Thursday, September 23, 2010

Listen Up

Imagine that you have been making one particular not-very-complicated point for many years in various faculty meetings, individual discussions, memos, and e-mails. This point is about an administrative matter, not something related to your research; say, something involving the undergraduate curriculum (for example).

In recent years, you have made this point many times because your department has been discussing the curriculum a lot. When relevant and necessary, you say something like "Science 201 is an important class because it lays the foundation for every other Science class. It is the only one that involves concepts related to the dynamics of kangaroos, the moons of Saturn, and the novels of Willa Cather."

Most of your colleagues are convinced, but for some reason, the issue keeps coming up again and again: Is Science 201 still an important class, or is it a relic to which some of us are clinging because we hate change? Does this class integrate different aspects of Science? Is it broad or narrow? Is it fundamental?

These are important issues to discuss for any class. It is worthwhile to reexamine the curriculum from time to time and make sure that it meets the needs of the students. You don't mind in general having to justify this course and its continued place in the curriculum, but you do find it frustrating to make the same point again and again because certain people either don't believe you or aren't paying attention.

Furthermore, it isn't actually your own *special class* you are defending, although you have taught the class, so no one should discount your opinion on the grounds that you are just defending turf.

Now imagine that one of the colleagues who has most often brought up the issue of whether Science 201 is important (or not), and who is one of the primary reasons why you have to repeat yourself so often about the importance of this class, stops you in the hall and enthuses about an interesting talk he heard by a brilliant senior scientist at a conference. This brilliant man said that Science 201 is an important class because it is the only one that involves concepts related to the dynamics of kangaroos, the moons of Saturn, and the novels of Willa Cather! Did you know this? Maybe you could incorporate some elements of this idea into the class when you teach it?!

And maybe, if you use some of Brilliant Man's ideas and methods, the course could become as interesting and relevant as your colleague's courses are.

Question:

Does this mean that you have finally won because your colleague seems convinced that the course is relevant and important?

Or have you lost because your colleague, to this day, does not recognize that you have been making this same point to no apparent effect until it was said by a Brilliant Man?

The answer is: both. You may now have less trouble justifying a course that you feel is essential to the undergraduate program, thereby benefiting students (if you are right about the importance of the course), but you are still just a yapping female (in this case) with nothing of significance to say, even about topics with which you have some expertise.

Too bad that Science 201 is likely to be somehow flawed whenever you teach it because how could you do it right when you are not a Brilliant Man?

Of course one must consider the possibility that the Brilliant Man made a more compelling, eloquent case than you were ever capable of doing, but, after careful consideration, you find this explanation insufficient.

And perhaps the most depressing thing of all is that the Colleague Who Doesn't Listen To You is a junior colleague.

30 comments:

GMP said...

but you are still just a yapping female with nothing of significance to say, even about topics with which you have some expertise.

This. Unfortunately.

And perhaps the most depressing thing of all is that the Colleague Who Doesn't Listen To You is a junior colleague.

Even students will do this (consider female of any age and status to just be a yapping female).

The sad thing is that I almost don't get upset about incidents like these any more. I expect my opinion to be discounted and am pleasantly surprised when it's not. The key to happiness is lowered expectations, of other people foremost. (I know, I'm a ray of sunshine.)

Anonymous said...

What did he say when you told him that you had been doing that for years?

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the three stages of acceptance of a scientific idea:

1. It won't work.
2. It might work.
3. I thought of it first.

Anonymous said...

The two last lines almost made me weep!

ChemProf said...

This is the type of discrimination that I encounter in my department. The devaluing of the opinion(s) of female faculty in matters related to curriculum, budget, etc in department meetings in a heavily male-dominated department. It is actually quite sickening.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't mean neither winning nor losing,

BUT you gained a wonderful insight into the thinking patterns of said colleague and might exploit them from now on to you own will.

Anonymous said...

Could be worse - that person is my supervisor.

Requin said...

Could you send your colleague a collection of the memos you've written making this same point? Perhaps with some additional explanation to show how the points the brilliant scientist made at the conference match the points you've been making for years? (It seems as though your colleague might need a bit of help grasping this similarity.)

Anonymous said...

I can totally comiserate.

It's sort of like how you have to convince your advisor it was actually his/her idea before they come around to thinking it's a good one worth pursuing.

While still extremely frustrating for junior people, I would imagine this problem is magnified for women.

Anonymous said...

This happens to me ALL the time, but not just on administrative stuff...

Edward said...

Does physics have a celebrity culture where everyone is obsessed with the superstars?

Anonymous said...

This is one of those microinequities that is so hard for people outside your lived experience to accept. I used to have a colleague who was really good at coming back in situations like these; she would say something like, "Oh, that's great. I'm so glad you have come around to my way of thinking and that Brilliant Man agrees with me too! Maybe you would like to use my course materials when you teach Science 201." and all with a big smile.

Eilat said...

Question: Does anyone take notes during the meetings and distribute them as "minutes" afterwards?

When I was in grad school I was allowed to sit in on the faculty meetings as a representative for the graduate students. I didn't get a vote or anything, but I was there to make sure the grad student perspective was at least being represented. I would sit there, infuriated, frustrated, listening to the SAME argument about Science 201 and its relevance to the curriculum, etc. just as you describe. No one listened to anyone. The same topics were dicussed over and over. It was maddening!

If someone were acting in the role of "secretary", writing down what is said and disseminating a summary after the meeting in an email, then the next time the SAME conversation comes up, all you would need to say is "we talked about this before on [this date] and we agreed that [Science 201 is ...]" point to the text and move on.

Im not sure gender played as much a role as academic senility in your story. There seems to be an attitude of "were too smart to take notes" or something. At least that was the feeling I got from my department.

Anonymous said...

I knew from reading the first line of your post how the story was going to end - so familiar. The only way to stay sane is not worry about whether you've won or lost. Before you go into a department meeting, figure out what you want. Count the votes beforehand (after 5 or 10 or 20 years it's pretty easy to predict how a colleague will vote). Lobby the marginal voters. If the vote turns out the way you want, that's great. If it doesn't, as they say, living well is the best revenge (though that saying was invented before 'becoming an internationally famous blogger' was an alternative option).

Frances Woolley (female economics professor)

Anonymous said...

Once again you've hit the nail on the head.

The converse of this is when colleagues listen to you about curriculum / admin because women must know about teaching and organization, but dismiss your science, because of course women aren't good at hard science.

The president of Bryn Mawr College had an article in the New York Times yesterday about why we still need women's colleges.

Anonymous said...

Whether you won, lost, both, or neither, depends on your goal. Was the goal to keep the class and have its importance recognized, or was it to have your own brilliance and importance recognized?

If the former, you have a solid win.

If the latter, it's still hard to call it a loss; it looks like that colleague did not before, does not now, and possibly will not in the future recognize your brilliance and importance. Some people are like that, some parts of life stink, and the fact that this doesn't change hardly seems like you've *lost* anything.

Thinkerbell said...

The rational thing to do is be happy that your point of view has been recognized, and people now share your opinion. Unfortunately, that's usually not enough and we want some form of recognition. That being said, there's absolutely nothing wrong with shoving this in your colleague's face. IMHO a lot of men are actually completely oblivious to these things. They aren't stepping over others on purpose, they are just really bad listeners (1) and often don't recall details or, in general, any information being given to them unless it is of vital importance at that specific moment (2) and in spite of everything like to follow alpha males (3), which is why your Big Colleague was able to convince him. Sad, but true.

a physicist said...

I wonder if you could show him a copy of your syllabus from the first time you taught the class, and the most recent time, and comment: "You're right, kangaroos, Saturn, and Cather should be key elements of this course. It turns out they've been elements of the course the previous times I've taught it, how lucky for our department that we weren't missing these crucial elements! I enjoyed talking with you about this!"

unlikelygrad said...

This doesn't just happen in academia, sadly. I've experienced this in many situations, and have come to the conclusion that the best way to fight it is to make suggestions by email or in writing.

Email works especially well because it reduces me to the sexless "UGrad@MyU.edu"--but written docs aren't so bad either. In either case, the recipient evaluates my suggestions without hearing my inherent yappiness (cough, cough).

Anonymous said...

Someone asked what he said when you said this is what you've been pointing out...My question is, what did he say when you reached out and smacked some sense into him. Just kidding.

I like a Physicists reaction.

Female Computer Scientist said...

UGH. And the fact that it's a junior colleague is extra insulting.

Depending on my relationship with the person, I might do something like what a physicist suggested. In my experience (at least for Computer Scientists/Engineers), the only thing that gets through is over-the-top directness. Otherwise it seems these folks don't tend to see the light on their own.

I'd like to believe this sort of thing happens more because of social cluelessness than maliciousness, but it can be hard to tell.

Anonymous said...

Where is option 3) You've now realized that colleague in question is a incorrigible moron beyond your help, and you should try to minimize your interactions with him just in case idiocy is catching?

I don't see the point of trying to prove that you were right all along to someone as clueless as the person being described. It's highly unlikely that you'll succeed and not even very satisfying on the off-chance that you do.

TLH said...

I believe the emotion you are describing is what my friends from grad school called "stabby", as in a level of anger that requires a violent reaction. Various forms include: stabby, stabbiness, stabbily.

"I thought about killing him, but then as my stabbiness faded to anger, I realized there were too many witnesses"

Anonymous said...

" ... stops you in the hall and enthuses about an interesting talk he heard by a brilliant senior scientist at a conference. This brilliant man said that Science 201 is an important class because ..."

AAARRRGGHH

Gingerale said...

FSP, I think I've figured out your identity. Are you... me?!?

I've experienced this kind of thing too often to count. I take it to mean I don't have enough power in my academic department.

I like the idea of living well as the best revenge. Nothing replaces self-respect. Then too, a person needs a reasonable amount of respect from others in order to accomplish many work related goals.

butterflywings said...

Ugh, yes, I know this situation (as probably do all women, sooner or later), the Colleague Who Doesn't Listen To You.

Athene Donald said...

Your comments about getting your voice heard resonate with what I wrote recently in http://athenedonald.wordpress.com/2010/09/21/every-other-thursday-do-support-groups-support/. There I asked whether men feel they suffer the same fate, but got no response. Maybe I can ask your readers the same question - your blog being of much longer standing than mine, I am sure your readership is much bigger!

Kea said...

The key to happiness is lowered expectation ...

I'll stick with my expectations, thanks. After the revolution, if humans survive, your grandchildren can enjoy the luxury of happiness.

Anonymous said...

Ah, this is my life about virtually every topic at every faculty meeting

Tenured female professor

Strung out cyclist said...

I think just about everyone has had that experience. You should have told Junior Colleague right then and there that he's a fuckwad and why. But I guess the moment has passed. That's the worst feeling...