Being the crazy

At a conference last year I was listening to another graduate student speaking well of one of his supervisors. It is not uncommon to hear students explain that they have one supervisor who works in a relevant area and another who, although is not such a specialist, is kind and helpful. This was the kind and helpful supervisor and included in her list of talents was useful instruction when it came to ‘avoiding the crazies’.

Reflecting back on one of the two questions I asked in the conference and a couple of conversations I tried to pursue with students after their papers, I came to understand that I exhibit many of the qualities of these ‘crazies’ that are generally best avoided at conferences and seminars. I make convoluted links between topics that are of questionable relevance even to my own enquiries, and I tend to embark on efforts to share them with a little bit too much enthusiasm. Particularly in non-fieldwork situations, I find myself too keen to fill in gaps in conversations by asking unusual questions or sharing less than relevant observations.

This is not a great cause of distress for me as surely people at conferences and seminars have more than a few strategies for existing such situations if they do not want to be there and I am sure with my growing awareness I can be more considerate in my presence. However, it has lead me to wonder what else I could become more aware of. What other academic context stereotypes am I living up to?

One for the list is my tendency to test out theoretical links and standpoints that I know all too little about… in conversation. I really enjoy finding something new and discovering the insights and reactions of other people. However, this is a bit selfish and probably rather dull. Some friends have suggested that I am very ‘confident’, but the reason I like such conversations is that I really am not. The stereotype I appear to fit could be termed the ‘know all’.

I really enjoy reading and commenting on the work of other students. However, it has been pointed out to me that the attitude of problem solving with which I approach such tasks, I am placing myself in some sort of expert, all seeing position. I know that the work of others does not need any such problem solving. Furthermore, commenting on the order of words or links between ideas is something I struggle to do in my own work. I talk big, but do not manage to carry through in terms of finishing my own work.

For me, the solution is probably not going to be in never again going to conferences and seminars or never commenting on a fellow student’s work. I may always be quickly identified as one of those crazies that certain, well meaning people, advise others to avoid. However, I can see value in being a bit more aware of what is helpful in such situations and what is not.

The academics that have been most influential in my own education have always had their own quirks, like all people do. Their frustrated outbursts in classes were the source of much amusement at the time, but have often encouraged me to push myself to do better work: do not forget to consider the contribution the work made in its own time, take an intellectual risk by saying something, get it right, and it might all be interrelated but choose a position from which to pursue your analysis.

I would much rather finish a week reflecting on a challenge I took on in my writing than a missed opportunity to ask a [rather poorly thought out] question.

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