Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What We Sound Like

Owing to my recent travels, I had to take a make-up exam in the language class I am taking. I teach my own class exactly during my instructor's two office hours, both of which occur in identical time blocks on Mondays and Wednesdays. Memo to instructors: If you set your office hours like that (at the same hour on M W or T Th), any student who can't go to your office hour on one day owing to a class conflict will likely be unable to attend either office hour.

The instructor kindly allowed me to come to another class she was teaching and take the exam then. She thought it would be less distracting for me if I sat in the corridor just outside the classroom, rather than in the classroom while the other class was in session. This was a good idea, but neither of us realized that the professor whose office is across the hall would talk extremely loudly for an entire hour at one of his graduate students.

The sound of this professor speaking loudly and continuously bothered me at first, but then I realized that he wasn't saying anything that I understood, and I was mostly able to tune out the sound. He was speaking in English, but he had a strong Humanities accent, and he spoke a Cultural Studies dialect containing many words that were unknown to me in the context in which he used them.

When the hour was up, it was time for my own language class to start, and some of my classmates arrived. As we waited in the hall for the classroom to disgorge students from the previous class, one of my classmates said "Oh no, did you have to listen to That Guy for the entire hour? [points at office of Loud Professor]. I hate it when I come early and have to listen to him for even a few minutes." "Yes", I replied wearily, "He's been talking like that for an hour." Another classmate said "I hate That Guy too. He thinks he's so smart, but he isn't."

Hmm. At the beginning of the conversation with my classmates, we were on the same page, marveling (in a somewhat unkind way) at a certain professor's ability to speak loudly for an extended period of time about an obscure topic, never giving his student a chance to do more than murmur in assent. But then my allegiance shifted.

Why did my classmate think this professor wasn't smart? Do my students think this about me when I am talking about my research? This professor clearly had comprehensive knowledge of something, as he was able to expound on who had written what in various texts spanning centuries of literature in his chosen cultural specialty. I suppose my classmate just didn't like the tone of his voice, which could perhaps be interpreted as oozing with I'm-smarter-than-youness and you-have-nothing-interesting-to-say-but-I-doness.

I still empathized with him, though. Do our students want us to be unsure of our expertise and say things like "I don't really know what I'm talking about even though I've spent the last 20 years thinking about this, but one possible interpretation is that .."? Would that make us seem smarter?

I suppose there is some ideal middle ground in which we can converse in an articulate and confident way about our passionate intellectual interests without making everyone hate us and doubt our intelligence. And I suppose also that, ideally, one should let students ask questions or make comments now and then -- at least once every 30-40 minutes or so, when we pause to take a breath.


Anonymous said...

One of the great frustrations of my day to day life in the humanities is the bewildering assumption people make that, because I study popular culture and deal with philosophical concepts, my work should be easily understood by them. It's the same logic that throws out whole classes of thinkers because they "write confusingly." And it's really offensive to me - in part because I do study popular culture, and so I'm constantly fighting the assumption that because I study things they understand, clearly they should understand everything I say about them. Which isn't true at all - the work I do is actually hard.

This seems to be a curse that the sciences mostly avoid - there seems to be the assumption that scientists really do do hard stuff that other people shouldn't understand. People who are perfectly willing to assume that because comics are something they understand they should understand whatever I say about comics seem more reluctant to decide, for instance, that because they can use their computer they must understand circuit board design.

I'm not sure that's better, as it seems tied to a lot of math and science phobia in our culture, but it's at least less condescending.

Anonymous said...

You pause that often? You're a better woman than I am.

The_Myth said...

I suspect the undergraduates were also speaking another language you're not familiar with: anti-intellectalingo.

It's quite common in colleges nowadays among students who refuse to comprehend the jargon necessary to become "educated" [beyond simple high school standards, which I am afraid have gotten frighteningly banal in some quarters of the country].

You see, many of these curious college natives think that using polysyllabic words simply mark one as TRYING to be smart, instead of, you know, symbolizing a tangible result from erudition. [Gods forbid!]

Now, you science-y types are usually allowed to get away with "acting smart" because science, by default, seems to already have a degree of respectability that affords, and even demands, the use of jargon many people will be hopelessly unable to comprehend, let alone master.

But, you see, if *I* (in my infinite arrogance as a humanities/social science sort) expect a 20-year-old to use their critical faculties to apply a philosophical concept to the analysis of something as obviously mundane as a poem, TV episode, or even a magazine article [whose meaning cannot possibly be deeper than what is superficially emanant], well...I'm just "showing off" and "trying to be smart."

Other optional descriptors applied tin these cases:

full of oneself
a bad teacher
unqualified to teach college

You get the idea. ;-)

SaraJ said...

What you're describing is a strange phenomena that I encounter when I teach science grad students the course research ethics. I constantly get the critique from my students that I "only use philosophical terms to sound smart" and that "research ethics should be taught by a 'real researcher'". Apparently an outsider (philosopher's) attempt to study scientific ethics is affected, but a (baby) scientist's ability to wax on about "The Philosophy of the Matrix" is legitimate academic prose.

I have no idea how to get over this hurdle, though I am contemplating a second PhD in the "real" sciences to do so.

Anonymous said...

You were hanging around with sullen undergraduates and insulting another faculty member. That's fucking hilarious!!1! w00t!1!11!!

Anonymous said...

Re: Office Hours...some of my profs schedule office hours such that they begin in the middle of one hour and end in the middle of the next (i.e. 2:30-3:30). That way there is a good chance that students can at least come to half the hour.

I think the student's comment represents a lack of experience which she will hopefully grow out of. I know at that age, I was very put off by people who "acted smart", but that was mostly an insecurity on my own part. (I always felt like anyone who "acted smart" was trying to make me feel bad about the fact that I wasn't.) I also tended to seriously underestimate how much other people knew, something which I grew out of pretty quickly as I went through college.

The other thing is that if he's not good at communicating what he knows or sounds like he's merely trying to impress the poor student in his office, it may come off like he's trying to cover up that he isn't smart. Some people interpret it that way, erroneous or not.

Brigindo said...

There are multiple intelligences and I would surmise that someone who talks loudly at a graduate student for over an hour is probably not very smart socially. Perhaps students assess our intelligence on more than one level.

Anonymous said...


When I took my program's ethics course, I was astonished at the intellectual shallowness of the other science grad students present. The presenter, an ethics philosopher, asked who in the room had heard of John Stuart Mill, then Kant. Out of 100+ students, less than 10 raised their hands. "Don't these people ever think of anything outside of their narrow field?!" I wondered.

College students, especially those coming out of big universities, and especially science majors, are taught (by profs unfortunately) that their major study area is the most important thing in the universe and anything else they might want to study is a waste of time. This arrogance leads to comments like FSP experienced.

Rachel said...

I've had a lot of conversations recently about problems with jargon. I'm history grad student, and took a linguistic anthropology class-- and quickly learned that in spite of the "sister discipline" rhetoric, the two have nothing in common, and I had to spend twice as much time learning the language of my professor who- I think- is from one of those academic families who train their children to use big words so that by the time they become professors themselves, they don't even realize that they have ceased to make sense to the average person.

I've come to the conclusion that in the eyes of an undergrad, the value of a professor is directly linked to the student's perceived value of the subject at hand.

Ms.PhD said...

I disagree with almost all of these theories. My feeling is that one or both of the following apply here:

1- The students you were speaking with have actually taken other courses in the subject area, so they actually know that this guy is not that smart.

2- As we frequently complain about on our blogs, many faculty are not that smart. So I find it hard to side with faculty or feel any need to protect their huge, fragile egos from the possibility that some of their students, though younger, might actually be SMARTER than they are.

FSP, you don't seem prone to arrogant proclamations, and I somehow doubt your body language leads anyone to perceive you in the highly hyphenated way you describe ("my-all-knowing-ness-is-better-than-yours").

However we have ALL been unfortunate enough (and I am right now) to work nearby to people who are prone to arrogant tone of voice, body language, and yes over- or mis-use of intimidating-sounding jargon.

Personally I don't see the humanities' fascination with overuse of certain big words. But I've had a big vocabulary going on a lotta years now, and I stopped using most of it because I find it tiring to re-explain myself to other people who don't know all the words I like to use.

Just practical.

I very much agree that science majors need to take more humanities classes.

On the other hand I find it a weak excuse when humanities people, who have HUGE vocabularies themselves, often in more than one language, complain that they can't possibly understand scientific jargon. It's really the same as learning a foreign language. If you can do that, you can learn science.

DOING science is a different barrel of monkeys. But you can understand a fair amount without ever actually doing any.

Anonymous said...

No worries FSP. Every student at one point or another has viewed you in the same light as that loud, "stupid" professor.

Kidding like my handle implies.

Actually, I have not heard any of my fellow undergrads express that a professor is stupid when discussing their research. Usually it’s rather entertaining to hear one discuss research in a passionate manner. Then again I’m big into research and understand where the vocal intensity is coming from so I might be an exception.

I have thought professors were contradicting, but not intellectually stupid. I more so question their administrative actions in the classroom (e.g. why wasn’t I awarded an A when my grade was a 89.4799 since it was expressed in the syllabus that grades would be rounded up).

It would actually be ridiculous to tone down the jargon to find middle ground. We need such exposure. Even more so professors need to realize that because undergrads don’t have an extensive amount of knowledge of the subject matter, it would be great if one would break out of the discussion to define such terms.

I’m laughing with PP. Isn’t there some faculty code that insults will be discussed professor to professor, rather than professor to student?

Anonymous said...

In response to:
"When I took my program's ethics course, I was astonished at the intellectual shallowness of the other science grad students present. The presenter, an ethics philosopher, asked who in the room had heard of John Stuart Mill, then Kant. Out of 100+ students, less than 10 raised their hands. "Don't these people ever think of anything outside of their narrow field?!" I wondered. "

I don't find this to be very true and I also think it's an unfair statement. I know a lot of non-science people who pride themselves in their lack of knowledge in regards to science. I honestly believe and have experienced that the average scientist knows more about humanities/philosophy/sociology/literature than the average otherwise well educated non-scientist.

I always use the jeopardy example. Whenever there is a science category the answers are generally very very trivial, verging on what I think should be highschool level science.

Anonymous said...

"The Myth"'s comment reminded me of an undergraduate oral presentation I attended. The student was discussing a play and wondered aloud at one point why all the characters were using big words that they didn't really understand. But, the play was about intelligent people who did know those big words. The student had assumed that because she didn't know the words, neither did the characters.

(This was an otherwise quite bright student who I think highly of.)

Anonymous said...

I'm with the student on this one. Knowledgeable and smart are not the same thing.

Loud Guy is clearly knowledgeable about something, but making a habit of haranguing people like that is most certainly not smart. Social intelligence is highly demanding and critical to what all of us do.