury liner.  I’ve been a waiter, worked in a factory, and flown in a light plane. (No, I was not the pilot, but I wish I had been.)”

Gene Wolfe


“America is thus a nation rapidly drifting towards a state of things in which no man of science or letters will be accounted respectable unless some kind of badge or diploma is stamped upon him”

—William James, “The PhD Octopus” (1903)

Drillers vs. Scanners

“I was at Penn State, and I was just aghast, because everyone was what I call drillers of deeper wells. These academics sit at the bottom of a deep well and they look up and see a sliver of the sky. They know everything about that little sliver of sky and nothing else. I scan all my horizons.”

Vaclav Smil

Should I go to grad school?

Last April I cooked up and posted to Twitter a flowchart to help people figure out whether to go to grad school. I am now posting it here.

Should I go to grad school?