Responsible self-promotion: negotiating the relationships between self and Other, myself and ‘my’ work

This is the text of a talk I gave at Sussex University, to a group of early career scholars and PhD researchers.

‘Responsible self promotion’. I think that is probably an oxymoron. Responsibility implies being accountable to something other than the self: the act of promoting the self is by definition, selfish. Is it possible to both promote the self and be accountable to the Other? I think the answer is ‘probably not’. But self-promotion is increasingly part of academic life: our readerships and research ‘impact’ are metricised by systems of reward and punishment like funding streams, league tables, and the REF. For early career researchers, precarious employment depends on being able to narrate the self in a marketable fashion. For those in mid- to late-career stages, promotion is reliant on self-promotion: rising up the ranks means evidencing, usually for a committee, our intellectual, political and cultural reach. How do we negotiate these demands for exposure in appropriate and sensitive ways?

I’m a social researcher. My work is to generate socially useful knowledge with a number of others: in my current projects, women and people of other genders who are navigating the challenging context of contemporary higher education. Many of these people are survivors of discrimination, harassment and assault. Some are working in the sex industry to pay their fees and maintenance. Many are vulnerable; some are socially marginalised; almost all tell me difficult or uncomfortable things about their lives and trust me to narrate these in thoughtful and honest ways. This is an intimacy between self and Other which is also at play when I think about the act of promoting my work.

To promote this work as ‘mine’ means to devalue the work these Others have contributed: time, emotional labour, co-production of ideas through long, and in some cases repeated, conversations. To promote this work as ‘mine’ also often leads to being asked to speak for, or over, the Other.

If I want to attempt to be responsible in my self-promotion, I need to honour the relationship between self and Other. I also need to be mindful of the boundary between myself and my, or more accurately our, work. This involves thinking very carefully about the role of the ‘self’ in what is being promoted. It also means seeing the Other as broadly defined, not just as my particular research participants but the communities and groups they represent. There are important ethical and political questions about who ‘owns’ different forms of knowledge, and who gets to speak those knowledges in the public realm. As my work has entered different publics – academia, policy, civil society and the media – I have found it more and more necessary to be clear on what exactly I am offering and what I am being asked to give. Am I claiming ownership of something it’s not really mine to possess? Am I being asked to speak to the work, or to speak for or over the Other?

When considering these questions I have found it useful to make distinctions between the work of specialist research and the general issues affecting the populations I create knowledge with. I may understand my project of data collection better than anyone else in terms of its rationale, methodology, ethics and analysis. But even the most detailed ethnography is only a freeze-frame in a bigger production: so my work does not give me comprehensive insight into the deeper and broader realities and experiences of the groups with whom I study. These boundaries are permeable: many of the topics I research, I have lived through myself. But my experience is not someone else’s, especially if I am at an advantage because of my social location and institutional position. As a professional researcher I am rarely a community ‘insider’, so I should not set myself up to speak as one, over people who are more than able to speak for themselves. Being responsible means focusing on the work, and not letting the demands of the self lead me to sideline the Other.

I don’t always manage this. But I am learning to ask myself: should I occupy this platform, or should I get out of the way? As the platforms get bigger and more elevated, questions about self and Other get louder and more urgent.

The relationship between myself and the work also becomes more problematic: having a public profile makes it likely that you will be asked to comment on issues and areas which are only adjacent to your specialism. The ‘self’ begins to grow: you begin to be seen as an all-purpose ‘expert’, a talking head who can offer their opinion on matters faintly connected, or sometimes wholly unconnected, to the work they do. You are becoming a ‘public intellectual’.

Who is this public intellectual? He is usually (but not always) a man; more often than not, he is white and middle class and occupies other positions of privilege. This reflects continued structures of inequality and dynamics of visibility/invisibility in academia, the media, and the political arena. He is normally of a certain age, having built his profile over the course of a career. Now he has ‘arrived’ his portfolio is broad, covering areas of which he may have little or no academic knowledge or experience. He is the embodiment of expertise: it literally resides in his physical and intellectual presence. For Marx, the intelligentsia were the source of progressive ideas for the work of social transformation. There are obvious power dynamics in this: it positions the Other as part of a rank and file which needs to be educated and does not do the educating.

We are often asked to accept public intellectuals as inherently progressive and not in need of educating. But is this really the case? Consider the famous evolutionary biologist (and infamous atheist), who recently said ‘to hell with their culture!’ in a chat show discussion about Muslims. He has also made statements on the ‘immorality’ of failing to abort a foetus diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, and on how some rapes are ‘worse’ than others. He has offered commentary on transgender rights, some of this in support of a prominent radical feminist intellectual whose chatter about trans women is worthy of a Daily Mail headline writer. She has confirmed that trans issues are not her intellectual focus: nevertheless, she has not felt unqualified to comment. This willingness to claim unfamiliar territory also brings to mind the famous political philosopher who led the support for Julian Assange, seeing the rape allegations against him through an anti-establishment framework devoid of gender.

For me, these act as cautionary tales, of what can happen when the ‘public’ consumes the ‘intellectual’ in all sorts of ways.

Contrary to the idea of the superstar scholar with privileged insights into almost all areas of life, the social privilege of these public intellectuals is often what leads them to misunderstand and make mistakes in relation to marginalised communities. When the ‘self’ displaces the work like this, the Other is not only forgotten, but spoken over and oppressed. Of course, this is not how the public intellectual sees it; to him, he is being oppressed, by a rabble of over-sensitive students and identity-obsessed ‘keyboard warriors’ who are agitating against his speech. His voice is remarkably loud for someone who is being silenced: debates about whether such public intellectuals should be allowed the right to unfettered speech tend to overshadow concerns about Prevent, crackdowns on student protest, the planned criminalisation of boycotts and divestment policies, and other very real threats to academic and political freedom.

I am not a public intellectual and I do not wish to become one. But I do share some of their privileges, not least the privilege of being offered, and granted, platforms on a regular basis. I have also, on many occasions, found myself in a position of being asked to speak for or over the Other, as part of discussions about ‘my’ work. Too many times, I have slipped up and done it. This makes me question myself and my work, and what it means to promote either. What is it responsible for me to talk about? How far should I stray beyond my own areas of expertise and the research work I have done? What are the boundaries between discussing this research, offering my opinion, and ventriloquising other people’s experiences? I need to ask these questions consistently, to improve my academic and political praxis. I need to be mindful of the relationships between self and Other, and the boundary between myself and ‘my’ work. I’m not sure there is such a thing as ‘responsible self-promotion’, but if there is, I hope this is how it starts.