Friday, June 14, 2013

This Seems Like a Good Time to Mention That I Hate Your Work

Have you ever been attacked in a rather impolite way while giving a professional talk?

OK, so "attacked" is a bit of hyperbole. Let's say instead "severely criticized" or perhaps even "insulted". A few notches down would be "asked a question that may have been intended to humiliate you."

I have! Recently! In this case, the question/comment was of the "Your work is totally worthless and a waste of your government's money" sort.

But first, let's go back in time. Not long before I gave my very first talk at a conference as a graduate student, a certain scientist asked me an informal question in conversation. I said I did not know the answer. An hour or so later, he asked me the exact same question at the end of my talk, in front of a few hundred people.

I thought: What a jerk. I did not know him very well, although I had read some of his papers, so I didn't know what his motivation was in asking me a question he knew I could not answer. It could be that he wanted to humiliate me, although that is not my preferred explanation. My favored hypothesis is that he thought it was such a great question, he didn't actually care whether I knew the answer or not, he just wanted to get points for asking it in public. I don't know for sure, but I must say that I was never able to summon much enthusiasm for conversing with him, much less working with him, after that episode.

Since then, it has been my general impression that some people who attempt to ask "take-down" kinds of questions or who make vague derogatory comments ("Your science is completely worthless") aren't actually concerned that Science is being harmed by a misguided or ignorant person. Instead, they are seeking attention and just enjoying the sound of their own brilliance. That is: Enough about you, person who just gave a talk! Now listen to what I have to say even though I don't actually have much to say that is interesting, relevant, or possibly even sane!

But I could be wrong about that. And I don't really want to spend any more time discussing why some people are jerks in this particular way. (And I don't mean to imply that everyone who asks an aggressive question or makes a negative comment is an unreasonable jerk. In some cases these questions and comments are well deserved and useful.)

Anyway, when a very outspoken rude person attempted a take-down kind of question/comment during a talk I gave at a conference recently, I totally did not care. I responded with basic explanations and opinions to his "concerns", and that was that. What surprised me was the number of people who came up to me afterwards to tell me that I shouldn't let it bother me, I shouldn't be upset, I shouldn't worry etc. In fact, I was not bothered, upset, or worried at all.

I appreciated the concern, but then I started to worry that I might have seemed upset when this is not at all what I felt. I don't think I said or did anything that could be interpreted as my being upset when I was up on the stage dealing with the obnoxious comments. I felt quite calm, perhaps a bit impatient, but mostly I thought the whole thing was absurd. It was not a big deal. It upset me to think that people might have thought I was upset when I wasn't. Does that make any sense?

Perhaps people were projecting? That is, they would have felt upset if the Big Guy had gone after them like that?

And maybe these aggressive people serve a useful purpose? Perhaps it actually helped me in the long run that I was "vaccinated" against aggressive questions at my very first professional talk -- after that, I expect it. There will be jerks. They are just part of the landscape. Water off a duck etc. etc.?

Have you ever been experienced what you considered an inappropriate question or comment -- either in content or tone -- during a professional talk? Were you upset?

Have you ever experienced a rude question or comment during a talk? free polls 

Monday, June 03, 2013

Professor Babysitter

Earlier this year, I got a panicked call from a younger relative who was about to give birth to her second child. The baby was about 10 days early and everything was fine, but my relative and her husband had no real plan for a babysitter for their 2.5 year old in the event that the new baby came early. That is, no real plan other than calling me and asking me to take care of their daughter.

I must admit that my first thought was not "Of course! Just let me know what I can do to help!" It was more like "Me?? Are you serious?"

They were serious. They selected me because I fit the following criteria: (1) female, (2) relative, (3) parent, and (4) I could get to their location sooner than other female relatives who have kids. Never mind that my daughter is in high school and I have not taken care of a little kid in many many years..

These relatives are a bit traditional (hence their criteria), but what could I do? It didn't seem the right time to be annoyed that they would never ask a male relative to take a day off from work. My relative is a stay-at-home mom and has never had a career. To her, only another mom could take care of her daughter, and her preference was for that mom to be me.

My mind boggled at the number of people I was going to inconvenience at work by canceling or postponing meetings and other events -- undergrads, grads, staff, colleagues, a dean, an off-campus group with which I have been working -- but I sent off a raft of emails and raced off to babysit for an unknown amount of time.

I did make one quick stop on the way -- I ran into a store and acquired paper, crayons, stickers, crackers, juice.. just in case. Then I went to the hospital where my relative was in labor, her husband was freaking out, and their daughter was sitting strapped in a stroller that was soaking wet because her dad had not changed her diaper for many hours. Before leaving their apartment, he had grabbed exactly 2 books and one paisley-patterned stuffed animal of uncertain species. I was glad I had brought some supplies.

I asked my relative-in-law what his daughter might want to eat for lunch and he said, and I quote, "I don't know. Her mom always feeds her."

So my babysitting adventure began. Yikes it has been a while since I spent so much time taking care of a 2.5 years old. It was exhausting even though my little relative is an extremely cute, affectionate, and (mostly) well-behaved kid.

It turns out that my babysitting had to be confined to the hospital waiting room, lobby, and cafeteria, as my relatives wanted their daughter nearby. This was challenging, but fortunately there were things to see and discuss, such as a decorative pond that we agreed should have had fish in it (but didn't), some religious statuary that I found difficult to explain (so I just made stuff up), and waiting room brochures about some rather adult topics (I made up more stuff).

In fact, we had lots of fun playing weird little games with stickers, rhyming words, and the bizarre stuffed animal her dad had brought even though it is one she "hates". I felt that her hatred of this animal was justified, and that this allowed me to throw it in the air without fear of causing her emotional trauma. In fact, throwing this dog(?) around occupied us happily for at least 20 minutes of that very long day.

It turned out that the 2 books her dad had hurriedly packed were both bedtime books and she absolutely refused to read them during the day because it was not bedtime. This was reasonable. I had brought my iPad, so I started downloading books onto it: ones I remembered my daughter had liked. When my daughter was that age, we only read physical books, so this was new for me, reading e-books with a little kid. We spent quite a lot of time reading, then we enhanced the adult-topic brochures with stickers of frogs and ladybugs.

Taking care of this little girl definitely brought back memories. When we were playing by the fishless pool, she said "no fish" about 57 billion times, over and over and over. I tried to be very Zen about it but at some point I realized I was going to go mad, so the next time she said "no fish", I said "no whales". This is exactly what I used to do with my daughter lo those many years ago, but I didn't know how this particular little girl would respond. She stared at me, her eyes huge, her brain churning, and then carefully said "no seals". So I said "no dolphins". We worked our way through every sea creature we could think of, and then, miraculously, my relative-in-law texted me to say that the new baby had arrived! Yay!

But I was not done babysitting. I was not done because my relative-in-law would not yet tell us whether the baby was a boy or a girl because he first had to call his parents and tell them and then he had to call his parents-in-law and tell them and then he could tell his daughter and then he could tell me. He asked us to go back to the waiting room so we would not overhear the "gender reveal" in his phone conversations with the grandparents. Is this normal? Is this some tradition of which I have thus far been unaware? We went back to the waiting room and threw the paisley dog(?) around some more until it was our turns to hear the news (it was a boy).

Eventually the new family was united and even though I think they would not have minded if I continued to babysit for the next few hours or weeks, I decided my work there was done. My relative-in-law was very kind in thanking me for helping them out, but he also told me that he thought the experience had been very good for me. In some ways he was right, but when he said that I realized I needed to go back to my own planet as soon as possible.

What, if anything, did I learn?

It is possible to miss a busy day of work and survive, although there are times when I have doubted this. I am sorry that others were inconvenienced, but I am glad I was able to help out my relative in her time of need.

I can't imagine wanting to live the way these relatives live (I am sure they feel the same about me). Mom takes care of kids; Dad works. Dad doesn't even now how to feed or change his daughter (and now his son). And yet, I like them. They are nice people. And their daughter is a happy, smart, busy little kid.

I am glad my daughter is a teenager. I have enjoyed every age that she has been; every age has been my favorite. I am not at all nostalgic for her baby-years.