you just got published? don’t tell me about it

Nottingham has the reputation of being a gritty kind of city. It’s got some big estates as well as two universities and it’s the mere existence of these estates that has earned the city a somewhat undeserved reputation as being rough and hard. You see it’s actually often very polite and kind.

One of its more endearing habits is that people invariably thank bus drivers when they get off the bus. Even though the drivers are just doing their job, the culture of the city is to thank them. And it’s quite common for people to stop and let other people into traffic queues, none of this I-was-here-first-and-you-can–just wait-for-however-long-it-takes. In fact it’s really unusual for someone not to let others in, even though the traffic is often terrible. This considerate travel behaviour is a local cultural idiosyncrasy, probably not exclusive to Nottingham, but certainly one of the things that you notice when you move here.

I was musing about this peculiarity in relation to academic cultures the other day, and thinking about how it is that the university organisational equivalents to Nottingham traffic behaviour work. All occupations seem to have their own distinctive little conventions and ours is no different and when someone does something out of the ordinary it’s really obvious… just as being an oink travelling down my very narrow street is. Break the hidden rule and everyone notices.

For example I’ve observed that it’s really not acceptable in my institution to be immodest in public. It’s absolutely necessary of course when writing job and grant applications to big yourself up, but it’s really not OK to rush around the corridor with your latest article or book – even though these are a cause for celebration. Very little beats the pleasure of seeing your hard won words in print but you must whoop whoop in private. It’s even less acceptable to tell people if you’ve had some kind of award. Your colleagues have to read about it in the Times Higher, rather than hear it from you, and only then can they can congratulate you.

I’m not talking about going on some kind of maniacal ego trip here – something seriously over the top where success is shoved down everyone’s throat at every opportunity. No, I’m simply suggesting that something past a secret conversation in the loo with your bestie might be permitted – that some kind of public marking of meaningful events might be a good thing.

I’ve come to think that this lack of recognition is actually symptomatic of greedy institutional cultures – and so I’m dead keen to try to disrupt them. This is why we’ve instituted an annual book celebration for our arts and social sciences faculties. Once a year we get all the books together and have a knees-up. And because the celebration is collective, it turns out that it’s actually a better-than-OK thing to do … It feels like an institutional pat on the back for the hard work that people have put in, in order to get their work out there.

So I’m wondering – do other institutions have better ways of acknowledging success and achievement, or is keeping quiet at all costs a global academic convention?

What do you think? Does your university or alt-academic office have non-cheesy ways of acknowledging the things that everyone must do but are hard work and a real achievement?

Post script:
After I’d written this blog post I saw that thesis whisperer had a post on the same issue calling for a gong for PhDs, you might like to check that out too if you haven’t already. So clearly the practice of keeping schtum about achievements is not just the case here in England!!

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, celebration, organisational culture, publishing, recognition and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to you just got published? don’t tell me about it

  1. Zoe Lim says:

    Hmmm don’t think so this happens in my school (pharmacy) – everybody is copied into an email when somebody publishes something. So you actually will be flooded with congratulations (in person and in emails) the very minute you circulate the news. And this news will also be posted on the school webpage. In Malaysia, where it is harder to publish, the news may even reach the Dean as it is something so big so ‘the whole village should know’…


  2. pat thomson says:

    Who sends the email Zoe, the person who is published?


  3. Good post! We (at the Peace Research Institute Oslo) have discussed this extensively. From a management perspective, what can we do? Is there a trade-off between, on the one hand, a friendly an inclusive work environment for all, and, on the other hand, a culture of promoting and rewarding high-quality publishing? What we do have, which is good, is a noticeboard that is updated every three months with front pages of people’s articles. The idea is to have a routine that ensures that everyone’s publications get noticed, and hope that it generates informal congratulations.


  4. Wal Reinhardt says:

    Maybe it’s about the ‘framing’ of the celebration? academics are notoriously thin skinned, so a party for the success of some could become easily become a public humiliation for others that haven’t been so successful. Maybe that’s why we don’t have more ‘institutional pats on the back’- because they can easily become an ‘institutional kicks up the backside’?


    • pat thomson says:

      I guess that ‘s the culture of the greedy audit institution in action … Gobbling up pleasure and sharing guilt. Be good if we could just take delight in the achievements of others without feeling envy, aka internalised Performativity.


  5. nomen nescio says:

    I am a PhD student in a highly ranked Dept in the North West. I won an award and published twice and I almost feel embarrassed about it. Publications from staff are publicised (specifically in the case of Profs), but apparently students lack importance; there has not been a single staff member that congratulated me, and my supervisors only did so because I was so happy. The attitude among PhD students is either competitive or so negative towards working on publications, that I have no interest mentioning that I am working on a third piece.


  6. lenandlar says:

    In my institution (will remain unnamed for now 🙂 for obvious reasons) it is almost a sin to mention a newly published piece because publishing is not the norm. Guilty feelings and a sense of ‘not-good-enough’ can easily set in. Interestingly, i also find that those who publish, are at the mercy of those who don’t – they almost always have something negative to say about the quality of your work. 🙂


  7. Liz F says:

    At the OU, we held a book launch for one of our Profs, Martin Weller, when his book was published last year. It was a very different kind of launch to those commonly used by publishers, and included a talk by Martin with Q&A, and also a competition run through Twitter with the winner getting a hard copy of the book. You can see what we did on here: Part of the thinking behind it was exactly that we don’t celebrate these kinds of triumphs as much as we should (although the OU is maybe better than some places – I don’t know enough about other places to be able to tell!).


  8. janelouisehunter says:

    Such an odd culture … generosity of spirit was everywhere when over the years I have interacted with US colleagues and also the experience of my daughter who studies and has studied for some time in the US. Green-eyed monster in alive and well – sad. I refuse to play that game.


  9. Came across this post when looking for something else on your blog Pat – so excuse the late response ….

    It is for precisely that reason academia is such an odd space … I do not find that when working with US colleagues, and also my daughter, who is still studying and completed her first degree there – always spoke about Americans ‘generosity of spirit’. I have encountered that over and over again myself. Perhaps it is a uniquely British/Australian thing …an extension of the tall-poppy phenomenon? Green-eyed monsters are alive and well – sad. Collective achievements of colleagues should be celebrated and spoken about – I say a big NO to the ‘whoop whoop’ in private!


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