Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Academic

When attending an academic conference, great emphasis is placed on schmoozing with Those of Import in your particular field. This is how connections and collaborations are formed. Students are fed anecdotes of how brilliant research and concepts were born on the back of napkins at the local pub during such-in-such a conference. Naturally, we students long to surround ourselves with such greatness in hopes that we might receive even the mere crumbs of their intellect. Academics, however, are not renowned for their social graces—the unfortunate result of continual elevated and esoteric thoughts. Mix inherent social awkwardness with a healthy dose of ego and what do you get? The kind of conversation that stumbles and lurches like a drunken toddler.

Take the following conversation we had the other day with a renowned scientist (RS):

Us: Are you staying at the Embassy Suites, too?
RS: No, that is where the graduate students are staying. *said with a voice dripping of disdain--as if she would stay at the same place as her graduate students.* Actually, I wasn’t quite sure where I was staying, my husband makes all the reservations. It turns out that I am staying at the Chateau Laurier.
Us: Oh?

RS: We are going to the South of France for vacation.
Us: Wow. Do you speak French?
RS: Oh yes. I speak it fluently. Do you know that French has 23 tenses while English has only 13.
Us: Oh, wow.

RS: As a graduate student I learned Mandarin in my spare time. It was nice break from thinking science.
Us: Wow.

The result of this type of conversation—the type based on superiority statements—is that invariably you end up nodding, smiling and saying, “oh, wow” a lot. People like this scientist don’t seem to understand that conversation is not just about making statements but about asking questions in return and showing interest in other people. I attempted to contribute to the conversation by talking about my experience with Russian but her dismissing look shut me up pretty quick like.

I guess I am not much of a schmoozer. Which probably means that academic greatness is not in my future.

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