Thursday, June 14, 2007

Insanity Magnet (continued)

The perceptive reader may have noticed that I encounter a lot of strange people in my work (I am using the word 'strange' loosely again; see previous post). This has been a feature of my entire academic career, and is a topic for many afternoon cafe discussions with my colleagues. Is it random, do I somehow attract strange people to work with me, or is there a complex (positive? negative?) feedback in which I nucleate instabilities in previously normal people? I will probably never know, but I am acquiring lots of data through experience.

Encounters on the Strange Spectrum include those with:

- strange non-academic people; see earlier post on erratic/threatening man in my office a few weeks ago. He has not returned, but I had another random strange person wander into my office last week. He was large but he was not threatening. He pointed at various things in my office and asked me to give them to him. I kept saying no, and eventually he left.

- strange academic people. In my previous post, I presented two general examples from the Strange Spectrum, from somewhat dysfunctional to kind of scary. Obviously there is a lot more to each of these examples than what I wrote, and any decisions I make about continuing or discontinuing to work with a student will involve taking all the information into account.

A key point is that when you supervise a group of students (and postdocs), there are many complex issues involved in figuring out the best and most fair way for everyone to have the most positive and constructive experience and work environment. This is a difficult thing to balance in the best of circumstances in which everyone gets along and works hard, and it can be extraordinarily difficult if one or more group members are dysfunctional in some way.

The dysfunction scale is vast, and includes the socially awkward and the scary (as I described in my last post). Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to everyone in my group, functioning or otherwise, and it is a never-ending challenge to fulfill that responsibility.


iGollum said...

As an addendum to my comment on your previous post, I'd like to say that this post clarified whatever questions remained in my mind about your attitude to handling strange people. You sound very fair and open-minded (a lot like my own advisor, who I've mentioned) and I guess I'd like to thank you on behalf of well-meaning strange people everywhere, if I dare be so presumptuous. I hope the situation with your student works out.

That said, I agree that your strangeness-magnetism is quite intriguing! I suppose you might as well enjoy the entertaining aspect of it, even if it's probably a bit tiring at times. At least you're not at risk of getting bored :)

EcoGeoFemme said...

Is it possible that you generally appear particularly nice or attractive? Do non-strange people seem to find you especially approachable? Maybe the you are a strangeness-magnet simply because you are a people-magnet. Maybe not in the popular-cheerleader-homecoming queen way, but it could be that compared to your peers, you are easy to talk to.

Dr. Lisa said...

One of the aspects of college teaching that I did not anticipate was the number of students who come into my office and talk to me about their lives. I've comforted students after miscarriages, deaths, domestic violence... I've celebrated births and weddings and acceptances into grad school. I've helped get a student through a semester who attempted suicide midway through. Sometimes I think they feel more comfortable talking to their female instructors (like moms or big sisters). I also think strangers feel more at ease approaching females regardless of the situation. I wonder if this contributes to your situation?

Anonymous said...

My take on it is similar to ecogeofemme's, but a little more specific: as a long-time reader of your blog, I think you come across as a very Nice Person. Both in the sense that you like to be considerate to people and look out for them (excellent), and maybe in the sense that you are a bit passive when others would maybe speak up (not so excellent). For example, the amount of sexist things that have been related by you to which your response was to smile sweetly and say something only-barely-pithy! Your job isn't in danger. If these strange or aggressive or sexist people are bothering you, you can respond without putting your career in the balance, unlike us junior scientists! You have tenure - use it! :-) I think the biggest attraction to these aggressive / odd people is someone who they see as an 'easy target'. Don't be an easy target.

Anonymous said...

If only there were a place (like in the JAMA) for a collection of stories about your strange magentism. It would be hard to pull off, but worthwile reading!

Ms.PhD said...


I like that you worry about keeping your group happy and safe. More PIs should.

I worry though, that you should have met with these students before they started and been able to tell from interviewing them whether they had these noticeably strange traits? Perhaps you need to work on your strangeness meter.

I think this is another case where coming "highly recommended" is meaningless and subjective and not a good way to choose or promote scientists at any level.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

I have to agree with Dr. Lisa! And I, too, have had the feeling of either being a crazy-attractor or a crazy-inducer. Or is it our university system that attracts this type of person and they are uniformly distributed?

I am, in a way, flattered that students confide in me. But it can, at times, be very scary, as in when I realize that I just helped a student make the decision *not* to abort her pregnancy.

At times I feel I need an additional degree in psychology, so that I know how best to help the people who seek me out. Maybe, though, all they need is my open door and ears, and my suggestions on how to carry on, which often involve seeking professional help.

Even though it takes a lot of time, it makes me feel good to be able to combine Science with Humanness. I love them bringing their babies to show off, and writing to tell me what happened to them years after graduation (especially when they write: you know, you were right about X).

But of course, just because you are not paranoid doesn't mean they are not out to get you. Maybe you do attract strangeness....