The Art of Academic Conversation
One way I know I’m out of training for the job market is that I no longer possess the skills for the academic-speak. (The problem is, though, that I have problems with small talk and chit-chat that’s not academia-related either, but that’s a topic of discussion for another time.) But every once in a while, I can still vicariously and virtually partake in academic banter via Facebook, which inspired me to write about the kind of convos I remember having when I was a grad student. Just so you know that I’m not trying to suggest I’m just a disinterested and bemused observer, I’ll readily admit that I’ve partaken in the rhetorical maneuvers I’m describing, and probably even more often than I’d realize.
Below are a few types of go-to moves that academics can whip out when they find themselves face-to-face at a party, going to/from the library, or, yes, on Facebook.
One-Upping: As academics, we go into the so-called “life of the mind” because we’re kinda know-it-alls. Granted, some folks are nicer than others, while some are bigger a-holes. But no matter our personalities, it’s easy to get caught up going back-and-forth about things we know more and more-er about, which can devolve into a passive-aggressive pissing match about who has read more or read more obscurely. It doesn’t even matter if you work in completely different fields and don’t know what your counterpart does, there’s always some way to compete and one-up one another. Then consider how neurotic and stubborn know-it-alls can be, especially when challenged by other smarty pants, add alcohol, and your true feelings about your friends and neighbors might sneak out.
Knowledge/Power: Speaking of paranoia, neuroses, and passive-aggressiveness, it’s not hard to be entrapped by those gossipy colleagues who keep tabs on you and everyone else–even if doing so only makes them bitter and unhappy that they aren’t getting the fellowships or job interviews their peers are getting. But if you play your cards right, you might be able get some of the dish and scoop you’re looking for. First, though, you have to realize which chatty Cathys you can kinda trust and those you totally can’t trust, though you might not find out without being burned. Second, expect that these interactions require a little quid pro quo, so you might as well toss out some bait that you’re not too precious about and see what you get back in return. Third, your news will probably get out there somehow, so don’t take things or yourself too seriously.
Go Meta: Then again, there are always (more than a) few academics who do take themselves, what they do, and what they believe way too seriously, and it’s better not to pick a fight with ’em because they have a whole bag of rhetorical tricks that are really annoying. My favorite is the guy who assumes you’re a dupe for an ideology that they can see through, but you can’t. These smart alecks can always identify how what you’re saying is always symptomatic about something, yet about what they’re saying is above it all. You might protest, but the more you argue is only a greater indication of how you’ve been blinded by ideology. And then there’s the Jedi mind-trick I call “the reversal,” where what you think are incisive and critical statements only somehow serve to support whatever ideology or institution you are arguing against; it’s just that you’re too dumb to know it and they’re too smart not to see it. There’s just no way to get into a tit-for-tat, whether it’s friendly or vaguely hostile, with anybody who claims a meta position — unless you can find a meta-meta frame!