A Too-Long Reflection on Being a “Leader in the Field”

A Too-Long Reflection on Being a “Leader in the Field”

Last week, I finished co-facilitating the 2021 Rhetoric Society of America Summer Institute seminar, “Rhetoric in Dark Times.” It was a career goal I never really expected to reach, and it was everything I hoped it would be.

But the experience also got me thinking anew about the somewhat vexed transition points in academic careers that we (by which I mean me, but I’m projecting here) are rarely good at managing.

One aspect of the seminar was that I met with participants to talk about their works-in-progress. One person, who is himself pretty accomplished, noted offhandedly that he thought of me as a “leader in the field.”

My immediate impulse was to demur. It’s weird to be told something like that because to agree feels arrogant and gross. But to disagree seems like a demand for proof (“I am sympathetic to your thesis, Charles, but I’m going to need you to provide ALL the evidence. Take your time, be thorough.”).

I am deeply ambivalent about being a so-called “leader in the field,” though I would be lying if I said it’s not something I have aspired to. Nevertheless, in the wake of my apparent elevation, I find myself ruminating on the transition between aspiring-leader and leader.

What interests me in particular are the transition points between what I think of as stages of recognition (though it could just as easily be called reputation or fame).

Plainly, how do we—academics, in general—prepare ourselves to notice, acknowledge, and cope with shifts in privilege that accrue among different stages of recognition, especially when those shifts are nebulous and not necessarily apparent to the person making the shifts?

Spoiler alert: I think not very well.

I cannot think of a time in my (long, illustrious 😉) career when a mentor explicitly talked to me about informal points of “leveling-up,” how to recognize them, and their attendant responsibilities. Formal points—degrees, promotions, etc.—yes. Responsibilities, yes. Stages of recognition in the between times, no.

But these moments are incredibly common. When you publish an article, for instance, a certain amount of recognition accrues. Same with a book, or a conference paper, or a committee you serve on, or a summer seminar. Same with a social media profile, winning an award, doing public appearances, etc. And for people who do a number of these things over time, recognition tends to accumulate.

The accrual is uneven and largely outside of any one person’s control. As a result, it can be hard to notice and even harder to acknowledge movement between stages of recognition because of the weirdness I mentioned above (“Tell me, Charles, what’s your favorite thing about me?”).

But recognition does accrue, and you know, like, what do you do with that?

It’s not an idle question, either. Changes in privilege, especially in informally-structured arenas like academic disciplines, can have real and serious consequences. I don’t think they’re hard to imagine. People who cannot see that they have acquired privileges of recognition can proceed unburdened by the attendant responsibilities of status without feeling like monsters.

While the suggestion that I’m a leader in the field was very much intended as a compliment, and I took it as such, I also found it unsettling because I don’t want to be an accidental monster.

Hopefully I’m not, but I’m not fishing for reassurance here. I’m trying to be conscious about the process and point(s) of transition that aren’t clearly marked by a degree or promotion or title change.

This is, of course, not just about me. The experience I’m trying to unpack is one other people struggle with, as well.

Some years ago, I watched an conversation unfold online between two people I would have called leaders in the field. To protect the relatively innocent, I’ll call them Dog the Bounty Hunter and Wilma Flintstone.

The specific details aren’t especially important. What is necessary to know is that Wilma was upset about a thing that happened in the world.

I cannot stress enough that Wilma’s anger was justified. So, the question isn’t about the validity of the catalyst—it’s about the subsequent discussion.

Wilma expressed her anger on social media and even tagged Dog because it extended a previous conversation they’d had. Ever the rationalist, Dog weighed in a way that was not attentive to Wilma’s (again, utterly reasonable) anger. He rationalized the issue in academic tones rather than engaging with the effects it had on Wilma and others.

Wilma was unimpressed. Dog’s stature in the field eventually became an explicit part of the argument. At one point, Wilma insinuated—or maybe said outright—that Dog was relying on his privilege as a straight, white, economically-secure, professionally-privileged man to distance himself from real-world effects.

Dog sorta lost his shit.

He claimed he was an outcast all his life. In academia, he found a small measure of community, but he still always thought of himself as on the outside looking in. He couldn’t possibly have the kind of stature Wilma was accusing him of wielding.

Needless to say, the conversation ended badly.

What stuck with me in watching the discussion unfold was that although I (and Wilma) considered Dog a leader in the field, he didn’t see himself that way. Therefore, he didn’t seem to realize he had responsibilities of recognition apart from the formal ones he’d accrued as a full professor, etc.

Even when that became a central point in the argument, he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see it. As a consequence, he hurt people—unintentionally, and I think regretfully, but no less seriously.

Dog wasn’t exactly unaware of his privileges associated with his rank and identity, but he was (apparently) totally unaware of the shifts in privilege that had accrued to him informally as his recognition grew.

My personal takeaway was that I don’t want to be Dog. As uncomfortable as I am being called a leader in the field, I really, REALLY don’t want to end up a leader in the field and not have any sense of it. I don’t want to end up abusing privileges of recognition I don’t even know I have.

More broadly, I find myself thinking a lot about how academics might teach each other to be better about seeing stages of recognition and their attendant shifts in privilege—especially because the recognition and the privilege accrue arbitrarily for individuals and unevenly among people (especially along race, gender, gender identity, class, and other lines).

I’ve seen people handle shifts in recognition well, but it all seems to be pretty haphazard. I think it would be good if it was less so.

At this point, I don’t have anything like answers to questions about status shifts. But they’re questions I want to continue ruminating on because I think they’re consequential for a lot of people and has been for a very, very long time—and often in ways that cause incalculable damage.

If you have made it this far and have thoughts or suggestions for ways to think better in this (or a related) direction, I’d be happy to hear them.


2 thoughts on “A Too-Long Reflection on Being a “Leader in the Field”

  1. I certainly do not believe I am anything like a “leader in the field,” and I don’t have any suggestions about how to not be a Dog. But I will say this:

    * Seems to me leadership roles come and go, and that’s the way it should be. I think the Dogs of the world (or at least in academia) are the ones who do not realize this and try to hold on to/present themselves as leaders too long.

    * I am fond of repeating an observation from one of my now former colleagues and still friend: “famous academic” is an oxymoron.

    And you’re doing totally cool in your leadership role, Ryan. Sounds like that RSA seminar was pretty cool!


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