Wednesday, September 26, 2007

It's Not What You Say, But How Long It Takes to Listen to It

We have reached the time period and theme in one of my classes that is most aligned with my never-ending-research-project-of-doom (NERPJ). While I am weary from my work on NERPJ, I still think that it is actually an important topic. My lecture today suggests that I think it is a little too important. Out of an hour and half that was supposed to be devoted to discussing the history of five decades, we covered four years.

That was a surprisingly rookie mistake that I made. It's something that one would expect from a newly minted Ph.D. or a senior grad student. All academics are always just a little too keen to talk about their own research projects, but new Ph.D.'s haven't realized yet that talking about one's research is all about "time and place."

Going on and on in a classroom is one example, but it's hardly the only one. If given even the slightest encouragement, new Ph.D.'s will talk for hours about their current projects without stopping for a breath. During these times, they become oblivious to social cues that the conversation needs to go in another direction. You could tap your foot, look around the room furtively, stare longingly into your empty cocktail glass, or even light yourself on fire. When they are in the zone, there is nothing that will stop them from outlining their current research agenda.

So that you won’t have to resort to self-immolation, I want to give you some handy tips should you find yourself at a cocktail party with a brand-new academic. Actually, you should avoid asking these questions of any academic unless you want to lose the next half hour of your life listening to them:

    What do you research?

    I always wondered about the difference between [any topic] and [any topic]?

    When you are not teaching, what do you do?

    I was thinking about reading something in [whatever field of the academic in front of you]. Can you suggest something?

    What inspired you to become an academic?

    What’s your name?

Those are just questions to avoid being bored. We academics are also a sensitive crew. These are things you should avoid asking unless you want to really piss off a recent Ph.D.

    The last time that you walked out into the sunshine, did it hurt?

    Do you think that anybody will actually read that?

    Have you thought about what you are going to do when you are denied tenure? Or, er, I mean if you are denied tenure?

    Aren't you [name of another professor in same field]? Your work is genius!

    Wait – Are we just talking about your first footnote? ‘Cuz I am not sensing there’s enough in that story to make a whole article/book.

    Look, I am just trying to order a burger and fries here.

    Nobody invited you to your highschool prom, did they?

    My life suddenly feels a lot shorter after listening to you.

    Wow – I can tell how devoted you are to this project given how little attention you have given to your appearance.

    What would you have done if you had a real job?

    Huh – You smell like a library. (**Warning:** Senior professors will interpret this as a come-on).

    Yeah, but will you write anything important?

    I just read an article/book about that exact same research topic – only it was a lot more interesting than they way you are describing it.

    Now I understand why they never make television shows about academics.

    They always say those who can’t do, teach. Maybe you can ask for extra classes next term.

    Wow – I can’t imagine spending my twenties in grad school working on something like that. I was way too busy having lots of fun at that age. I mean, you have a Ph.D.! All I have are some truly excellent memories that will last a lifetime and a sexual history that would have made Kinsey blush.

    You remind me of a prof I had in college. We used to call him old marble nose. I think that he died alone.

    They will publish almost anything today, won’t they?

    Oh, I get it! So your next project will be the interesting one, right?

    And my tax dollars actually pays for part of this?

    I only trust academics who appear on Sunday-morning talk shows.

    But could that story ever be made into a movie?

    Have you ever had sex? Ever?

Than again, maybe you will meet one of the [very] few sexy academics. If that is the case, here are several lines that will guarantee that prof will follow you to the bedroom:

    I wish that [renowned scholar in the same field] had talked to you before writing that last book. It would have been so much better with your insight.

    Tell me more about your research. I could listen to you talk all night!

    Your gravitas is so refreshing.

    Your c.v. must be really long.


    I am surprised that you are not teaching at [name of more prestigious university (and there is always a more prestigious university)]!

    If there is one thing that you are absolutely not, it's socially awkward!

    If you give me a night, I bet that I will make it into your next article’s acknowlegements.

    If I had professors like you in college, I would have gone to graduate school for sure.

    I would love to see your rare editions.

    Let’s go to my place and have sex now.


Vila H. said...

At a party I attended recently, a contest was held to see who could describe their research projects using the least amount of words. I won by a hair with six. Yes, I'm bragging.

Paris said...

Those two gowns make a pretty clear statement about who is sexy and who is not in Oxbridge. I've decided that you are flattering me.

vuboq said...

Oh, the exciting world of academia! I think I will spend today memorizing that last set. Academics are v. sexy.

Antonio said...

Very funny entry. My ideas for things not to say:

Hold on, I'll have a few more drinks to make this actually interesting. Wait, you don't have any pot do you?

Were you high when you came up with this project?

Oh I covered that during a two-week project in middle school.

Steven said...

Vuboq took the words right out of my mouth regarding memorizing the last set. So I'll just have to prepare the quiz for Vuboq. ;-)

Alan said...

Oddly, once I tell people I'm a chemist, they never, ever, ever ask about my research. :) Probably just as well, though. They almost always just say, "Oh, I hate chemistry!", which I always find a pleasant way to make conversation.

Cooper said...

Before I knew you I had no idea that academics had to research things in order to write their own unique manuscript. I equated research only with homework. I've never attended a cocktail party (or any other kind of party) featuring academics. Now if I ever do, I'll know what to say/not to say ... that is if any of them wants to talk to the lumberjack in the corner.

adjunct whore said...

who has the chance to talk for hours about their research project/agenda? or maybe i internalized the social cues long ago....for the record, the people i know who talk endlessly about their research projects are *not* newly minted, but quite more *important*. perhaps it is just a personality tick.

pacalaga said...

I am pretty sure I will regret this, but what's a c.v.?

David said...

Curriculum Vitae, which is the smartass, sorry, academic version of the resume.

I've tried that very last line before, but without much success, although it was not in the presence of academics.

Senath said...

Huh – You smell like a library. (**Warning:** Senior professors will interpret this as a come-on).

Thanks for the tip! I find library-smell sexy.

Jen said...

Antonio beat me to the "That's what I did my Jr. High science fair project/book report on".

When I was an archaeologist people just asked about dinosaurs (dinosaurs = paleontologist, dead people's stuff = archeologist). Now that I'm in nursing people ask either why I'm not in medicine or exclaim that "I didn't know nurses do research?" in the most "that's preposterous!" tone of voice. In either case my personal research interests don't matter.

GayProf said...

Vila: I could only get down to eight. Good show!

Paris: Flattering? I am out and out hitting on you and your sexy gowns!

VUBOQ: You keep mentioning academics as sexy. With some exceptions, this has not been my experience.

Antonio:Were you high when you came up with this project?

Probably true for 25 percent.

Steven: Really, you just need the last one.

Alan: Drat! I forgot the "I always hated [insert subject that prof has devoted his entirely life to studying] in school."

Cooper: It is likely they will be desperate to talk to a lumberjack. . . or anybody who isn't another academic.

Adjunct Whore: You've got to make the chance.

I feel what you are putting down about the senior profs. Since I don't have tenure, though, I thought it was easier to pretend like it was only the junior folk who do this.

Pacalaga: David already answered your question. Still, this reminds me of a critical part of my own research. You see, in the nineteenth century . . .

David: That last line only works on academics . . . and the desperate. I am not sayin', I am just sayin'.

Senath: I find people sexy who find libraries sexy.

Jen: I feel your pain. Historians get "But don't we already know everything about the past already?" Or, "I could never memorize all those names and dates."

1904 said...

I knew there was another reason I never finished my dissertation. Besides the paralyzing writer's block, self-doubt and the drinking problem. My humble hat off to you and all academics. Brutal.

StinkyLulu said...

As a historian who has recently taken a job in a Department of Theatre and Dance, I've recently encountered several people who have asked me to do a dance. Right there. Right then. Beside (not on) the table with displaying the canapes.

And one day I just might.

Woe be to them.

Clio Bluestocking said...

If you want to piss an historian off, just say, "Oh, I saw a History Channel program on that. Here's everything that I know about the subject."

Marlan said...

Why do you think that one place you can always get pot is on a college campus?

Makes sense now, doesn't it.

Marius said...

Clio, that sounds like something I would say. LOL. I don't really talk about my research to others. I'm that reserved. There's a guy in our department who is beyond annoying. If given the chance, he'll talk to you for hours about his dissertation work. He doesn't care about anything else. The world, to him, revolves around him and his rodents. By the way, he studies feeding behavior in rodents. I think it's kind of interesting, but he really needs to calm down.

dykewife said...

let's not go to your place and have sex, ok? :)

i'll keep in mind the scintillating concept of your never-ending-research-project-of-doom.

monica said...

I'm a grad student in comp lit and mostly work on Italian. I get some variation of, "oh, my grandma/grandpa/mother-in-law was from Sicily/Florence/Naples," then they ask if I know how to speak Italian. They always seem genuinely surprised when I say yes.

Then they ask if I have ever visited, because they ate something really nice when they vacationed there. Or sometimes they say, "Ciao, bella! Spaghetti! Lasagna!" in a bad accent and ask me about the mafia.

Clio Bluestocking said...


I'm pretty sure that I have a friend who is just like that. He is a fellow historian with whom I went to grad school and have been friend for over a decade, and he still has no idea exactly what it is that I study because he's too busy telling me about his projects.

Actually, the good thing about someone going on about a show that they saw on the History Channel is that it does releive me of the pressure of socially interacting with people. All I have to do is grin and nod and say "oh, wow."

Indeed, after reading GayProf's introduction, I realized that I had just committed the same sin myself earlier in the day.

bardelf said...

Finally back after 3 weeks of traveling with little-to-no access to the Internet during that time.

I just enjoyed catching up on your posts, gayprof, and by the way, I would absolutely love to see your rare editions.

B. said...

Fascinating. But seriously, who's the lumberjack in the corner?

Rufus said...

The one I used to get as an undergrad that annoyed me to no end was, "You're sure you're not interested in computers? Because, you know, you can actually do something with a computer science degree."

But, alas, the Internet bubble popped and I don't hear that now.

Lacey said...

OK so look...can we get back to the lumberjack in the corner? Could you, like, introduce me to him. Huh? Puhleese? Oh, by the way, my academic credentials begin and end with an AAS. I'm just sayin'

SOC said...

I'm a grad student with a focus in Atlantic and maritime history - which of course means pirates, because nobody else ever did anything on the oceans. Ever. These days I just tell people I work with the fisheries; it saves me the ranting and frothing.