I’ve been kind of bad about responding to the “Ask a ScienceBlogger” questions lately, but they’ve had a lot of stuff up there that I just don’t have a response for. The most recent question is something I probably ought to post about, though:
What’s a time in your career when you were criticized extremely harshly by someone you respect? Did it help you or set your career back?
This is a question that grew out of back-channel discussions of the adversarial culture of science, which are a major part of the arguments about why there are so few women and minorities in science. Accordingly, most of the responses have involved graduate seminars or professional talks.
I’ll go back a little farther than that. It’s not that I didn’t occasionally get really grilled in grad school– believe me, I did– but I don’t know that I’d call that harsh criticism. I’m not sure that I have a story that really fits the sort of thing they’re asking about, but the question does call to mind an incident from my junior year in college.
I played rugby in college, starting in the fall of my freshman year, and up until my junior year, I put more time into playing rugby and the associated drinking activities than I did into academics. When people trot out anecdotes about the shocking things college students get up to these days, my usual reaction is “Yeah, and…?” There’s not a whole lot going on involving alcohol that my friends and I didn’t get up to back in the early 90’s.
I didn’t completely blow things off, but I did just enough work to get by, and spent most of my time partying. This strategy wasn’t a complete disaster my first two years, because I was taking mostly intro classes, but at some point you have to move beyond the intro level if you’re going to graduate with a degree in an actual major. That happened in the fall of my junior year, when I hit quantum mechanics. Which hit back.
Four or five weeks into the term, I had handed in maybe one of the weekly homework assignments, and I hadn’t done well on that. I didn’t have much clue about what to do for the other ones, but I wasn’t worried too much about that, because I was in my then-standard routine of going out drinking four nights a week (in a typical week), and trying to just coast through. I was vaguely aware that I wasn’t doing well in the class, but I was doing my best not to think about it.
One day after a class where homework was collected, though, my professor stopped me on my way out. “Do you have the homework?” he asked.
“Um, no, I didn’t finish it yet,” I said. I hadn’t finished it mostly because I hadn’t started it.
“Not just this week’s,” he said, “Do you have any of the last three homeworks?”
“Ummm… I’m still working on some of those.”
“Mmm-hmm,” he said. “Maybe you should just cut your losses, and give me whatever you do have.” That phrase, “cut your losses,” really stuck in my mind, and I can still see the pitying look he gave me.
I spent that Thursday and Friday night in the Physics library, and most of the day on Sunday. I got caught up on the homework, and I started doing the homework from then on. I became a regular in the Physics library, spending hours there working with a couple of my classmates, and I managed a decent grade in that class, and the rest of the Physics major. I wound up graduating with Honors in Physics (which was a matter of doing thesis research– I missed the GPA cut-off for cum laude by one one-hundredth of a grade point). After that, I got into grad school, and, well, wound up here.
As I said, it’s not really the same sort of story as some of the others have posted, but it’s what the question made me think of. Because, really, if Prof. Jones hadn’t pulled me aside after class, and advised me to cut my losses, I probably wouldn’t have a career in physics. That was the kick in the ass I needed to actually get my act together, and get serious about academics.
(I sent him email after I got my tenure decision, to say thanks (though I didn’t mention this specific incident). I’m sure that the thought of me in a tenured professorship at a relatively elite college has to be pretty boggling for some of the professors I had in my first couple of years… It’s probably equally baffling to many of my classmates.)
(I should note that because this isn’t a Hollywood script, I didn’t stop drinking and partying for the rest of my career, or anything like that. I just re-arranged my priotieis a little, and maybe cut back to three nights a week…)
If my checkered past has any lasting effects (other than a total inability to drink bourbon– just the smell makes me sick to my stomach), it’s probably that I’m a little more forgiving of youthful excesses than some other faculty (and much more forgiving than the people who write hand-wringing op-eds for academic magazines). I’m well aware that some of the fuck-ups of today are the faculty of tomorrow, having made the transition myself. I haven’t really found myself in a position to strategically kick any students the way I was kicked, but if I ever see the opportunity, I know the phrase to use.