‘We Regret to Inform You’: Success, Failure, and the Shadow C.V.

Pinned to the board above my desk in my office is an Apollo 13 postcard that reads: “Failure is not an option.” This was the collective motto of the mission, despite the fact that, well, NASA had failed a lot during the course of the space race (1957-1975). I thought about this postcard a lot after being asked by the Graduate College here at the University of Iowa to give the opening keynote at orientation for our newly arrived PhD students. I felt like it was time to do something I had only discussed over beers with my friend Derek Counts: It was time to talk about my “Shadow C.V.” 

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Graduation day (May, 2005) outside the History Department graduation ceremony with my undergraduate advisor at the University of Virginia, Elizabeth Meyer. To the right? Where I was accepted and rejected from graduate school. 

I didn’t coin the term #ShadowCV. I first heard of it in 2015, in an article by English professor Devoney Looser within the Chronicle of Higher Education that discussed the benefits for our students of collecting and engaging with not only the successes we proudly imprint on our C.V.s, but also the failures we have experienced. These include the myriad letters that have rejected us from jobs, grants, fellowships, research positions, and more.

We omit these from our resumes because––just like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram––we often create curated art galleries that display our success in life rather than spotlighting the things that hurt us, gave us anxiety, or may point to a deficiency. I had been too scared to talk about these failures prior to getting tenure; I must admit. But with a new semester on the horizon and a new position as DGS in Classics, I felt like this might be the time. Here are the slides and a few thoughts along the way.

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Graduation day 2011. You can’t tell but I am actually thinking about the fact I was just rejected from a job at Boise State and was yet to find an academic position. 

That Apollo 13 postcard sits behind a picture of me with my undergraduate history advisor at UVA, Elizabeth Meyer. She is a perfectionist and the model of an ancient historian I hope to become. She is my alma mater, and I was terrified to tell her of rejections from graduate school. I called her crying after the GREs and waited for months only to be rejected by Brown University. I drove in a snow storm to Philadelphia for my graduate interview at Penn and never even heard back––I never even received the rejection letter.

However, I got into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to work with Richard J.A. Talbert––without funding. Richard fought all summer to find me money in the history department to fund my graduate education and he did. I never forgot how hard he worked to make me a Tar Heel and to make sure I didn’t go into debt in order to realize my dream of being an ancient historian.

Once I got to graduate school, it is not as if the failure ended or I felt any less like an imposter. I went through breakups, was rejected for 3 fellowships, was fired by the UNC athletic advising program after bringing a running back up on honor charges, and went through a serious bout of depression which compelled me to run marathons instead of dealing with my anxiety over graduate school. Close friends at both Duke and UNC got me through it. We had a tight-knit cohort in graduate school who supported each other and was always there to listen and support–or buy me a margarita (Thanks, Philipp).

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Graduate school friends: The ultimate coping mechanism. 

I completed my M.A. and then my PhD, but then it was time to apply to jobs. I was rejected by 32 tenure track positions, many to my friends and colleagues whom I had interviewed with. I was offered a visiting professorship at Erskine College, only to turn it down when they told me I would have to sign a statement of faith. On the day I graduated from UNC in May of 2011, I received a request for an on-campus interview for Washington & Lee University’s Mellon Post-Doc. It was a long shot, but Rebecca Benefiel had plucked my application out of dozens in front of her and taken a chance on me.

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I was lucky and I knew it. The Mellon Post-Doc was the ticket to getting my foot in the door and landing a tenure track job. After only a year in Virginia, I moved with sadness away from my home state and went off to Marquette University before later getting a tenure track position at the University of Iowa.

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Along the way, I had the chance to see and work with those who I had once felt rejected by. Other people also encouraged me through failure: I still leaned on my advisor for both moral support and letters of recommendation, but also had my academic family. Lee Brice, Georgia Tsouvala, Leanne Bablitz, and Garrett Fagan listened and advised me on articles and Garrett even gave me his prospectus to model my own book manuscript. When Garrett died in March of 2017, I was devastated.

I was one of the few who had landed a tenure track job, yes, but that didn’t mean that the failure was over. I had meetings with publishers that didn’t pan out (a particularly embarrassing meeting in Manhattan comes to mind) and anxieties over spending too much time blogging rather than on my manuscript. Ultimately, Ellen Bauerle at the University of Michigan Press took a chance on me as an unknown author after David Potter introduced us at a conference. If I had learned anything it was that it was usually the kindness and support of others that had gotten me through. So often we cannot see on a C.V. that success is achieved in large part through others lifting us up.

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That doesn’t mean I don’t still cry when I feel I have failed. I just try not to do it in faculty meetings. I sobbed at a restaurant in Maine while reading the BMCR review of my book. In response, my now sister-in-law took one look at me and told me to stop focusing on only the negative parts of the review; it really wasn’t that bad. She was right. So many times when reading reviews of our work or teaching evaluations, we focus only on the negative rather than the positive parts.

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In concluding the presentation to our new students, I told them that only a couple of days ago, I had been rejected for the second year in a row from the Whiting Foundation. Turns out they didn’t want my brand of public engagement this year, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try again next year. I have also been rejected numerous times by the NEH and had 3 rejections from major conferences in my field.

By my count, I am batting around .257 in academia at best. That means I fail about three quarters of the time. Regardless, I have so much to be thankful and grateful for. This is indeed the most personal blog post I have yet written, but that is in part due to the fact that I am often tired of smiling or pretending that I am perfect or that I have it all together. We all know I am not and I don’t.

I have come to believe that the pressure to create and perpetuate the veneer of academic perfection is seriously damaging to the graduate students that we are mentoring and encouraging. I wanted to tell the new UI graduate students and to tell you that while we may adopt the motto that “failure is not an option,” we must ultimately surrender to the fact that it will sometime happen. Life is a collage of good and bad that is not reflected on the C.V. we submit to job applications. On this first day of classes, I wanted to encourage other academics to share their own Shadow C.V. and to be honest with those we will teach in the coming years.

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The collage on my desk of the people (and their postcards) who have helped me and inspired me along the way. They have also been there when I have failed miserably. 

3 thoughts on “‘We Regret to Inform You’: Success, Failure, and the Shadow C.V.

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  1. Your contribution with a personal “shadow CV” is “frank and free” (German: “frank und frei”). This frankness surprises me as it seems to be a change of paradigm within the academic world and beyond. Apparently, biography is about learning to fail better. So, I might share some similar stories. Nevertheless, recently I received a certificate to the “bronze Ph.D.” – 15 years after – from my university.
    Now, I am curious how the Ph.D. students reacted to your key note.
    Good wishes and greetings, Bernd

  2. Dear Sarah, I am moved by your heartfelt comments and your honesty. I am now an old lady and love Latin and the Roman culture. Life is difficult and seldom do we get what we want when we want it. Yes, you do always have to put your best foot forward, and sell yourself. That’s just how we play the game. I admire you and I am somewhat jealous of you. You have achieved your dream; you are working in a job you love and now is the time to go forward. You have tried your best at grants, job interviews, etc. Do not consider being turned down rejection; it is just one side step on your journey, a challenge and I know you are always up for challenges. Always do your very best, and be proud of what you have accomplished. And, keep applying for grants, writing books, and teaching students. This is what you were made to do. And, remember, only 2% of females get your PhD! MaryT

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