Post Academic

The Art of Academic Conversation

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on November 3, 2010
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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.

"De claris mulieribus" courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Libraries (Public Domain)

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!

Even more awkward academia-related interactions

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on July 29, 2010
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As promised, I’m continuing with my series of *even more* awkward academia-related interactions.  While the last post dealt with the uncomfortable run-ins that might happen with people you don’t know well or only a little bit, this piece covers some squirm-inducing experiences I’ve had with people I know pretty well to very well.  The thing is, those crossed signals can sometimes be worse unbeknownst to you, because it’s easy to take your interactions with the folks you’re familiar with for granted…

"Union Station Urinals, Toronto" by Jason Doucette (Creative Commons license)

Don’t get stuck in the bathroom: So I was attending MLA a few years ago, when I opened the door to a convention hall bathroom only to notice one colleague of mine ask another colleague of ours about his job interviews.  I was in a purely voyeuristic position (*not* in that way!), because they were over at the urinals or on the other side of something or other and couldn’t have known that I was there and listening.  Anyhow, the first colleague–someone I know fairly well and known from this point on as “PQ” for “Prying Questioner” –asked with brutal shamelessness the question most of us never ask in such a bald-faced way: “Where did you interview?”  I don’t know if the other fellow was caught off-guard or is a networking-type himself, but he answered that he was interviewing at one of the best, best schools in the country!  Now “PQ” was probably the one who was blindsided, since I can imagine that someone who’s nosy enough not have any scruples is also prone to measure himself against others.

Maybe they didn’t mind getting stuck in the bathroom together since they were comparing notes, but it’s not anywhere I’d want to be trapped, forcing to answer with no escape hatch.  And yet, I got my comeuppance for the spying, even though I fled the men’s room…

Find out how I got my comeuppance below the fold…


Tips to Squelch Ivory Tower and Grad School Gossip

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on March 23, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionWhy does grad school gossip (and academia gossip) seem worse than office gossip? Because, when you get to grad school, you assume that people are smart and above something so petty and nasty. But you’re in a closed environment, and people are going to get on your nerves.

The Tao of Grad School nails the circumstances that make the ivory tower so ugly sometimes:

Competitiveness + high intelligence + psychology background + neuroticism + poor coping skills + long distance relationships + insecurity + extreme stress mediated by a small, cohesive cohort predicts interpersonal disaster. (That was my awful attempt at a regression equation to predict grad school drama. But you get the idea.)

So, what do you do about gossip in the academic environment? Gossip is hard to stop, especially since it is often the glue that holds communities together. That said, you can reduce gossip and cushion its impact with these tips, which appear after the jump:

If You’re the Gossip

  1. Try to keep your mouth shut. Wasn’t that easy?
  2. OK. That wasn’t so easy. So, if you must say something, ask yourself if you would be willing to say it to the person’s face if they called you out on it. If you’re not, then don’t gossip about it.
  3. Accept that people screw up. Don’t be so hard on everyone.

If You’re the Subject of the Gossip

  1. Let’s repeat: Accept that people screw up. So you heard someone talked trash about you? It stings. It’s horrible. People screw up. If they apologize, accept it, and keep being friends. Some people gossip so they feel like they belong, and the need to belong occasionally overwhelms one’s common sense.
  2. What if they don’t apologize? Then they’re not your friend. Just steer clear and let them hang themselves on a long, gossipy rope.
  3. Don’t try to one-up a gossip. Fighting trash talk with trash talk will make you look bad. You don’t have to turn the other cheek, though; simply tell others the truth, and the gossip will be the one who looks bad.

The Tao of Grad School: Grad School Gossip
Image of gossips in the Altstadt in Sindelfingen, Germany, by Rebecca Kennison, from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.