Sunday, April 03, 2016

Enemies are bad for business

For some time now I've been thinking about how we acquire or defuse professional enemies. I've been fortunate to have very few (that I know of!), but I also think I'm pretty good at avoiding the near-occasion of enmity. I can sometimes be thin-skinned about my work or peremptory about that of others--someone who believed in humoral theory would say I'm choleric, which means I'm overly prone to snark and snap judgments--but I've trained myself to slow down and walk back any initial negative assumptions. Everyone acts or speaks carelessly at times, and when in doubt I chalk up most weird academic behavior and seeming slights to social awkwardness.

Because: even if the slights are real, there's no benefit to holding onto them. We all need a wide and varied network and access to lots of different brains. Enemies are bad for business.

So I was surprised to learn that someone I'd met and liked, and whose work I found interesting, seemed to want to burn that bridge--that is, seemed to be on an aggressive crusade against some things I've written in order to clear space for their own work. That's a known phenomenon in the world, I guess, but it strikes me as very grad-student-y: I remember righteously lambasting prior scholars in my dissertation, as a way of helping myself to believe in my own ideas. . . but pretty much all of that dropped out by the final draft, and certainly before the thing became a book. Moreover, though I don't mind someone disliking my work, I actually don't see major points of conflict here. At most, I think our interests are complementary or adjacent--and in some ways I'm not even sure we're talking about the same thing.

Obviously, this behavior doesn't make the other person my "enemy," and it's not something I'd hold a grudge over. But it puzzles me that someone would take an antagonistic approach rather than a more temperate one. I've met plenty of people whose work overlaps with mine, but usually after half an hour of freaking out, I realize that we're not really doing the same thing, and we're certainly not in competition. In a best-case scenario, we're working in effective, if not literal, collaboration. I want to keep on good terms with those people.

And even when I think another critic is totally wrong, the stakes of that wrongness just aren't that high: we're not talking about getting a digit wrong on the nuclear codes. Generally, even if I disagree about a conclusion or a method, there's still interesting research or local observations I can praise and build on--or at a minimum I can say that the other person's work has drawn attention to a topic that I also believe deserves attention. And because our scholarly world is small and none of us is getting fame or glory out of doing this work, we learn to disagree in ways that preserve friendly, or at least cordial, social relations. (A swift "So-and-so's fine article on X nevertheless leaves Y startlingly unaddressed" is typical of the way this game gets played.)

So who knows what this is about. But it's a strange feeling, being someone else's straw man.

14 comments:

nicoleandmaggie said...

I have had one of these. It's rough.

undine said...

I have not had one of these (that I know of) since grad school, but it was unpleasant then.

Flavia said...

Nicoleandmaggie, Undine:

My condolences! It's so strange to me that anyone would deliberately court enmity when he or she could be (depending on the relevant circs & relationship) making a friend, a mentor/mentee, a potential collaborator--or, heck: just someone it's not deeply awkward to be around.

undine said...

I think it was just the grad school dynamic: she was the pet of the program, while I flew under the radar, pretty much, as she sniped at me with insults she thought I might not get (yeah, I know who Duessa is, but nice try) until the professors figured out that I might actually have good ideas. It was a long time ago.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Mine is a Big Man in the Field. But one who is very territorial.

Flavia said...

Undine:

Yeah, that makes more sense (though it still sucks)--when there's direct approval to be had, and when one hasn't learned better.

Veralinda said...

Is your needless combatant at the same or different career stage? And, dare I ask: same gender?

This person will need to learn some more social graces. It's a long career, with a lot of intellectual and social interaction (despite what it might look like to outsiders).

Flavia said...

V: don't want to get too specific.

(But it's not who you may think it is, and is in fact quite unlike that person.)

Veralinda said...

Fascinating.

Susan said...

So I've been thinking about this all week, and I think when I'm feeling appreciated and valued, I am fine with all the people who get all the goodies in the profession (multiple grants, awards, prizes, etc) but when I'm feeling neglected, I get very snippy. I control that in public, but I know my mental commentary is really snarky -- inappropriately so. And I do talk myself down, so I don't do it in public, and I would never do it for, say grants or awards or tenure letters or any of those things.

Flavia said...

Susan:

This is a (characteristically!) thoughtful response. I obviously don't know and can't speculate about anyone else, but what you've described is certainly true for me, too--and is something I try to be on guard against.

In fact, just yesterday a history grad student in my seminar asked, "so why do lit scholars hate [big name in the field] SO MUCH?" We gave some half-answers that had some merit, but ultimately had to say, "also, really, it's just a lot of resentment and jealousy and the feeling that s/he gets an undeserved amount of attention." Not noble. But true.

Susan said...

Well, I suspect that all of us have an inner 11 or 12 year old who wants to say to the most popular kid in class, "Pay attention to ME!" And while it's not noble, it also reflects the tensions we face given the meritocratic theory of the academy: if they are getting all the goodies, and we know their work is fine, but really not THAT special, there's a lot of resentment that the system is not in fact meritocratic. (Which we should know, but I'm blindsided by it all the time.)

Historiann said...

Congratulations, Flavia! (I'm sorry I missed this earlier this month.) You've now lived long enough as a scholar to see your ideas, which were so daring and unconventional and difficult to get into peer-reviewed publications, become someone else's "conventional wisdom!"

Isn't it amazing how quickly it happens, too? I remember reviewing a proposal for an essay collection in which one of the authors repeatedly lambasting me for all ze perceived that I *didn't* accomplish in my first book. Of course, the years of older men railing at me and the article that didn't get placed in a high-profile journal were invisible to hir--all this young scholar could see was that my book was published & so therefore it must be something everyone already knows and agrees on.

HAhahaha!!! If only.

Flavia said...

Historiann:

So true! And thanks for this useful reminder.