This post may need a bit of an explanation. I am supposed to give a brief talk to and about a partcular institution. I think the institution is often shooting itself in the foot. So I would like to talk about an aspect of institutional excellence at least to divert attention from inflicting wounds. The connection I mention below seemed to me to be possibly worth exploring. It occurred to me yesterday, so these are very preliminary reflections. I’m also reacting a bit to an earlier post on the topic of referring to one’s work.
I’ve been thinking off and on about these two themes for some time. It occurred to me last night that in fact they may be very closely connected. A little more cautiously, two institutions that have recently seemed to be very similar even though they are very different in kind might seem so similar because of how these themes might be invoked in describing them. (Just so you know, I’ve been wondering for some time why two places I’ve recently seen a lot of – Somerville College, Oxford, and MD Anderson, Houston, often ranked as the US’s number one cancer treatment and research institution, have seem so similar in some way related to excellence. That is, related in a way that is more than simply both being excellent.)
So let’s consider this conjecture: with some excellent places, the accusatory assumption that someone who mentions her work is being self-promoting is absent, or nearly absent. Further, that absence can nuture excellence while it is itself a more intelligent reaction to excellence.
What could possibly cause any association between excellence and a lack of accusations of self-promotion? Here is one connection: it is pretty unthinking to assume someone mentioning her work is being self-promoting. The assumption is a mark of a failure in excellence. Why? For a lot of reasons:
1. People who think one’s motivation is self-promotion quite probably are not aware of some other very significant motivations. In particular, there can be a genuine joy in creating something and bringing something to a conclusion, whether it is a paper, a painting, a recital, a tennis match, or so on.
2. The hypothesis of self-promotion usually has a large gap; namely, there isn’t an answer given to the question of whom the accused is supposed to be trying to impress. Too often the accuser assumes they are among those whom the accused is trying to impress. Except in some special cases where the accuser has special power or resources, that may well be false.
3. The accusation is a way of dismissing someone’s work without incurring any burden of proof. That is less than honest trickery (At the same time, we might reflect that there are different reasons one might want to dismiss someone’s work. The quality of the work might really threaten one’s own sense of self-worth. Or one might be trying to derail some candidacy, etc. and there are no doubt more reasons.)
I think and hope I’ve said enough to give some sense of a line of thought.
I expect there are objections, and I’d love to hear of any you think of. You can also be positive!
There is a great deal, in fact, that remains to be said. For example, aren’t there some brilliant people who have made huge advances while still being nasty and accusatory about others’ supposed self-promoting narcissism? (talk about projection, one might say.) If you are thinking about this, please notice that the ideas get quite qualified as this post progresses.
So please add or subtract from these reflections.