Talking yourself up: Being bold in sharing your work (and self) with the world

I am launching my first sole-authored book online tomorrow. I am half excited and half terrified. What if people don’t like it? (Read, what if they don’t like me – my ideas, my arguments). What if they just don’t come at all? I have been promoting it on Twitter and Facebook, I have been writing to journal editors, I have created a ‘Featured Authors’ profile on the publisher’s website and even made a YouTube video about the book. I do want people to read it and get out of it something of what I tried to put into it for them. But all this publicity stuff and talking up the book and the contribution I think it could make is not something that comes easily. It does require a conscious boldness on my part and some stern self-talk; I suspect that I am not alone in this.

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Many people struggle to talk up their achievements in public spaces. This is gendered, with women struggling more than men, on average, to ‘blow their own trumpets’. Certainly, this is also affected by ‘race’ and position in the academy; spend any time on academic Twitter and you will see that early career and postdoc scholars and Black scholars and women don’t feel quite as comfortable sharing their achievements as widely as men (especially men in positions of power/influence) do. There’s a whole book or more about why this is so, but for me it goes back to being told when I was little and then at school and then at university, that sharing my achievements was ‘bragging’ and that this was not what polite women did. There was something a bit ugly and unbecoming about telling people about things you had done well, or achieved something great: these ‘gifts’ should be received with modesty and humility, rather than ‘boastful pride’. Don’t take up too much space or be too loud or too full of yourself and people may let you stay. This has to do with belonging: if you are trying to get access to a space you have not historically ‘belonged to’, if being there is seen by those who have always belonged as some kind of transgression or aberration, it is even harder to take up that space, claim it, be in it as fully and comfortably as those who are already there.

This is, of course, a problem in higher education environments and spaces, and also wider social environments and spaces, because it creates limitations: limited diversity of voices, knowledge, ways of being in the world, limited representation of those who are women and/or Black and/or early career and/or disabled and/or LGBTQ+ and/or not what counts as the ‘status quo’ or a member of the dominant group in that education and/or social space. These limitations and silences protect, rather than challenge, unequal statuses quo that value some knowledges and voices and ways of being more than others. If we don’t work actively and consciously to change that, these inequities and silences are likely to continue. One of the ways we can do this is by telling people about who we are and what we do and why it matters, especially if we are part of one or more of the groups that is not the dominant one. We can also follow, connect with and amplify the work and contributions and people who are reshaping, challenging and changing the dominant ‘way things are and have always been’ in our contexts. In academia, we can start changing the way we organise events and conferences, consciously choosing speakers and panelists who represent a greater diversity of listeners and knowers in that context. We can seek out, read and cite the work of women scholars, Black scholars, scholars from the Global South, scholars who help us widen our understandings of the world and challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions and ways of being or knowing.

This work requires emotional labour and emotion work though, so it is not easy. Emotional labour, in a sound bite, is explained by Arlie Russell-Hochschild as the work we do with and for others – putting on a brave face when we don’t feel brave, arranging ourselves to take up less space when we sense that we need to be smaller, being polite in the face of rudeness so as to keep the peace or not be seen as ‘difficult’. Emotion work is the work that we do with ourselves, self-talk about our work or our relationships or ourselves – positive and negative and everything in between. These two forms of labour are connected because what we tell ourselves (you can’t brag too much about this book, just be modest, you’re being too ‘big’ and ‘loud’ about this) will affect how we relate to others (I wrote this book but you don’t have to read it, it’s not that great, just leave it, forget I said anything, I’ll be quiet now). One of things I have been working on is changing my self-talk: telling people that I wrote something or did something or achieved something that I am proud of, that represents hard work and effort, that I believe in is not ‘being too big for my boots’ or any such nonsense. Telling myself that I can just be me and that is more than enough and I don’t need to bend and break myself to fit other people’s shapes and ideas of who I should be. I am allowed to be (proud of) myself; I am allowed to share that and revel in this achievement for a while.

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But, I am constantly mindful, in becoming more conscious of these shifts in both my own inward-facing emotion work and my outward facing emotional labour, that I need to be part of creating and widening spaces for others who struggle as much as or more than I do to belong and to shift the status quo because of contemporary and/or historical inequalities and discriminations. I need to make sure that my own colleagues and students don’t have to do unfair and unnecessary emotional labour and emotion work in relation to me and my reactions to their work. I need to be mindful of creating more consciously equitable supervision spaces for and with my students and collaborative spaces for and with my colleagues. It is important to amplify the work and the voices of other women, Black colleagues, Queer colleagues and more, but it is not enough to do that as performance of creating more equitable environments in which we can all work and live. We have to move further to actually change the spaces in which we live and work so that, down time, we don’t have to work as consciously to amplify these voices and the knowledges and ways of knowing they represent and share. Many different people, knowledges and voices will belong and be visible and valued. I am starting to really think about this in relation to new research I am trying to embark on.

For the time being, I am going to keep working on me: on becoming more conscious of the spaces I create for myself and also for students, peers, colleagues I work with to take up more space, to be loud and proud about our work and ourselves and our contributions; on actively seeking out and sharing the work of those who challenge me and encourage or exhort me to critique myself and the world around me; on learning as I go and being open to that, even as it poses emotional challenges and new labours and work.