Friday, December 13, 2013
It's All a Trap
I know that's not true, but that's the way it feels.
Conversations are quizzes. "Hey, did you read this? Read this? Read this?" Sometimes I have, but not always, so I have my stock responses.
"It's on my list," or "Hmm." Or I go on the offensive. "No, but I just finished this obscure book that you haven't read either."
And sometimes I lie.
Because it's my job to read everything, just like all my colleagues do. And otherwise I'll fail the quiz. Sip my beer, pretend to have read a book I haven't read. Smile. Always with the fucking smiling.
Conversations are debates. A debate I would win at a conference, I lose over beer and nachos. There's hand-waving, namedropping. "Oh, well, Foucault when I studied with him at Berkeley used to say . . . " There're direct attacks: "Well, obviously there's a lot you need to learn about Alpaca fur." There's even further quizzes: "Name the three kinds of Alpaca fur." "What?" I said. "Seriously?" "What are they? Surely you know." I do, when I'm not drunk, under attack, and cornered. I got them wrong. that meant I was wrong about the nature of Hamsterology. Also, Alpacas aren't even my fucking field!
And I smile and say "Oh, man, it's so good to have a conversation like this outside of work" when what I'm thinking is "I want to fucking punch you in the face right now, you smug little son of a bitch." And what I'm really, really thinking is "I don't deserve to be a professor. I'm a fraud, a failure, a liar. I'm ignorant and clumsy and possibly absolutely rubber-wall crazy." But I drink another beer. Eat another nacho. Smile.
Always with the fucking smiling.
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Quick, snappy responses to this can include:ReplyDelete
"What is this, some sort of fraternity initiation?"
or, if it's from a Dean or Department Chair and if you have tenure:
"Well, if you don't think highly of my research, how about if I STOP it for a year?"
Others (for which tenure can help) include:Delete
"Why don't you get some hobbies, such as an active sex life?"
"I want to fucking punch you in the face right now, you smug little son of a bitch."
I so desperately want to invite you to parties, Frod. ;)Delete
@Wylod: Be careful what you wish for, because if Bubba and Strelnikov also attend, the bar tab will be about the size of a small defense budget.Delete
Go to a regional conference. Nobody there cares.ReplyDelete
Hang out with proffies in unrelated fields! My drinking buddies are from several different departments. It's a lot more fun--and, we learn cool stuff from each other.ReplyDelete
Yeah, find some real friends, too. The colleagues you describe are insecure themselves and want to pull you down to their level. Or make you feel bad about yourself. Don't let them succeed. Talk about movies...or anything besides work! Maybe they know of nothing else?Delete
I agree that those colleagues are insecure and that you'll have a better time with people in other fields and careers.Delete
It took me a very long time to realize this about the professors in my graduate program. I dreaded every "party" (mandatory socializing that was a party only for them) because the tenured faculty dominated the small talk with their research, their reading, and basically themselves. As a young, attractive woman I always wondered about their motives but smiled and nodded because I wanted my Ph.D.
"Always the fucking smiling." Yep. Always the fucking smiling.
They still do it -- I ended up being friends with one of them and his wife, who live the next block over, and he still does this when the group includes his perceived peers -- but now I witness these pissing contests with mild amusement as I spend quality time with the hummos. When he's not with the other potential alpha males, he's a regular proud grandpa. Then he and I, like my community college colleagues, talk about our kids, dogs, hikes, attempts at fitness, and vacations past and future; basically our LIVES.
So, dear Chiltepin, it's not you, it's them. Fuck them. Congratulations on being more evolved.
Also, feeling like a fraud comes with the territory of being skilled and self-aware. You probably come across to your colleagues as smart and skilled enough to be a threat.
“Fear and self-doubt are the deadly enemies of creativity. Don’t invite either into your mind.”Delete
― Don Roff
I knew I had read this quote somewhere and thought I'd post it here. I get these feelings, too. My classes are always full, I'm a red-hot chili pepper at that site, and there are some days when I feel like a total loser. However, I must be doing something right after 12+ years of this! I keep reading stuff that I find so fascinating to relate to my classes and to apply. I keep seeking and finding stuff related to my field of endeavor because that's who I am.
It's time for bed, I am starting to not make sense. Some grand movement of holiday stuff from the attic tomorrow awaits.
Well Annie, that sounds like a great idea, but where does one meet them, the people from other departments? My only experience socializing with non-math academics is, well, CM.Delete
Our "executive associate provostflake" hosts "faculty bar evenings" at an off-campus location a few times per semester. Unfortunately I don't like the guy, and it is better for both of us if we keep a good physical distance between us.
And I have vague memories of saying "math" and getting blank stares in return, or the usual comment about how bad they were at it (common even among academics). So I need to have an antidote ready, and I already forgot what the antidote was.
I feel for you. I'm in a very small department that is isolated from the rest of campus. My other colleagues can be jerks. So I've met others through committee work and campus meetings. There's sometimes a tendency for people to sit in department specific areas, so trying going rogue and sit elsewhere. Go to enough meetings, and you'll eventually figure out who might be more sympatico to hang out with.Delete
Go for a walk through another building sometime. Ask someone in a non related department to show you what they do. Go to other departments' open houses and presentations. Eventually, you'll start collecting a different tribe.
Actually I do have friends in the Engineering, Physics and Statistics departments (one each), but that's in part due to professional joint interests. I've never served on a college-level committee, and my impression is that their role is to approve what the dean wants to do anyway, so the selection process is designed to keep skeptics out. But I'll try some of your other ideas, thanks. Part of the problem is the layout of our campus, with a science/engineering cluster on one end, and humanities/social sciences a long walk from it.Delete
That's kind of our layout, too. We also have lower flying committees, like Safety and Technology , which aren't as politically charged. I've met some great folks on those types of committees. You'll find some good people out there.Delete
@Professor Chiltepin: Fuck your colleagues. Everybody at CM loves your previous avatar, and that's what really matters. The VP of Development at CM has raised funds to establish the William and Flora Alpaca Distinguished Chair of Hamsterology just for you. We've been keeping it a secret while we hammered out the details, but tonight's as good a time as any to let you know about it. Congratulations! You can go ahead and quit that job with those passive-aggressive assholes.ReplyDelete
Bubba, wouldn't that be while we hamstered out the details.Delete
Thank you. I'll be here all week.
And Chiltepin, your colleagues are douche nozzles.Delete
A good response would be, "You know, sometimes I like to detach from my work, watch some TV. Dexter is my favorite."
Or one of my favorite tv nonsequiturs: "I have a cat named Mittens."Delete
You're going away for the holidays right after grades are in (or maybe sooner), and won't be free to participate in any more such social occasions, right? (Even if you aren't going away for the holiday. But that doesn't sound like a bad idea, if there's anywhere to go where you have real friends, and/or a functional family, and/or enough fondness for the place to make a solo visit there fun/a good break).ReplyDelete
Even taking into account a bit of skewed hearing on your side due to end-of-semester exhaustion/winter blues/whatever, they sound pretty seriously toxic. Also seriously insecure (which might be handy to keep in mind when this sort of behavior kicks in, in a sort of "imagine them naked" way; clearly, this behavior reflects far more on them than on you. Maybe it's a bit of job-season PTSD kicking in? Whatever the cause, they sound well worth avoiding).
I'm with Pat and Bubba - it's not you, it's your asshat colleagues. Seriously. I knew a few jerks like that in grad school, but our department was big on constructive conversation and collegiality, so they didn't thrive. Too bad they seem to dominate at your place, man.ReplyDelete
That said, and this is a serious enquiry, how many fucking academics have this whole insecurity thing, anyway? I keep hearing about this "I'm a Fraud" complex, and while I don't want to sound insensitive to people who are obviously suffering, I gotta say - I don't get it. I'm not saying I'm a leading light or anything, but I've just never thought about it. I am what I am - a moderately-well-read, moderately-good scholar with a fair degree of natural talent. I mean, what's there to be worried about? I'm no great shakes, but I know what I'm talking about... in my area, at least. And where I don't, I shrug and say, "Sounds interesting! Tell me about it!"
Is this because I'm one of academia's rare extroverts? Is it because I'm one of academia's (apparently) rare non-neurotics? Or is it just because I'm at peace with being mediocre? This seriously fucking baffles me. Did I just get lucky and get missed by the Existential Crisis Fairy, or what?
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@Wylod: How long have you been interested in your field? Or at least, how much of your identity do you see in it?Delete
I'm also in the seeming minority of academics who don't get Impostor Syndrome. Didn't we have a poll some time ago that showed that most people in CM (or was it RYS) admitted to getting it?
I think I don't get Impostor Syndrome because I'm an astronomer and I've been interested in astronomy ever since I was five. My girlfriend is a singer who also doesn't get it, and she's been interested in music since she was three. She was surprised when I told her what Impostor Syndrome is, and how common it is among academics: it simply didn't occur to her that people can be motivated in this way.
Impostor Syndrome is one explanation for why celebrities outside of academia act so deranged. Keith Olbermann complains that he gets it severely, and that it causes him to be so notoriously difficult to work with.
For me, it helps to be the only astronomer in a department of physics. I therefore can get away with quite a lot, by saying, "It's an astronomy thing."
There can be a downside to having so much of one's identity invested in one's field of study, however: it can make leaving the field difficult. One of my astronomy colleagues who only got interested in astronomy as late as when he was an undergraduate quit after his second postdoc, to make much more money for less effort in medical imaging. It was relatively easy for him than for other astronomers, since he had less of an emotional investment in astronomy. When he did, he joyously sent out e-mail announcing the decision as: "Scientist discovers life after astronomy."
Impostor Syndrome can be a negative consequence of pride. As number 25 of "100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School" points out:
"Academe is built on pride. A cynic might say that while most of the Western world runs on greed, academe runs on pride. And at least according to the Biblical narrative, pride is worse than greed; pride was the sin of the devil himself."
"Academe is full of people who think of themselves as smart. In the 'real world,' applied intelligence is often rewarded financially, but those who have chosen to spend their lives in higher education will probably never be millionaires. Academics tell themselves that they have given up on the financial rewards that would have come to them in a different line of work, and they are more than likely right. Instead of measuring their accomplishments in dollars, they tend to derive their self-worth from their intellectual stature. Some academics work to prove the point with an endless torrent of publications, but most at the very least settle into a comfortable satisfaction with their own intelligence. But pride is easily wounded. There are two especially negative consequences of the fact that universities play host to high concentrations of people who think highly of themselves but are not rich. The first is that universities create environments in which people are easily offended and quick to defend their status. The second is that campuses are pervaded with a nagging feeling of resentment borne by people who feel that their talents have been inadequately rewarded."
I'm the same way. I can't get a bout of impostor syndrome, since I automatically ignore any potential evidence that I'm, say, a slacker. I look at the people in my graduate school cohort (in my area) who are tenured at research-y places, and we're basically at the same level. The "guiding lights" are all in my advisor's generation, and the cutoff for "guiding light" is high; everyone else is just normal.Delete
And more to the point: I've identified with math as a pursuit since about age 14, as an exclusive pursuit since age 20. I'd do it if they didn't pay me (given some other means of subsistence), and, really, I do it for myself. It *is* my identity; if I had to stop doing it I'd be a very unhappy person. And when I sit down and actually do it, pretty soon stuff happens. That's enough for me.
Interesting observations, Peter and Frod! Thing is, I think it doesn't affect me for the opposite reasons as you - I got into philosophy late, never worried about being super-good at it, and have no illusions about being a slacker. I've always been a slacker. It's kept me from achieving the heights of success, but I feel I've led a pretty fulfilling life, and I grew up around hyper-achievers, all of whom seemed miserable.Delete
I've been reasonably good at everything I've ever tried without having to work very hard at it, including grad school, but I'm not competitive enough to care about putting in much more effort than is needed to be average-to-above-average. I made decent grades in a pretty tough grad program without really affecting my social life or my level of fun. I guess I could have dug in, gotten top marks, and really shined, but - man! - that seems like such a hassle. I guess that's why I went to Vegas for Spring Break, which was the week before our second-year qualifying exams, rather than staying home cramming like my colleagues. Hey - if I hadn't learned it by then...
I think you're onto something with the pride thing, Frod, and maybe that's it. I'm not proud. I don't worry about whether anyone sees me as the best, or knows how good I am. I never have. It just doesn't bother me. I have a very robust self-image. I'm pretty smart. Not super-smart. But pretty smart. And I'm likable. Not super-smooth, but likable. And I'm a good singer. Not professional quality, but pretty good. And, most important, I guess, I'm a good guy. Not great, but pretty good, by my own moral theory. So... what's to worry?
It sounds like you're being subjected to academic mobbing. Take a look at this site:ReplyDelete
I had to endure similar hostility from my colleagues, except it was in the office or the lunch room. That was one reason I rarely socialized with any of them. Insults and derision I could get any place free of charge and I didn't have to try hard to have it heaped upon me. I didn't see the need to put up with it simply because I worked with people who had a low opinion of me.
@QWV: Thanks for this link, from the bottom of my heart. It describes what I went through at a previous position, my own personal Job from Hell. I had no idea that this was common enough to merit a whole area of research. But now my office mate, untenured, is starting to experience it, and I'm in a position to help. This link with help.Delete
Yes, last year I had occasion to read all of Westhues' writing on academic mobbing. It was good to have a name and etiology for something that has many points of contact with my current situation.Delete
I wish information like that was available while I was teaching. That position was also a job from hell. A colleague took a disliking to me almost immediately after I started and he started making my life miserable, the reason for which I never found out. It got worse after he was promoted to assistant department head and continued for the remainder of my time at that institution.
Unfortunately, that sort of thing isn't illegal in my part of the country. For it to be against the law, one has to prove that one's reputation was damaged by it, and that's often difficult to do.
I certainly recognize this. I only have one colleague who does it though. Everyone else is pretty friendly and normal. There is one colleague who never talks about anything but her research, but honestly it IS her life, and she is so enthusiastic and engaged with it that one cannot help but be charmed. When she has stopped talking about her research it will occur to her that perhaps one of us would like to say something, so she will hospitably ask us about our research, because she assumes that it's all we ever think about too. Because, after all, nothing else is as much fun for her, so why wouldn't we feel the same way? What saves this from being a hideous gauntlet of test-passing is that she isn't trying to one-up anyone. I can't help but smile when I talk to her, and go through the day feeling a little more enthusiastic about my own work. She has the gift of being just as interested in other people's ideas as she is about her own. I will come away from a conversation with her thinking wow, maybe that idea isn't so dim, and I should write it up after all.ReplyDelete
I do however have another colleague, and I use the term (in his case) loosely indeed, who is the very antithesis of this. Every time he opens his mouth it is to demonstrate his superiority to everyone else in the room, or to everyone he's talking about, while they're not in the room. Everything he says is a test. My stomach ties in knots when I see him. Fortunately, he is the only one like this, so I can avoid him.
If I had nothing but colleagues like that, I would never set foot in the department. I would go straight from my car to the classroom and home again. I would hold my office hours off-campus in a coffee shop. So I sympathize deeply, Chiltepin. And I recommend, as someone else did above, that you hang out with people from other departments. Or with people who have never set foot on campus.
"Did you Read?' from Portlandia. Watch until the end.ReplyDelete
Wow! That deserves a good sturdy drop kick.ReplyDelete
"What are the three kinds of alpaca fur?"
"Haha. Seriously? Where's the rest of the comps board?"
Really though, what an asshole.
I second (or third) the suggestion to hang out with people from other fields. I've learned a lot from them (and hopefully they've learned something from me). Conservations about research can be a lot of fun, and inspiring, so long as they don;t turn into publication pissing matches.ReplyDelete
Confession time: I also get that "imposter" feeling. I deal with it in part by hanging awards I got at my previous job on my wall. They're very official-looking with the agency name and everything. It reminds me that it doesn't matter if I never get an article in my field's major journal, I did do cool stuff elsewhere.
"What are the three kinds of alpaca fur?"
"(sign) Did you forget again?"
Funny, I wonder if it's a humanities thing. I've never seen this behavior among math academics; anyone attempting it would be considered ridiculous by everybody else present, and the sarcasm would flow. I guess we're so specialized, if you're in a slightly different area it is very easy to expose somebody else's ignorance of "basic developments". Okay, maybe if the names Wiles, Perelman or Smale mean nothing to you, people might look at you funny (if you're a mathematician).ReplyDelete
Now I have two little stories to contradict this. On my very first day as a graduate student, after taking my stuff to the dorm I decided to stop by the department. As usual, almost no one in sight. I walk into the graduate student lounge and there is a young man writing stuff on the blackboard. He turns to me and says (without a greeting or anything): "do you know how the continuity method can be used to solve Monge-Ampere equations?" WTF? Turns out he was reviewing for his second crack at generals. But we became friends.
And once at a conference in the Black Forest (2007 or so) I was sitting around in the evening with a group of people, chatting over wine, beer and all. They start talking about movies, and suddenly I hear a word that sounded like "netflicks" being used. Everybody seemed to know what it was. Now, I've never been shy about asking seemingly obvious questions, so when I got a chance I asked: "what is `netflicks'?" You should have seen the look on their faces. There were a few seconds of silence, and the conversation moved on.
Dude, I absolutely would have followed up with, "Hey, rude jackasses - I asked a question."Delete
When that conference group ignored your question was their way of showing that you didn't belong there.
I've been in situations like that myself as an adult. It was almost as if I never left high school.
QWV, I don't know...I certainly belonged at the conference, although I hadn't personally met that particular subgroup previously. Maybe somebody in 2007 not knowing what Netflix was struck them as too strange to be true, like the first line of a joke. Maybe the person reacting would become the second line. I have a tendency to be oblivious to the "social subtext" of this kind of thing, it slides right off (conditioning going back to middle school, I guess). So I just went on talking to them. Anyway, until recently I had no interest in popular culture, and watched almost no TV. Mrs K changed all that, with her professional and deep knowledge of such things. Which is how I learned to love Walter White, and even know that the Governor got what was coming to him in Zombieland.Delete
We're all poseurs. The academic shell-game, the fraud we all perpetuate--that we are experts at our subjects and masters of teaching--requires careful practice in deception.ReplyDelete
As a sessional instructor at a fledgling university I tend not to toot my own horn unless a tenured faculty member is trying to overwhelm me with their brilliance/connections/record. But I confess to having some fun when I attended a faculty professional development session offered by the research department. Attended almost exclusively by ongoing faculty, about thirty of us were being encouraged to put together an academic CV following their guidelines. I was the only person who had brought one already prepared to meet the guidelines of another university where I have worked. The presenter indicated that "Books Authored or Edited" should be listed in alphabetical order by title. I disagreed, feeling that the list should be congruent in style with other publication credits: reverse chronology based on date of publication. There was a tiny flurry of discussion and then a dismissive "Well, whichever - it probably doesn't matter much for our faculty because we won't have many entries". I quietly replied that I had 27 entries in that category and it might matter. You could feel the temperature in the room drop. No-one had ever asked about what I did before my current position - I am a sessional for whom academe is a second career, so it couldn't possibly be anything significant. And since I see no need to prove myself to anyone, I neglected to tell them.ReplyDelete
This spring I taught a third year level course. The students, knowing I was only a sessional, seemed less than enthusiastic. Then one of them looked up from his computer and blurted "You have a Wikipedia entry!" There was a sudden flurry of keyboarding as the students went on an internet scavenger hunt. When they were done, having found references even I did not know existed, I said "Why did you think the university hired me? Now, let's get to work."
Let the ones who need to inflate their cred monopolize the social occasions.
I deeply sympathize, Chiltepin. It's not so bad in my department, but I've been places where it has. It certainly was the case when I was a graduate student. It's why I stopped going to conferences: it seemed that every other doctoral student was trying to out-psych everyone else, show their superior essence through their mastery of obscurantist European theorists, and see who could tell the most and worst tales of woe about the job market. One more depressed doctoral dropout was one competitor fewer. I think it's worse in the humanities, partly because we're not empirical and there is often no way to demonstrate that someone is full of shit. As a professor, I found the situation was still bad: if you went to a conference where you didn't really have any friends, it was impossible to find decent humane companionship. I haven't been able to find it in my university either: almost everyone is too focussed on their own interests and, to be fair, families. I've been a full-time faculty member for seventeen years now, and I still haven't made what I would a friend from any other department. But that probably says more about me.ReplyDelete
You don't say much about your personal situation: one good, true love in one's life will make most of the other woes disappear.
I've worked for a variety of employers over the years and one thing they all had in common was that there was at least one staff member who was a self-appointed resident genius.Delete
Often, those people didn't know a whole lot but they managed to get their designation purely by charm. For example, they could convince others, particularly their superiors, that black was white. If they encountered someone who actually did know something, those "geniuses" would engage in endless games of oneupmanship and would inevitably win. No matter what one did, they would always be better or accomplished more and, if that wasn't the case, they had the backing of someone higher up.
Unfortunately, crossing such a "genius" often was the kiss of death to one's career.
Any game that is predicated on knowledge of "obscure European theorists" is a game I don't see as worth playing, anyway.Delete
It's like the lottery: the only way to win is not to play.Delete