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Brand of You

May 30, 2009

Over the last few weeks, I have been reading No Logo by Naomi Klein.  Among other things, the book deals with the notion that brands, rather than products, are what are actually marketed and sold.  This concept, of course, is not new.  Individuals do not, honestly, pay the additional cost to wear name brand sneakers of sip lattes from Starbucks because the quality of the product is that much better than the cheaper brands–it is wholly the effect of branding.  What struck me about No Logo, though, is the notion that individual workers within the system have begun to individually brand themselves in order to further their careers.

Klein mentions the revolving doors of major corporation CEOs and the quick turnover within software companies, but the influence of the branding of you does not stop there.  The academic community is fraught with self-branded individuals seeking to carve out their own academic fox-hole.  Though the ivory tower of academia may not be quite as competitive as the world of Fortune 500 companies, there is still a distinct element of competition in every facet of scholarship.  I have heard stories of students hiding books in the library from their peers to keep sources under wraps, professors “borrowing” their students ideas for papers, and journal referees finding fault in rivals work based not on factual errors but personal beefs (yes, ‘beef’ is a frequently word in academic circles!).

In America, we tend to focus more on individual scholars rather than their institutions.  At least for me, I more readily know the work of Eric Lott, Stephen Greenblatt, and Harold Bloom before the institutions at which they teach–though that information is readily available.  And yes, certain institutions have been known for particular subjects, such as Vanderbilt and New Criticism, Ole Miss for Faulkner, etc., but overall, we value individuals over institutions.  An aspiring professor must work to establish his or her individual CV and, therefore, tends to eschew group efforts.  It may be a sign of creeping academic paranoia, but I will occasionally shy from sharing too much of my thesis project lest someone in the PCA/ACA get wind of my (admittedly not-earth-shaking) topic and submit an abstract before I get the chance to do so.

Putting my paranoia aside, I wonder what true academic participation would look like.  I realize that there already exists a sense of collegiality among academic peers within the same fields, but what would come from true, free participation and association?  Does the competition of the academy create an environment that fosters greater creativity and production, or would a less competitive climate bring about greater innovation in the field?  Of course, I don’t plan to offer any sort of an answer.  At the present, the goals of most people in my situation are to secure a teaching position and a place in our fields–not to help out our peers and, even, to improve the academic discourse.  I suppose we’d be better off with more collaboration, but how would that come about and what would it look like?

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