Perfection is not an option

A series of events seem to be forcing me to ask myself what my scholarly accomplishments are really worth, at least to me.

The first opportunity came in the form of the question bluntly asked during the interview for the ProFIL  programme “Would you say you are proud of your accomplishments?” I was on my guard by then, since it was a situation in which I wanted to be hired. And when it is so, you try to be as honest as possible AND to give the interviewers the answer you suppose they want to hear (I guess that it is not the most comfortable dialogue situation in the world when both are somewhat incompatible, which was, luckily for me, not the case). Still, on that first occasion, I managed to not answer the question.

Then my little sister got her rankings (she is 18, studying biology and in the midst of the French concours to enter top schools) and was disappointed (though not saying it too loudly) about the marks she got. No pride there, in spite of hard work and talent (or is it because of hard work and talent?).

And today I begun to write my part of the text for the 4th panel of the #dhiha5 conference, which is the panel on early career and recognition. The page and half I am supposed to write summarizes the contributions made by various bloggers as well as my own ideas on the subject of the recognition of performances in DH. (It is part two; part one deals with the recognition of persons and part 3 with career opportunities, each is being taken care of by dedicated colleagues, you’ll see all that online by the end of the week-end)

So I suppose that now I have to confront the question for real: What are my scholarly accomplishments worth to me? What does it really matter to give a good talk, to make a good impression, to be excellent? The first difficulty is of course to admit that you ask yourself the question in those terms. In scholarly ethics, excellence is on the one hand a shield in many institutional circumstances, on the other hand a moraly ambiguous value. You want to be excellent, but not to claim that you are so. Being excellent is being uncool, selfish, an apparatchik. And who would want to be in (scholarly) business with someone who avows to that kind of virtues?

The second difficulty is that excellence varies. It is objectivable only to a certain point. During the conference that ended today, we heard , within 48 hours, something like 20 talks (I haven’t counted precisely). It is not humanly possible to keep focussed that long on that many different topics, to find all of those talks equally good. What will make you consider that some papers are more excellent than others? There will certainly be an intrinsic value of novelty in some talks that you won’t find in others. But in the end, what will differentiate the “excellent” talks from the ones that are “interesting”?

Scholarly political correctness will make you say that one needs some of the interesting and some of the excellent to have a good balance, which means that you need the interesting ones to make the excellent ones excellent. As faire-valoir?

I think that excellence has in big part to do with the capacity to recognize what is being expected from you, with a kind of survival instinct in the academical jungle. It has to do with the faculty to pull yourself together in the circumstances that require it, to recognize the moments when that is needed and in which form. It is a way to read the system, to read your work partners,your environment. Sometimes it is like you hear your own brain clicking. I occasionally wonder how empty my eyes look in the moments when the pieces of the puzzle come together and I have to figure out the next step on the fly.

Of course, recognizing patterns doesn’t suffice. You also have to produce the right thing at the right time. Which is trainable, but again, you have to be willing to be trained. And if there is one thing I would never ever formulate a judgement about, it is about wanting, or not wanting, to engage in that kind of training.

Being proud of my accomplishments? I don’t know.  Being proud means accepting what you do wrong. forgetting it, living with it, dealing with it. And I keep blaming myself for a great deal of it, late in the night. Well, perfection is not an option whatsoever.


Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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