Advice

Great Man, Awful Speech

Brian Taylor

December 01, 2009

Question: For our forthcoming Regional Humanities Conference, we invited a very big cheese in our field ("Dr. Fromage") to be the keynote speaker. He's published a dozen books, been acclaimed everywhere, and is known even in nonacademic circles. He blogs; he's on TV. We asked him to send the essence of his talk ahead of time, so a respondent could speak to it (and laud it, of course).

Well, the speech is terrible. It's thrown together, incoherent, drowning in outdated jargon and pretentious quotes in obscure languages. We all think we should rescind the invitation, to save us all embarrassment (and money).

Is that the right thing to do?

Answer: Ms. Mentor imagines you with cheese all over your face now, and little bits clinging to you everywhere. If you diss Dr. Fromage, you may be famous forever, but not in a tasty way.

Ms. Mentor will now tell you a little secret about academe (and the rest of the working world). It's not always about pure, unadulterated merit. Sometimes it's also about past glories, charm, charisma—the things that make a great teacher and a dream TV personality. But no one has to be perfectly stellar for every occasion.

Early in one's career, merit—which can mean native talent or drive—is most apt to be required and rewarded. That's when you fall in love with your subject and become the obsessive researcher, the passionate writer, the experimenter who won't leave the lab. That's when mentors seeking disciples will scoop you up: Your passion for the work will make your advisers proud. And that's when, with energy and new eyes, you're most apt to come up with the concept that will be forever associated with you and make you an intellectual star: "performativity" or "paradigm shift" or "punctuated equilibrium."

You write up that concept, which may indeed be field-changing. It's linked with you, and you're forever invited to pontificate, especially if you're a smooth creator of sound bites. You may wind up on Charlie Rose's show or chatting with Oprah. Stephen Colbert may roast you.

The biggest stars don't coast, either: They keep on producing (though mathematicians reportedly lose steam as they age). Still, it sounds like Dr. Fromage has been an active writer and thinker who, somehow, has sent you a speech that's a stinker.

Well, you could reject his speech, rescind his contract and his fee, and feel righteous: "We have standards at our Regional Humanities Conference, and we wield them without fear or favor. Your talk is beneath contempt, and certainly beneath us."

By giving Dr. Fromage an F, will you enhance the reputation of your conference, entice only the best scholars and writers, and make yourself known for the high quality of your presentations?

Or will Dr. Fromage's absence—which will be bruited about by others, if not by him—be noticed and cause a cascade of bad things to happen? To wit: His admirers and disciples won't attend the conference. Those curious about him will find other things to do. Other conference presenters may decide it's not prestigious or useful enough to go, and withdraw or simply not show up. (There's been an epidemic of no-shows at conferences during this academic year.) No-shows mean sparsely attended sessions and dispirited panels. Organizations lose money, hotels lose money, hotels dismiss the lowest-paid employees, and everyone suffers when a conference loses its headliner.

If Dr. Fromage does give his horrific oration, what might happen?

  • His respondent, who will be gracious and tactful, can add what needs to be said—making the respondent look good, smart, and employable, if need be.
  • Audience members, especially fledgling academics, will learn from the respondent's behavior. They'll see what "collegial" means.
  • Adjuncts and instructors will be appalled by Dr. Fromage's speech. But it will give them hope that they may get on the tenure track eventually. "If he can do it, why not me?" they'll ask.
  • Graduate students will be inspired. It'll be even better than reading a bad dissertation and thinking, "I could do that." They'll realize that Dr. Fromage is a human, not a god, and that they can aspire to his lowest level, at least. If his speech were world-shattering, changing the paradigms of his field or of knowledge as we know it, grad students might just give up.
  • Faculty members will be in heaven. In the little world of academe, backbiting and envy sometimes flourish (yes, yes, the fights are so intense because the stakes are so small). A Gorgonzola who grabs wide attention may seem to be bigger than you are. You may think he's hogging the goodies that you deserve. Ms. Mentor calls this the Udder Theory: the belief that the world of recognition is a vast cow, and if someone is suckling, then there's not enough left for you. That may be why many Major Professors, even when they're at the same conference, do not attend one another's presentations unless they must.

But if Dr. Fromage isn't lapping up his portion, and stumbles on the way to the trough, then others can feed. In the question-and-answer period, professors may peacock, strutting their superior knowledge. ("Perhaps you've failed to recognize what I show in my research … "). They can go on to talk for weeks, for months, for years about his failings, just as civilians relish the peccadilloes of tabloid stars. Everyone loves a fall from grace.

Attending professors can tut tut and cluck cluck, and, best of all, bond through the creation of bons mots about Dr. Fromage: "We thought he'd be serving brie, but we wound up with Velveeta."

In short, your opportunity to showcase another side of Dr. Fromage—the mediocre presenter behind the curtain—will give everyone great pleasure. Ms. Mentor knows that there are few joys more special than schadenfreude. Everyone loves to be cheesy now and then. Why deny them their taste?

 


 

Question: I referred to a student worker as a "kid," whereupon he informed me that he has three children of his own, and that students are not children, and that if I want to see kids, I should go get myself a goat. Did I err, and was he rude, and was this all something I could have avoided by being more sensitive to the ages and aspirations of undergraduates today, not blithely assuming they're all teenagers even though they all look like kids?

Answer: Yes.

 


 

Sage Readers: As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes queries, gossip, and rants, including additions to her collection of academic tales of woe and wonder. Resolutions for a new academic year are especially welcome. Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally. Confidentiality is guaranteed, and identifying details are always aged, marinated, and concealed.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. She is the author of the recently published "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.