Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

catenary_bikeI swear, I do not ask for these things to happen to me. They just do. I am simply reporting the facts as they occurred…

It seemed to be a perfectly nice visit to a school with a good reputation who has enough money to purchase national academy members in order to increase their prestige. I was happy to have been invited to give a talk to this school. I was looking forward to impressing the scientists there with my cool science and my fast wit.

For those of you who don’t know, when you go to give a seminar, they put you through your paces. Not only are you there to perform for the people of the university who might happen to have the time to come to your seminar, but you also have 30 – 45 minute, back-to-back meetings all day with various faculty members. You typically eat lunch with students or faculty and then also have a dinner with faculty members. At each meeting you typically discuss the science of the person with whom you are visiting. It is possible to be talking about all matter of science within the span of 20 minutes, so you have to bring your A-game. I was ready for my long, exhausting day of fast-paced science. I wore a smart outfit and had updated my talk with some new data and cute animations and movies. I had great meetings all morning. The seminar is over lunch, but they gave me my food early, so I could eat (this sometimes doesn’t happen, so you should always bring snacks in your bag just in case). By the way, this is the same way an interview goes except for 2+ days.

So, I was having a good day. I got up to give my talk and just before it started an older gentleman came and sat in the second row. It was clear that he was a big deal. A national academy member (NAM). This group had three, and I know two of them pretty well. Of course, the two guys I know were out of town that day. I had never met this guy before, but the other two were pretty nice to me and liked my science. I began my talk with my usual quiz. See, I do a lot of active learning in my talks because (1) people remember it, and (2) people don’t fall asleep, and (3) people like it. Seriously, it is much more entertaining when you break the 4th wall (see post). 99% of people who hear one of my talks, love this style. At about the 3rd slide, NAM leans over the his neighbor and whispers something. Not too loud, but obvious to me what he is doing. I explain to the audience that I am using active participation of the audience to engage and to keep you from sleeping during my talk. That gets a few laughs.

The next time I have an activity for the audience, NAM does it again – he whispers. It is clear that he isn’t digging my talk style. But, I dig in. This is my talk, and I am not going to let him passively bully me… I didn’t have to wait long for him to stop being so passive about his bullying. About 20 minutes into the talk, I ask something of the audience like, “What do you think this means?” And NAM says very loudly, “Why don’t you just tell us instead of making us answer?” I get embarrassed. My face heats up (apparently red to match the temperature). My heart is pounding. I want to burst into tears.

I make a comment about how this style is the best way to learn. NAM responds by saying, “Yeah, yeah. I know the literature, and that’s fine for a class where you want the students to remember what you say 5 weeks later for an exam, but this is a seminar.”  WTF? Like, I don’t want people to remember my talk 5 weeks later? I want them to remember my work a year later. And, of course he knows the literature. The effing National Academy literally wrote the book on best practices in the classroom.

I respond with something like, “Well, this is how I made my talk, so I guess we’ll just have to continue on.” The very next slide has another quiz. I say, half apologetically, “Well, there’s another one. I guess we need to do it.” The students still give answers and respond. The next quiz I look at NAM and say, “Oh no, I know you don’t like this, but here we go again!” I make it into a joke that he doesn’t like what I am doing and I keep doing it. Making light of the situation does make me feel better, but I feel like total shit. This creep just fucked up my awesome talk.

Prior to this talk, only one person had ever criticized my “active learning” talk style. I gave a talk at a Gordon Conference and used candy as props to talk about a subject everyone in the room already knew and understood. Afterwards, one woman came up to me and say, “I thought that using active learning was really bad for a seminar or conference talk. Don’t get me wrong, I teach at a liberal arts school, and I use active learning in the classroom, but I just think it doesn’t have a place in conferences.” I was surprised that someone who is clearly an up-to-date educator would say that, and my face must have betrayed it, because she continued to say, “But you know what? Your talk is the only one of the morning session that I remember. So, I think I was wrong. I think active learning is useful at conferences, and I am glad you did it.” So, although she gave me crap for active learning at a conference, I actually changed her mind!

Of course, my day wasn’t over. In fact, I had a whole slate of meetings for the entire afternoon. The meeting just after my talk was with my host. He apologized for his NAM colleague. He told me some terrible stories about how he is like that to everyone, in the hopes that I wouldn’t feel like it was personal. But, it was personal. Just because he is a personal jack-ass to everyone, doesn’t mean it isn’t personal.

My next meeting was with the NAM. The first thing he does, is exactly what I expect. He fake apologizes for his behavior. He knows he was unacceptably an asshole. His apology is something like, “I’m sorry I spoke up and was rude, but that style is not good.” I said, back, “You are the only person I have ever met who thinks that.” He said, “Well, I’m not wrong.” I can’t help it anymore. I try to hold back, but the tears come. They fill my eyes. He avoids eye contact. I find an old tissue in my bag and try to dab away the tears of anger and unsaid words when he isn’t looking. But, part of me wants him to see. Part of me wants him to know that his words are hurtful. That I am a human. I sit there and I am crying at you. I do not run. I am not weak for crying. I am strong. Are you strong enough to see me cry? No, you are not.

He spent 3/4 of an hour mansplaining my research back to me. I didn’t get to talk at all. He gave me reprints in a little folder. Homework for me to read and educate myself on his brilliance in my field. He’s not actually in my field, but he has dabbled. My tears dry up within about 15 minutes, so 30 minutes are spent with me listening and trying to tell him what the latest in what he is saying is. Or explain why what he is saying isn’t right with what we know now.

The rest of the visit is good. Only 3 students show up to my student time (all men). I have lots of advice, but only three have time to hear. I worry that it is because I was publicly shamed about my talk. I wish his critique had been about science, so I could fight back. It was about style. How do you fight back against that? It’s like standing up in someone’s talk and saying you don’t like their voice or haircut.  The students who showed up apologized for NAM. They said he is a dick and he does that to everyone. They said that they liked my talking style. We talk about two-body problems and how to get jobs after grad school. Typical stuff young people are concerned about.

Other faculty apologize for NAM. I get a couple emails upon my return apologizing for NAM. I certainly don’t blame any of these other people. But, none of them calls NAM out. I put up the most fight against him of anyone. It definitely altered my visit. I message some WoS friends. I post about it on FaceBook. People are flabbergast that someone would say something like that. I don’t out NAM at first, but people can figure out where you are talking, and they can figure out who’s the asshole at that place.

So, here is a question. How do you handle this situation? And how do you handle the standing up for yourself. I did go to social media, but I kept it low and of course, my FB page is closed to friends only. I do not believe that any one asshole’s comments of this nature should get them grilled in the arena of public opinion (outright sexist or racist comments are very different). I do want to let people know who is an asshole, so they can prepare to defend themselves. I do want to learn from this event – what would you do? How can you fight back? Was it sexist? I don’t know. I’m sure he was more likely to be an asshole to me, but I would have thought he would attack my competence as a scientist – not as a presenter. Plus, who attacks someone’s strength? Maybe that means I showed no other weakness? That’s a nice way to read this.

I hope to hear back from you. Comments, suggestions, ideas are all welcome. Post or comment here. If you want to get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Comments on: "Dignity in the Face of Jerks" (9)

  1. Keep your talk style. I remember that GRC talk, and in particular, I remember the one quiz where I could feel the audience waking up when the data did not show any difference as one might imagine. I remember thinking this is really weird (that there is no apparent difference), and also what a great way to make a point. Too often the speaker hose down the audience with a bunch of facts in a fast pace, I think you would have not been as effective as getting the audience involved if you just quickly told us that there was no difference. I remember that there were lots of suggestions and thoughts on what might be happening. I copied both the candy and the quiz in recent talks, where handwaving is just not enough. The quiz helped making my point far better than regular statement of what I think the data meant.

  2. What an awful situation. The title of your post sums it up: “dignity in the face of jerks”. I think you handled this as best you could. Including crying in his office.

    I’m also on your side about the active learning in a seminar setting. It is something I do very little of when I give seminars, but that’s just my own style, it’s not a judgement. And when I do use active learning in my seminar talks, I am definitely doing it in the spirit of the way I teach, I am intentional about it.

    It sounds like this NAM may well have found a way to be a jerk no matter how you gave the seminar. You handled it exactly the way I would want to handle it during the talk: making it clear that you know he’s not happy with it and tough luck for him, this is the way it’s going to be. “I guess we have to do it!” — perfect.

    It may be that NAM’s colleagues are calling him on this where you can’t see it. But I may be overly optimistic.

    Regarding the students showing up for “student time” part, that’s been my experience too. I love talking with students and giving advice, but very few show up for those sessions. I haven’t seen any correlation with the number of students showing up and how well (or not) I thought my seminar went. I even remember a graduate-student organized conference where I was invited to be a keynote speaker and I gave a talk I thought went really well, and then at lunch (after my talk) very few students sat with me.

  3. Why do you give talks that way? Because you enjoy it? Because you you like to engage an audience? Because you have found it to be more effective? Maybe this is your subconscious telling you to hone the questions you ask. If you need to get people to engage early to build some understanding to convey the final results, then you might need to ask a lot of questions, but maybe you don’t need as many if the concepts are familiar/easy. I would guess that being in an interdisciplinary field means you need to help get people up to speed fast, so maybe you just want to refine your approach to help you feel more confident. Don’t do it just for the sake of doing it, do it so it counts. Then, it will work for you and be what you like, so who cares what others think? You weren’t there just to give your talk to the NAM. Maybe old style (lecturing/talking at the audience) worked for him when he was a student, but you are using a style that works for you and others. It’s a jerk move for him to make your talk style about his preferred learning style. You are there for the benefit of everyone in the room, not just him. Why do you think he was such a jerk? Maybe he doesn’t like to be asked questions in public like that because he might answer incorrectly and he doesn’t want people to know that being a NAM doesn’t mean that discovery might prove his hypotheses/assumptions incorrect. Maybe he is embarrassed that he hasn’t been able to integrate that style into his own pedagogy. To his question “Why don’t you just tell us”, the answer seems to be – because I want people here to engage, remember and learn – that is how I enjoy interacting with my community. If all he cares about are the answers, he can go read your papers or shut up and listen to others in the room. Also – his “apology” is just a tactic for allowing himself to behave badly without changing. If he was sorry, he would have used some restraint. We can’t not feel what we feel in those situations, but I don’t think you needed to give that guy a thought, he didn’t give you one. If you are worried about those haters, you could always preface your talks with a disclaimer “I’m going to ask for a lot of audience participation. If you don’t want to be part of it, please see my most recent publication here so you can skip to the punchline”. If he wants to give a talk, he can get an invitation – that floor was yours and he unfortunately had some success in making it about him rather than your science.

  4. Unfortunately, we all too often focus on the one negative criticism rather than the many positive critiques we receive. I agree with E above. You could mention that you’re going to ask for input from the audience. But be like Julia Child – never apologize for your style! You might explain it upfront, but don’t apologize! If you’re ever in the room with the NAM guy again, try to steer away from comments on your style and stick to the content. Sounds like he wants to remain relevant and is struggling.

  5. I am very sorry to hear about your experience, which happens all too often in academia (as in all other social spheres). I found the following book on the subject of assholes helpful: It helped me better understand situations in which I have been treated poorly. I also thought it was useful as a vehicle to examine my own behavior. I fully endorse the idea of actively engaging an audience, which is by no means a novel idea even if some stodgy academics have a hard time accepting it. But regardless of someone’s opinion about the style or content of your presentation, I do not believe it is ever appropriate to act like a jerk.

  6. Uma Nudurupati said:

    I totally connect with the tears of anger part that you spoke of. I thought it was because I wasn’t ‘grown up’ enough to control tears that I get them when I’m angry. Feels a bit better that there are elder people grappling with it as well.

  7. Uma Nudurupati said:

    Also, I’ve been trying to not take everyone too seriously. I think that policy should help you get some relief.

  8. The NAM is an asshole and, since he is an asshole to everyone, that means his actions had nothing to do with you and everything to do with his miserable perspective.
    You handled it perfectly during the talk. The only other thing you could’ve done was to offer him the option of leaving the room if he could not tolerate your style.

  9. Honestly, I’ve gotten that behavior precisely once, during a military training seminar in emergency treatment of injuries.
    First off, you are the invited speaker and subject matter expert. It is your seminar, given to a participating audience. Any disruptive audience members should be gotten control of or dismissed as disruptive.
    After the second rude whispering, I’d have responded, “It appears that you are incapable of appropriate behavior during an invited presentation, perhaps there is a place where your presence would be more appropriate?”. It’s a moderately rude response to phenomenal rudeness and disruptive and it places him on notice that he’d be asked to leave if he continued.
    You were the invited speaker, not NAM. In that situation, I’d have precisely no problems with placing NAM back into his place, regardless of how much he may storm later.

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