Wednesday, March 21, 2012

That's what she (really) said

Great post from Jessamyn Smith on the Geek Feminism blog. You should read the whole post for how she brilliantly countered a bunch of male colleagues telling her to "lighten up" about a joke she didn't find very funny. Here's an excerpt:
I work at a startup, and most of the time, I enjoy it. Compared to most tech companies, and certainly most startups, we have quite a few people who are relatively clueful. There are relatively few moments of “brogrammer” culture. There is, however, one thing that has been bugging me for months, ever since it was introduced. 
I took it for granted that everyone was familiar with the “That’s what she said,” joke, but a recent conversation with a consultant friend made me realize some industries don’t feature it on a daily basis. For those who haven’t heard it a million times, the idea is that when somebody says something that could remotely be turned into a sexual joke, e.g. “I’m trying to solve this problem but it’s really hard!” you say “That’s what SHE said,” in a lascivious tone. 
Now, I admit to having made this joke myself, at times. Once in a while, I even find it funny. What I don’t find funny is a bot we have in our general IRC channel at work, that has some basic AI devoted to determining when to interject TWSS into the conversation. 
I asked a number of times to have that bot function turned off, but got the usual combination of being ignored, being told it’s funny, and being told I should lighten up. I tried explaining once why it was objectionable, and managed to get the guys saying variations, e.g. “That’s what your DAD said,” for an evening, but that was about it. 
Last Friday, the bot went a bit crazy and started throwing TWSS into the conversation with no apparent rhyme or reason. Finally, I had had enough. And then it came to me: I would write my OWN bot, that responded to TWSS with a quotation from a notable woman. If they are so keen on what she said, why don’t we get educated about what she really had to say. And so the “whatshereallysaid” bot was born. It might annoy the guys into shutting off the TWSS bot, or we might all learn about notable women. It’s a win either way, in my books!
Kudos, Jessamyn! Well played. I only wish I could be half that clever when encountering such situations.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Vanity, Thy Name is Academic

As I navigate my way through the strange political maze of academia, I've been trying to categorize different personality types as I encounter them as a means for better understanding how to work with (near) them. I've decided if I can talk with someone and figure out what motivates them, I can better adjust myself to have a more positive conversation with them.

One personality type that can quickly be spotted is The Vain Academic. This is a person who boasts about their high impact publications, frequently drops names of their famous friends, and speaks disdainfully of others (particularly students). If you're familiar with Harry Potter, in my mind I usually think of this person as Professor Slughorn.

Sometimes, a vain person can be appeased with flattery and encouragement. You can quietly smile and nod your head at the right times, gently fanning their ego while occasionally making intelligent quips of your own so they still consider you a respectable peer. You do not dominate the conversation.

However, Vain Academics are people you need to tread carefully around, particularly as a junior person. Their egos are extremely fragile; much of their self-esteem is wrapped up in their accolades and connections. If they perceive any hint of false flattery or mocking behavior, the relationship will sour quickly. Furthermore, if you over-elevate them, they will then view you in a contemptuous way, which becomes difficult to recover from.

On the other hand, The Vain Academic also seeks approval from all, so even if you commit a gaffe (which you surely will), you can probably recover from it. Especially if you are a peer or superior, they will want you in their fan club.

Remember that old advice, "At dinner, you can judge a person by how they treat the waiter"? It's the same with academics; in particular, how they treat students. This is probably the biggest tip off.