Thursday, June 01, 2006

Intimidating Professors

I know I've mentioned it many times before, but one of the annoying surprises I got when I became a professor was the intimidation factor. I'm not sure whether it was the PhD or the professor appointment (since I got a job about a month after defending), but people suddenly found me very frightening.

Some faculty find this satisfying, and take a perverse pleasure in seeing people bow and scrape before them. Me, on the other hand -- I hate the way it prevents intimacy.

Nearly all of my friends where I live now are professors. This isn't because I prefer the company of professors (it has both its pleasures and its pains), but because as soon as people find out what I do for a living, they suddenly become very awkward. I think in people's minds, they fear I might don my cap and gown, stand behind a podium on a raised dias, and (while being backlit) point an accusing finger down upon them, shouting "Ignoramus! Certifiable ignoramus!", thus prompting government officials in white coats whisk them off to a lab where medical experiments are performed on mental defectives.

Of course, this scenario is total nonsense. Where would I find such good backlighting?

Today I had a conversation with a woman who knew me as a child (you know, when I spake as a child and understood as a child), and who (by wonderful coincidence) is now in the position of making arrangements for me to give a public presentation. I could feel her ill-at-ease on the telephone with me. I suspect she was wondering, "Should I call him Scott? Professor Nokes? Dr. Nokes? Will he be offended if we have low turn-out?"

I guess this is a small price to pay. It could be worse -- everyone could disrespect me. Still, just once in a while, I'd like to meet someone new, and when they ask, "What do you do?" and I reply "I'm an English professor," I'd like them to respond, "Oh, yes? I'm in insurance, myself" rather than "Er, I guess I'd better watch my grammar" before slipping away.


  1. The title probably adds quite a bit to the intimidation factor, but I would say that the awkwardness probably has much to do with your field as well. I hadn't even finished my BA, was nowhere near my own classroom, and I was getting "I'd better watch my grammar" comments for stating that I WANTED to teach English some day. It irritated me at first, because what kind of a person goes around correcting the grammar of adults who didn't ask for grammar help? I can't speak for all universities, but my undergrad institution didn't require Insufferable Snobbery 101 for a teaching certificate. But then I realized that 1) people know that we are judged socially in large part by how well we use language, and 2)even published prescriptive grammarians can't agree among themselves on what is "correct English." The general public is only aware that they got the answers wrong in High School, not that nobody is entirely sure what all the answers *are.* I can't really think of a decent simile for this situation, because I can't imagine another subject in which lay people feel so judged. Maybe IT?

  2. I will admit I have been frequently spotted striding the neighborhood streets and shouting "Ignoramus! Certifiable ignoramus!" It's just fun to do.

    You are right on the mark about "intimdation factor." English professorship seems to unleash every anxiety would-be conversationalists have about their own linguistic failures.

  3. Think English is bad? Introduce yourself as a Religion/Biblical Studies/Preaching prof at a neighborhood cocktail party... You get the obligatory "I'm not religious but I'm a very spiritual person..." before they duck off trying to hold their drink where you think they can't see it. :-D

    They're not sure if we'll scream "Ignoramus" or try to convert them. Naturally, this is doubly amusing for my friends in the field who are atheists...

  4. You've touched on something important, here. Being in vocational ministry is a serious conversation-killer, as well. To top it off, I'm now working on my PhD. What could be worse? Working for the NSA?

    On a related note, do you ever have trouble connecting relationally with people outside of academia? This concerns and grieves me.

  5. I don't have trouble on MY end, no ... but some people became very distant after I got my degree. I had one old friend who didn't go to college who suddenly withdrew from half of his friends -- the half who went to college. I suppose he thought we judged him stupid or something, but since we had all known each other since middle school that was simply his own insecurity. After all, he had the most natural ability at chemistry of any of us.

    If I can keep my job secret (often by just saying I am a "teacher") long enough, I can usually make a good connection. If that connection isn't already made by the time they realize I'm a professor, though, they pull away.

    I guess that's why I cherish all my old friends so much ... they've known me long enough that they already know I'm a moron, no matter how many degrees I have. One old friend sometimes refers to me as "Dr. Dipsh*t" -- which is, believe it or not, a term of endearment that I love.

    My advice (such as it is), would be to hold your old friends close, make as many friends in grad school as possible, and make as many friends in the ministry as possible. Also, don't forget about PKs -- they won't be intimidated by you.

  6. well, I don't know -- I was definitely intimidated by you the first time we met, but that was only because you slightly resemble Lenin (who's always been a figure in my nightmares after I saw the documentary "Red Dawn" as a young child).

  7. I met you, Cappy? I know I've met Mrs. Cappy, but I must not have realized I was meeting the infamous Cappy himself. Heck, you write "the first time we met," implying that I've met you more than once. Next time you meet me, lean in close, give me a wink, and tell me you are "Cappy."

    As for the Lenin resemblance -- when I lived in the Soviet Union, it was remarked on many, many times. One good thing about putting on weight is that the resemblance grows less marked with each pound. When I was thin and still had little bits of hair around the ears, I was a dead ringer.

  8. bah! and lose my pseudoanonymous nature?? never!!

    though, seriously -- what did they say? (In Soviet Russia.) "Good job?" "Nice beard?" "Heresy?!?" Did lots of people there sport a "Lenin?"

    So many questions.

  9. Hey, I'm just catching up on a backlog of blog reading -- hope you don't mind the late comment. At any rate, I thought you'd find some comfort in the fact that math profs experience the intimidation factor, too. In fact, a math prof friend of mine would be rich if he had a dollar for every time someone said "Oh, I was terrible at math" or "I hated math" after he says what he does for a living.

    One solution to the problem: just say "I'm a medievalist." Then you'll just get blank stares! (Or, if it's John Cusack's brother Bill, he'll say, "Cooooool." Long story.)