Remember Dr. No? Her husband is also on faculty in my department. He coordinates the departmental seminars, and he emailed two of us who were defending our dissertations in March, asking if we would please please present our findings in April. His emails were very jocular and encouraging, and so I was blindsided when he took over the Q&A time after my presentation last month.
"Are there any questions?" I asked.
"Oh," he said instantly, "I have about a BILLION questions. Did you have a hypothesis?"
If you have never been involved in a research project, it may not be immediately evident: that's a deeply obnoxious question. You can't launch a thesis project without a well-defined hypothesis. Your advisor and committee would just never permit it. My advisor told this story twice at the party she threw for me last month and both times it elicited gasps from the professors who heard it. "Do you have any manners?" one of them said indignantly, in her imagined response to the questioner.
In preparing for the seminar I heavily revised my defense presentation. Seminar attendance is mandatory for the master's students, but they have little statistical training and (in general) little interest in the fine points of research methods. My goal was to make it accessible, clinically focused, and interesting for the students who were required to be there. I sat through too many of those seminars as a master's student, wondering what exactly an omnibus F value was and why the speaker was all excited about it.
Apparently this was not what the coordinator had in mind.
It took me about five questions to figure out that his jocular encouraging side was not going to be putting in an appearance that day. When he said, "There must be a literature on this" (another highly obnoxious comment -- you can't pass the preliminary exam if you haven't reviewed the literature carefully, any more than you can embark on a dissertation study without a hypothesis), it finally clicked. I shifted out of friendly collegial mode and pulled myself up to my full height. "Of course there's a literature," I said frostily. "It tells us that [blah blah blah]. My study corroborates A and at the same time suggests B. Who else has questions?"
My advisor assures me that I handled it fine. Unflappable, she called me, though really I just hide the flapping well. Cryptoflappable, perhaps. The exchange continues to niggle at me, though.
There's this subset of academics, mostly men, who seem to esteem condescension over collegiality. Does anyone remember when I presented my early research project and that West Coast professor (he of the longstanding feud with my project director) leaned in toward me and said, "Well, you see, animals don't talk"? I mean, come on.
In hindsight I have thought of a dozen comebacks, from the informative ("Animal research allows us to manipulate early diet and environment in ways that aren't ethically feasible for human studies") to the flippant ("No! All those Disney movies can't be wrong!"). What I cannot quite figure out is a Christian response to such condescension.
I know that I am called to extirpate pride ruthlessly, to cultivate humility. At the same time, I have to wonder if being a soft-spoken woman who aims for engaging over dazzling is setting me up for encounters like these. Whom would Jesus frost?
It's on my mind today because at Saturday's graduation reception I stood in the buffet line next to Dr. No. She asked if I was presenting my dissertation results at next month's symposium. Yep, I said. Are you going to be there? She will be, along with her husband. Lovely.
Most of me hopes that his presentation is at the same time as mine, so he cannot harangue me further. A small part of me, a very small part, says "Bring it, Spouse of Dr. No." An ugly part of me imagines petty smackdowns along the lines of "So if you're so smart, why didn't you get tenure?"
I will keep sending the ugly parts of me to timeout, and I am trying to use the seminar experience to guide me as I draft my conference poster. (In large type it says "The existing literature indicates that...") I can't stop wishing, though, for a world where people didn't view brainpower as a zero-sum thing.