Close, But No Cigar

May 3, 2013
photo by sfgamchick

photo by sfgamchick

Around this time two years ago I happily tweeted that I was accepting a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair at McGill. I should actually have said that I was accepting a position at McGill along with a nomination for a CRC. My impression at the time was that the institution was making the significant vetting and selection decision and that the CRC application to Ottawa was to ensure that no egregious lack of judgement had been made that could sully the reputation of the CRC program. It’s true that the success rate of applications is very high, but it turns out that CRC approval is much more subject to the strengths and weaknesses of conventional peer-review than I’d anticipated. The digital humanities is still a small enough community that I’ve collaborated with many of the more established scholars who would have been naturally suited to assess my dossier, which makes arms-length peer-review even more challenging – I have to suspect that some evaluators were maybe less familiar with what we hold to be some distinctive characteristics of the digital humanities.

Friends, in my case, it was close, but no cigar.

I’d be lying if I denied that there’s a small part of me that want to crawl under a moist rock and wallow in self-pity. Rejection is no fun, regardless of circumstances. I apply for a lot of grants and I’ve had many hits, but also quite a few misses. Even when I know it’s a long-shot, being told no is deflating. The CRC wasn’t a long-shot, but more importantly, it was intricately woven into my motivations for changing jobs, moving my family, and my envisioned identity for the coming years. So yeah, that part kind of sucks.

At the same time, I can very honestly and sincerely say that I’m also relieved that it didn’t work out. A Tier 1 CRC comes with enormous expectations, pressure, and spotlight – none of which I particularly want more of in my life. I think Tier 1 CRCs are really intended for hyper-productive, ambitious, endlessly energetic academics (not to mention more senior scholars; there’s clearly a significant structural gap between the Tier 1 and Tier 2 levels – I was a hair beyond eligibility criteria for Tier 2). It’s tempting to say that the Tier 1 CRC committee wasn’t quite ready for a highly collaborative tool-building digital humanist like me, but it’s probably also true that I wasn’t quite ready to assume the profile associated with a conventional Tier 1 CRC. The program seeks to support acknowledged world leaders in their fields, and achieving and sustaining that position takes considerable effort, and sometimes compromise. I know several CRCs and I have great admiration and respect for them; I also scratch my head wondering in awe how they manage to do everything they do.

It may be just my coping mechanism, but I do feel that this new trajectory give me increased freedom to make choices for the right reasons, to be the academic I want to be instead of the one I’m expected to be. I can continue to collaborate with teams and not be concerned about whether or not I’m the perceived leader (as principal investigator, lead author, or whatever). I can continue spending time on digital scholarship, including tool-building, without worrying personally about how that work is measured. I can focus more energy on interactions with students that are consistent with my notions of the contemporary mandate of the humanities for forming active citizens in a digital society. And so on. I’m not saying those things wouldn’t have been possible with a CRC (and the additional resources that come with the Chair would have been helpful in some ways), but I won’t need to question as much whether my choices are motivated by professional optics rather than by personal preference.

I also recognize that I have been unbelievably and undeservedly fortunate so far in my career. I’ve been a faculty member at three outstanding universities – I look around at many of the extremely bright and talented graduates and it pains me to see them struggle to find the academic jobs that they’d been encouraged to envision for themselves. I’m a tenured professor at McGill, a world-renowned institution with a justified reputation for excellence. The CRC nomination was really an enormous honour, regardless of the outcome. I have a great job in a stimulating environment, I live in the amazing city of Montreal, I have a healthy family… it would be absurd of me to really feel discouraged.

While the CRC rejection isn’t a happy event, I am convinced that it’s a better outcome for the more balanced lifestyle that I want. I look forward to a long, productive and satisfying career at McGill.

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