Curriculum Vitae – The Course of Life


Curriculum Vitae – The Course of Life

Eva Forsberg*

Deparment of Education, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden


Curriculum Vitae – The Course of Life is the title of the lecture given by Eva Forsberg as promoter at the Conferment Ceremony at Uppsala University in spring 2015.

Keywords: curriculum vitae; curriculum; assessment; evaluation; standardisation

Citation: NordSTEP 2016, 2: 33742 -

Copyright: © 2016 Eva Forsberg. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 29 November 2016

*Correspondence to: Eva Forsberg, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden, Email:


The theme of this lecture, Curriculum Vitae – The Course of Life, is grounded in my interest in curriculum theory and in evaluation. The research group STEP combines these interests through, among other things, studies of higher education and assessment cultures. We analyse various so-called message systems, that is, the communication systems through which schools and employers mediate the types of knowledge, abilities, values and norms they prioritise. This is evident in curricula content and assessments of students’ learning achievements, as well as in the transition from life as a student to life as a worker.

My focus is on this latter aspect, approached from the perspective of how we can understand the Curriculum Vitae (or CV as it is commonly termed). In other words, the CV is examined in order to understand its value as a signpost in the assessments on which employee recruitment and promotion are based.

The professional use of the CV has its roots in the late 1400s, when it was introduced by Leonardo da Vinci. But it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that the modern CV took on a more definite shape. This was linked to the population’s growing mobility as well as ideas about putting ‘the right man in the right place’ in accordance with contemporary male reasoning.

The twentieth century’s social changes also led to new emphasis on utilising what educational researchers termed the talent reserve. This meant, ideally, giving everyone an equal opportunity to study, irrespective of social and geographic background.

Eventually, a society emerged in which access to a given occupation was determined (supposedly) neither by family background, nor social status, but formal merits. This is the context that gave the CV its central, fundamental and axiomatic role for those seeking to enter and move within the job market.

But what is it, in fact, that decides who is to be called to a job interview, who is to be recruited or promoted?

In a meritocracy, the question of what is considered a merit is entirely decisive to which merits are to be accorded value in different contexts. I will, for the nonce, set aside the larger question of whether our society is a true meritocracy, although it should be noted that much has been written on the issue.

The Latin term curriculum vitae becomes the course of life in English, livsförlopp in Swedish. The English use the word curriculum, moreover, for what Swedes term läroplan. Figuratively, thus, we can understand the CV as a curriculum for life.

The CV and the curriculum both present a selection of content as well as a form for organising, packaging and mediating this content. Furthermore, both are linked in a process of assessment and appraisal.

These similarities are, however, accompanied by decisive differences. The CV constitutes a historical documentation of the individual’s career and qualifications, that is, experience already gained. The curriculum, by contrast, points towards achievements to come – not those already attained.

The CV has its place first and foremost in the space of experience; the curriculum’s centre of gravity lies in the horizons of expectation. The curriculum of life, moreover, is concerned with a broader spectrum of experiences, those which connect the private and the public, the personal and the professional, the negative and the positive, as well as aspects of socialisation, education and what the Germans term Bildung.

But the CV is also directed towards the future. It, too, alludes to what is to come – a future task, position, appointment, a promotion or a project. When creating their CVs, job-seekers also use their power of anticipation to predict what will be required of them. In addition, the CV is often placed in a context which includes job-seekers’ plans and ambitions for future tasks.

By the same token, the curriculum of life is not solely concerned with the future. At any given moment, we have a part of life behind us; further – of necessity – the curriculum of life is embedded in the life experience of the individuals. Seen through this lens, the boundary-line between the CV and the curriculum of life seems potentially less sharp.

Processes of accounting for, scrutinising and evaluating achievements have become cornerstones in what we term late-modern society. This, combined with information and communications technology (ICT) and social media, has created greater expectations of, innumerable opportunities for, and increasing demands that individuals account for themselves, as persons and/or as professionals.

Dating and dieting sites are examples of this in the private sphere. In individuals’ professional lives, examples include the employees’ own home pages with CV, located on employers’ websites. These personal and professional accounts are both of autobiographical character.

There exist, today, a large body of literature and many websites, as well as career-counselling agencies and courses providing information about how a relevant, effective CV should be written. Furthermore, the rules for how a CV should be put together and what it should contain have become more explicit, which has led to a high degree of standardisation and formalisation.

Today, indeed, the function of the CV is so institutionalised that one speaks of the importance of ‘CV maintenance’. This includes – among other things – the continual development of one’s CV by editing out and adding things, as well as constant updating and development with the aid of tools and arenas provided by new technology and by CV guides, such as, for instance, the network LinkedIn and the ability to link video clips to one’s CV.

One can state that within the university sector, the CV has grown into a life nerve. It has become integral to the infrastructure and routines of academia. As an autobiographical document, the CV is a tool with which academics can present and continuously re-present their professional competence and their academic expertise.

But more than academic expertise is thus subjected to reflection. Academic identity is also at stake. In certain contexts, the CV is spoken of as one of our era’s great confessional writings. In these cases, the CV is a means of monitoring one’s own self, of creating and controlling that self, in order to exhibit one’s strengths and – to a very moderate degree – admit shortcomings and provide explanations for possible gaps, as well as any lack of the progress expected.

The CV’s function is to transform qualities into measurable quantities that can be used in competitive situations which often involve ranking both individuals and their merits. As a result, the CV exists in an interstice, in a space located between two worlds.

On the one side, we have the traditional academic world. Here, quality is identified and evaluated in collegial and disciplinary discussions. Issues of the degree, identification and evaluation of quality are decided in collegial and ‘disciplinary’ discussions almost entirely innocent of quantification. On the other side, we find a recently emerged world, which emphasises that which can be quantified – such as the number of publications, extent of research funding, number of teaching-hours etc. The ways in which a given CV achieves a balance between these worlds will vary according to scientific tradition and academic ideals.

The CV plays a decisive role in academic selection procedures, both through election and selection. The applicants’ experience and knowledge, as well as prejudices concerning the academy and its evaluation practices, affect the creation of their CVs. Furthermore, there is an interplay between employment advertisements, regulations, guidelines, networks with significant others and traditions, as well as decision-makers’ and external experts’ conceptions of what is important.

In the end, the concepts of academic merits, academic expertise and academic identity are subjects of negotiation and co-production. The interplay is also affected by the fact that a person’s CV is easily internalised as a marker of academic self-worth. The CV becomes, in short, a marketing device that works in both directions: inward and outward.

We know from research on evaluation that few things determine the individual’s actions as strongly as that which is prioritised in assessment practices. The CV’s increasing standardisation entails the risk that academics will become increasingly reactive. What is codified as important, in guidelines and how-to texts, has great signal value. It has an impact on the applicant’s autobiographical CV. The development towards more stereotypical CVs may also entail the devaluation of the CV as instrument for selecting qualified applicants. This is worrying, insofar as the problems that the CV is meant to solve are democratically anchored in equal opportunity, social mobility and utilisation of competence.

Given the centrality of the CV in the world of employment, one would have expected extensive research on the subject. But this is not the case. Scientifically grounded knowledge of the CV’s character, functions and consequences for individuals, organisations and businesses is relatively limited.

We must examine what long-term effects the production of CV’s may have on us and our practices. Nowadays, young people are early introduced to ideas of how they should think strategically about their career, and offered templates specifying which merits, competences and identities are in demand.

More and more people create personal and professional archives in order that everything be remembered, nothing forgotten. This concept does not seem to include the option of making a new beginning.

When the blank areas of the template become clearly visible, and when the academic self-worth is tied to this, strategies are easily directed towards filling the gaps. This places us, potentially, in some sort of backwards-directed, deficiency-oriented order of things, where insufficiencies in people’s CVs govern academic practices and culture.

In short, it seems that the creation of a CV entails a hidden curriculum that directs attention towards the individual academic’s predictable, not-yet realised results.

But how can we avoid ending up there, in the already-thought? How can we instead open up for that which is not given beforehand? Perhaps, we must approach this as we do life and love. We must bracket that which is strategically goal-oriented; we must simply lose ourselves in our objects, our interests. This demands a measure of courage, but it also makes it possible for us to live for the future – and also create a CV for life.

About The Author

Eva Forsberg

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