How I Fail S01E12: Jennifer Diascro (PhD’95, Political Science)

For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Jennifer Diascro who is Associate Academic Director at the University of California Washington Program and has a PhD in political science. She blogs about tenure denial and failure in academia. You can also follow her on Twitter.

1.  Hi Jennifer, thanks for joining the series! Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself, and perhaps any noteworthy failures you already could share?

I am currently Associate Academic Director at the University of California Washington Program (UCDC). My position is a combination of administrative (I support the excecutive director on curriculum issues, such as course offerings and faculty recruitment) and faculty (I teach the equivalent of 5 courses each year). Before I came to UCDC, I was a member of the senior staff at the American Political Science Association (APSA) for several years. My first career, though, was academia; I’ve had faculty appointments at the University of Kentucky (UK) and American University (AU).

I got my PhD in political science, with a focus on American judicial process, in 1995 from the Ohio State University. My goal was to be an academic, and that’s the path I took out of grad school. My first academic position was at UK, where I was promoted with tenure in 2002. My fiancé, who was less professionally mobile than I, lived in Washington DC so I applied for several jobs and had interviews at three universities in the area. All were positions for an assistant professor. One I failed to get outright, and one went well but the line was pulled. The third was at AU, and I was offered the job. They wouldn’t negotiate the level of the position–I didn’t think to ask for associate without tenure–and I considered not taking the position to pursue nonacademic work instead. But I really wanted to stay in the academy, so accepted the tenure track position.

The single most noteworthy failure I’ve experienced is being denied tenure at AU. I’ve had many of the other par-for-the-course failures as an academic but this one was (obviously) the most significant because tenure is the brass ring but also because we can’t advance without it. Not achieving this essential milestone was an complete game changer for me.  I’ve been writing about it at my blog.

 2. Do you keep track of your failures? Why/why not?

Not really, although maybe more since I was denied tenure. The question makes me laugh a bit because I think there are probably too many to track! I don’t think as much about failing, per se, as I do about challenges that don’t work out. I’m not afraid to take risks—well, not the jumping-out-of-airplanes kind, but the road-less-traveled kind–so falling short is inevitable and not particularly notable. After tenure denial, though, I’m a bit more sensitive to the concept of failure, probably because it was such a doozy. And as a mother, I think much more about how to understand shortcomings so that I can raise kids who know how to manage and learn from their own.

3. What do you think about sharing failures online, like a “CV of Failures”?

Sharing failure is important for many reasons and I appreciate the people who are willing to make themselves vulnerable by sharing their experiences.  I’m doing it myself in a different forum. The CVs seemed to be a thing at one point, but then fizzled for whatever reason. I suspect it’s quite useful–especially for grad students and junior faculty–to see the setbacks that senior people have experienced. We tend to put those who have advanced through the ranks (the successful people) on pedestals and assume that everything comes easily to them; it can be very humanizing, and encouraging, to know that even the most accomplished among us have struggled, and that one can make it to the other side of the rejections and setbacks.

The flipside, though, is that the failure CVs highlight only the professional challenges that faculty face–and mostly the research part –narrowing the scope of actual work that we do, on and off the job. Additionally, they don’t reflect the luck and privilege that is inherent in academic advancement. As far as I know, we haven’t seen the CVs of those who haven’t ultimately advanced as they intended. So, I think these CVs may send the message that if one keeps working and working at these professional tasks, one will eventually achieve their goals. We normalize the struggle for success, but also the success itself, which means that when someone puts their nose to the grindstone, overcomes challenges, and still doesn’t achieve the brass ring, the failure may feel particularly profound.

Perhaps because I ultimately didn’t succeed, I’m a bit more concerned–even cynical–about these examples. I’m working on a timeline graphic of my accomplishments, which includes the failed and successful research and other professional responsibilities, but also the concurrent personal circumstances and obligations I’ve had. I don’t live in a professional vacuum. It’s helping me highlight all the invisible work that I’ve done (that doesn’t make it onto a CV) and appreciate the larger context in which I’ve made professional decisions. When/If I share it, perhaps it will provide some perspective for others evaluating their progress.

4. What do you do when you receive a rejection? What about when you receive good news?

I’m considering this question and the next one together, and shaking my head! Even at 50 years old, with lots of success and failure under my belt, my immediate reaction to rejection is to wonder which of my personal failings led to the rejection, and my immediate reaction to good news is to think of who else helped me achieve it. SAD! When I was younger, I lived in these spaces for long periods of time, to my detriment. As I’ve aged, I move out of them pretty quickly. I’m happy to take responsibility for my failures, when they’re mine; not when they’re not. And I’m more than happy to share responsibility for my successes–with my husband, usually, who’s my biggest fan and better half–but I’m much more able now than I was twenty years ago to take credit for accomplishing my goals.

5. If you would have a CV of failures, how would it compare to others in your field?

Because I’m no longer an academic (at least in the traditional sense), my answer is largely a reflection. My immediate response is to say more failures, but I think that’s because I was denied tenure and that colors how I view my career. Looking back through that lens, it’s hard not to see every decision in the context of that failure. But I don’t really know how to compare myself to others; doing so requires some standard measurement of success and failure. Counting stuff (publications, citations) is reasonable, but certainly not the whole story. There are examples of faculty with longer CVs than mine who were denied tenure; there are also examples of faculty with comparable (and shorter) CVs to mine who were promoted with tenure. In the end, there are a lot of individual but also institutional factors related to academic advancement.

6. Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?

I’ve had lots of challenges and struggles in my career, but tenure denial was the greatest and most painful. Importantly, it wasn’t just that it happened, but how it happened. For better or worse (probably the latter), I never assume succes. I thought it likely there’d be obstacles to tenure at the top levels of the administration; we had a new provost who was trying to make changes at the university, and our department had already seen the effects of his efforts in previous tenure denials. What I didn’t expect at all — although I might have, in retrospect — and that threw me for a loop was the rejection by my own department. And it wasn’t just a rejection; it was a wholesale diminution of my record, one that it had supported without exception throughout my years at the university. I can take rejection; but I much prefer it be served with uncomfortable honesty and constructive criticism than with the two-faced, passive aggressive approach my colleagues took in denying tenure.

7. Are there any opportunities you didn’t take that you wish you had (so you could add them to either your “success” or your “failure” CV)?

Hindsight being what it is, there are many things I see with greater clarity. I’m not sure that there are opportunities, per se, that I’d take if I could, but there are some things that I might do differently. I hesitate, though, because the decisions aren’t independent events. My path would likely have been different had I made different decisions along the way. Because the professional is intricately tied to the personal–at least in my life–I have very few, if any, regrets.

Still, if I were to go back, I might approach my research a bit differently by collaborating more (and smarter; see below) and asking some different questions for which I didn’t have to collect my own data. Both would have saved me enormous amounts of time and might have increased the number of publications on my CV. Would I have been tenured had I written more often and conducted substantively and methodologically different research? Maybe, although not likely. But a longer CV might’ve made it harder to deny.

Also, to turn your question around, I can say with certainty that there were “opportunities” I did take that I would definitely not take if I could do them again. Saying “no thank you” to senior colleagues can be difficult, but it’s important to do if they ask you to work on projects that are not in your interest. Of course, it can be difficult to know what’s in your best interest, and dissing senior colleagues may not be. In any event, for me, going with my gut and declining invitations to write would have been a more appropriate decision in a couple of instances on the second TT. Not that it would have changed the outcome–it would not have, given what I know about senior support for my tenure case–but, it might have made it a bit more difficult to deny.

8. Can you think of something you did that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t find in a “success” CV?

Academics have many successes that don’t make it onto their CV. Most of the focus is on research, and appropriately so. But we do so many other things and have so many other accomplishments that are barely recognized, if at all, on our CVs. For me, it’s mentoring. I couldn’t record, even if I had a place to do it, the hundreds and hundreds of hours I’ve spent with students–in and out of class–providing professional and personal development. This continues to be among the greatest joys—and strengths—of my career, yet it is invisible to anyone who knows me only by my CV.

9. Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

For me, this is the $64,000 question and I don’t know where to start! I’m trying to work through some of this as I think about my own experiences and write my blog, but it’s a real challenge to sort through the complexity of the academy. Academia has numerous strengths, but not least among its challenges is how little time (if any) there is to recover from missteps and other obstacles to advancement. From this perspective, academia is extremely unforgiving. This has devastating consequences for individuals, of course, but also for institutions. Policy changes here and there may help in some instances, but ultimately I think real change will require breaking the self-fulfilling cycle of the gatekeeping process. And that will likely require a shift in academic culture.

Part of achieving that shift is a greater willingness to talk openly and honestly about the missteps and obstacles that we all experience. And we’re seeing more and more of this, which I think is phenomenal. But it’s really hard for people to expose their vulnerabilities; not only is it a challenge to understand and articulate them, but they are often rejected by others as individual weaknesses and deficiencies. Human beings excel at projection, and academics aren’t immune to this tendency.

Still, if we keep working at it, perhaps we can chip away (however slowly) at rigid academic structures and make some of the changes necessary to improve our institutions.

10. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Chill! I was way too serious as a younger person. More to the point, though, would be to find balance. I have never been great at finding a middle ground between work and life; work always came first, and because work is never ending in academia, there was often little time for life. There’s a reason I didn’t have a family during grad school and my first TT position. It wasn’t until I had children that I was forced to figure out how to allocate my limited time between two full time responsibilities. The professional stakes were at their highest when I was fumbling through—and often floundering at—my first attempts at balancing. It’s all still a work in progress. But I’m more chill now (although my children might disagree!) so I’m ok with the more-than-occasional screw up.

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