Thursday, June 19, 2008

Worst Insult

In the 20 June Chronicle of Higher Education, Jerome Neu, a scholar of insults, was asked how academics insult each other. The (vague) answer had to do with subtle insults about intelligence and "other things that may not be such points of pride elsewhere."

Does the fact that I don't know what those other points of pride might be mean that I am stupid? Go ahead and insult me, just be subtle about it, please.

In fact, I can make some educated guesses about the academic PoP's. Perhaps those points of pride involve the number and funding level of your grants; the value of your h-index; the impact factor of the journals in which you publish; and the ranking of your department/institution. I can think of others -- e.g. the quantity and quality of your honors and awards; the presence or absence of a personal administrative assistant; and/or the make and model of the espresso machine in your office -- but these might not be quite so specific to academia.

For those in the humanities, there are probably all sorts of subtle insults one can attempt based on the prestige of one's book publisher or the number of digits in one's Amazon.com sales rank.

Sometimes the gender, seniority, and other characteristics of the insulter dramatically influence whether a particular insult is effective.

Last year I had the evil pleasure of watching my most obnoxious colleague be verbally eviscerated by a not-subtle insult at a faculty meeting. If I had made the exact same statement, my colleagues would have labeled me as hysterical and mean, but it was devastating and effective coming from a distinguished senior colleague (who has several offices, an administrative assistant or two, lots of grants, and who recently won a major award).

The obnoxious colleague, previously described in this blog in the context of his offensive behavior towards women faculty and students, had been given a position of responsibility, and was poised to wreak havoc on some important aspects of the educational mission of the department. He presented his ghastly plan, and a few of us started to object to certain features of it, but our objections were swatted down. Then the Distinguished One proclaimed to the Obnoxious One:

You have a 19th century view of science.

And that was enough to kill the plan.

20 comments:

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

One of the professors at my institution is famed for his unsubtle put-downs. During q&a post-talk, he'll often launch with "Let me explain why your data are wrong..." or "Here is the important control you need to do for your experiments to make any sense."

It only works because he's often right.

lost clown said...

That is just awesome.

Anonymous said...

I wish PoP included how well science departments/universities treated their female students/postdocs.

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP, in a meeting with my (male, 50-60yr old) supervisor yesterday I was told to make sure to have lots of equations in my thesis because they are a 'mark of virility' (I am young & female of course). Interesting choice of words...I immediately thought of you :-)

stepwise girl said...

Speak of a subtle opaque way of making something clear...

BeautifulBrain said...

that totally made my day. :) thanks.

Anonymous said...

Best insult...?

ScienceWoman said...

Awesome. I definitely have some colleagues who have a 19th century view of science.

prof_j said...

After a colleague announced they were leaving for another institution, someone remarked that the change would improve the quality of both departments.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I've heard people say "that idea is pedestrian" (though not to me) which I assume is insulting, yet I'm never quite exactly sure what they mean.

Ms.PhD said...

Did you notice you described this older person as Distinguished but did not state whether it was a man? Was that deliberate? Because you kind of made it sound like, as a woman, you couldn't have said that. But it also implies that you think women professors can't be Distinguished. Wasn't that the subject of an earlier blog?

And why isn't this Distinguished person around more often when you need someone intelligent and powerful to back you up?

p.s. prof j's comment made me laugh.

Female Science Professor said...

My Distinguished Colleague's recent award has the word "Distinguished" in it, so this adjective is entirely appropriate in this case.

Anonymous said...

In the American biomedical sciences, the worst insult goes something like this:

"Unscored - Application judged non-competitive"

It's the worst, because it has real consequences.

Alethea said...

I love prof_j's reported joke. It takes a second to think about, during which time the insulter can move on to other things.

Short of being able to consciously do it myself, I appreciate a good put-down in others - unless it is directed my way, but usually I duck.

EliRabett said...

Subtle is you have a 20th century view of science.

Anonymous said...

I recently had a dream that my department chair sent an email to the entire department in which he made some demeaning comments about my research and me as a scientist. I was very upset in the dream but it was odd since I have barely interacted with him in person (I'm a grad student) and didn't think I had a problem with him!

Unbalanced Reaction said...

HA! That's the best slam I've heard of in awhile!

quaryn-dk said...

Ooh, burn...

highlyeccentric said...

oooh, snarky!

'other things' are probably field specific. For example, it's very amusing to watch medievalists throw around the phrases 'early medieval', 'high medieval' and 'late medieval'... If you fancy yourself an early medievalist, you wear your badge with pride, and scoff at those 'high medievalists' of the ninth century who have better surviving sources than you.

If, on the other hand, you study the tenth century and fancy your period to be 'early', you scoff at everything subsequent as 'high medieval' and you deride the aforementioned fifth century scholar as 'late antique'.
The delicate conference dance, in a conference small enough that several periods might clash, becomes a contest for the right to the title 'early medievalist', with everyone sniffing and doubting each others' claim to the period.

Chris said...

The best one I ever heard personally was, "I understand what you are saying. I just don't understand your point."