Friday, May 25, 2007

Questions that I dread

Updated to add: To my non-academic readers -- I want to hear from you, too! Do people ask you questions you dread when you tell them what you do?

Over at In the Middle, Karl says that one of his "least favorite questions" is to be asked if he's read all the books on his bookshelves. (And Jeffrey follows up that post with a series of pictures of readers' bookshelves -- he's asking for contributions -- including one belonging to yours truly. So far everyone has a copy of Getting Medieval, but only I have a Quentin Tarantino action figure.) Anyway, back to Karl's post. He concludes the post this way:
If you're in a talkative mood, let's talk about the least favorite questions we get as readers and/or academics. If you're feeling generous or humane, turn off the irritation and wonder at the questions. Do what you do best and kvetch analyze.
I don't mean to hijack his idea and bring it over here, but the conversation over there has taken a different kind of turn. (Given that it was inspired by the documentary Derrida, that's not really surprising!) So I thought I'd post my response here, especially since mine's not a simple one-liner.

One commenter mentioned that he hates getting asked for book recommendations, and I have to concur that that's a problematic one for me, too. It fills me with dread and anxiety, because I assume the person wants a good contemporary novel and I have to say I haven't read as many of those as I'd like. (I still have The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay sitting forlornly on my shelf waiting for me to turn back to it. It calls to me every summer and says, "You know you want to! At least I'm not as long as a Pynchon novel! And I'm a whole lot more lovable!") But I do read a lot of hard boiled detective fiction and historical mysteries, so if they like anything in the mystery genre, I can recommend something. If not, I'm stuck. (Although I did read The Nanny Diaries on a plane once and found it quite charming. Really!)

So that question throws me for a loop. And can I tell you, it's especially NOT the question I want to answer when I'm getting my annual exam at the gynecologist's office. Seriously. (Hm, maybe I should have suggested she pick up a copy of the latest issue of Speculum. Hahahahaha! OK, dumb medievalist joke. Apologies to the non-medievalists out there.)

But the questions that really, really, really perplex me are the ones that I get because I'm a medievalist -- the ones that start with popular misinformation about the Middle Ages and base the whole point of the question on those false assumptions. It's the "where do I start with that?" question. I got one of those at the talk I gave last week. It started with, "I'd always learned that the reason that nothing changed for centuries in the Middle Ages was because [insert something about the Church here, of course], and so...." At that point, I nearly started to panic, thinking, "Oh god, where do I start with how wrong that is?" But it turned out that what he was actually asking (the "and so" part) was something more concrete and local and provided a "teaching moment" about the differences between popular topics for sermons and actual lived lives. The rest of his question is what I answered, ignoring that introduction -- or actually, completely rewriting the assumptions of the first part productively. So that one I could handle.

But often, they come with so many things wrong with them, I don't know where to start. It's one thing if you're in the classroom -- or people are there to hear you speak about your field of expertise -- but if it's the guy sitting next to you in the plane, it's really hard to walk that line between cheerful, "Actually, I'm delighted to be able to tell you that that's actually a myth/misperception" and coming across as a pedantic asshole. Most of the time I think I do the former, but it takes such work and fills me with such angst. Which is not to say that I mind the questions -- heck, I once convinced a guy on a plane of the value of studying the past and of the liberal arts in the general, so it's all worth it -- but once in a while I wish I didn't have to be "on" all the time. At least it beats the response many of us in English get -- the "Oh, I better watch my grammar around you, then."

So, I'll broaden Karl's question: in your line of work (academic or otherwise) what questions from non-specialists or the general public do you find difficult to deal with and why?

25 comments:

k8 said...

Specialty: Composition & Rhetoric

Question: What is that?

:-)

Dr. Virago said...

k8 -- Seriously? OMG!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

My uncle asks, every time we talk on the phone, about stuff that happened in the latest episode of Rome -- and then argues with me when I say that some of it really was most likely not like that.

Ditto Islam.

Also, anything from anybody predicated on the idea that Teh Ebil Church wanted to keep everybody ignorant so they could control society, and no one was allowed to read the Bible except the priest.

Oh, or somewhere around the 12th c. (in class, that is), when someone asks when Christians came into being. Because, you know, Nicene Christians, aka Catholics and Orthodox, aren't Christian.

Oh ... I also hate, "When are your office hours?" "Where is your office?" "Is there a time I could see you?", and "Do you give extra credit?"

No, I'm not in a grumpy mood!

k8 said...

Most people think they get what composition is, but of course they confuse it with grammar instruction and boring papers for school.

It's even worse when they ask me what rhetoric is, because I then have to deal with explaining how popular uses of the word aren't necessarily representative of rhetoric in an Aristotelian sense. And I normally stick with Aristotle in these cases, because that is a name people know. Cicero, Quintillian, Ramus - those references get more confused looks.

the rebel lettriste said...

Oh! I was just writing about this myself!

And I agree, those questions that make broad, sweeping generalizations about the medieval (always from people who haven't read any medieval texts!!) are so frustrating. Because you don't want to get all teacher-y and explain at length how they are misconstruing the whole period. My own parents, too, like to talk about how I study "Old English"--despite my telling them, repeatedly, no, it's Middle English. Old English is about 600 years OLDER than what I write about. Alas.

Karl Steel said...

"Do you give extra credit?"

Actually, I wanted to talk about this at the blogger breakfast but didn't get a chance. I do give extra credit. It's on the syllabus. I just make it related to the projects at hand, and I make it easy to grade. If they're doing research papers, I assign an Outline as extra credit. I tell them how long it should be and what it should look like. I glance at what they turn in, and if it meets the formal requirements, bam, 3 points. Takes no longer to grade than it does to enter the number in the spreadsheet. And, theoretically, it should make for better research papers. Everyone wins.

Thanks for hijacking the idea DV! You have a lively group over here, and I'll be very interested to see what people say.

I should say that I realized just the other day (how pathetic is that) that I'm going to stop answering 'medievalist' when people ask me what I do. I always get some kind of SCA question as a result or, worse yet, something about the Crusades. If I start with 'I'm a professor of Medieval English literature,' (which I can say in all truth beginning in Sept.), I should avoid the 'do you wear a sword' questions or someone asking about the Templars.

I'm going back to see the family in July, so we'll see how well this works.

Fretful Porpentine said...

"So," (conspiratorial smile), "who really wrote Shakespeare?"

Actually, that one isn't so bad; at least one can explain that yes, parts of the body of texts we call "Shakespeare" were almost certainly written by somebody else, but no, not that way, and get away without making either oneself or one's interlocutor feel stupid. Other random biographical conjectures ("Is it true that Shakespeare was secretly Jewish / died of syphilis / spent seven years as a pirate?") are harder, because half the time I've never heard the theory before and haven't the foggiest idea where it comes from. (OK, I made the pirate one up, but it wouldn't surprise me if somebody, somewhere believed it.)

By the way, hi -- I've been reading for a while, but I think this is the first time I've worked up the courage to post a comment.

Dr. Virago said...

Fretful Porpentine and rebel lettriste -- I'm adding you both to my blogroll forthwith.

And FP -- I actually thought the "Was Shakespeare a pirate?" question was real, because you never know! I once sat on a bus (hmm..I'm seeing a theme -- my interlocutors are always next to me on transportation) next to a guy who insisted that Othello had to have been written by a committee that included a black man because only a black man could write that role. He was kind of crazy so I just say, "Mmm...interesting" instead of poking holes in all the wrongness of that assumption (so, only women can write women? only an ancient Roman could have written Julius Caesar? you do know that Othello was a Moor, right?).

Karl -- I still have to write my post on that "medievalist vs. discipline marker" question. Certainly outside of academia I say, "I'm a professor of English literature and I specialize in the medieval period," because, well, what you said. But inside academia it's a different kind of issue.

And ADM -- Oh, how I sympathize. Ditto on everything you said!

Jarod said...

People are constanly showing me "antiques" which are fake or worthless, and I have to break the bad news to them. They HATE that, and no matter how diplomatic you are they don't want to hear it.
For example, some time ago a fellow brought in a sword to the museum claiming it belonged to Charlemagne. It was, indeed, a Walt Disney reproduction. Even after I pointed out that stainless steel was invented well over a thousand years after Charlemagne, he was still indignant.

Dr. Virago said...

Jarod -- Oh, man. Well, maybe you could give them some solace by saying, "Hey, at least you didn't wait in line for hours to be on 'Antiques Road Show' with that."

The Pastry Pirate said...

you know, one of the things i hate, hate, hated about my former job as a music journalist was The Questioning. usually at nine in the morning on a saturday when the cashier in line saw the name on the check i was writing and wanted to know what kind of music i really liked, why i didn't get the inherent genius of dave matthews, was i even at the so-and-so concert because my review sucked, and/or what year was the propellerhead remix of erotica released on vinyl, not cd, because if i didn't know that, then i didn't know jack and didn't deserve to be a music critic.

people also would come up to me all the time at concerts when they saw me taking notes and want to quiz me on obscure music trivia to "prove" they knew more than me.

when i did online chats with readers, invariably i got questions along the lines of "why did you trash the gwen stefani concert?" which i started answering with "Actually, I gave that show a positive review."

ugh.

now, i'm happy to say, the question pool has shrunk significantly. now my most common dreaded question comes when i give campus tours at Cookin' School:

"Is Rachel Ray a Master Chef? I just love her. She is such a great chef."

Shudder.

Also: I can't believe you read The Nanny Diaries, liked it and were not sedated at the time.

Dr. Virago said...

when i did online chats with readers, invariably i got questions along the lines of "why did you trash the gwen stefani concert?"

Actually that was just me, posing as an idiot.

OK, not really.

Seriously, The Nanny Diaries was charming. Together, the women who wrote it have a great sense of voice and comic timing. The satire is a little broad at times, and there's an Ally McBealish poor-me quality sometimes to the protagonist (who's way too wimpy to be called a "heroine") but it's a good cross-country aiplane ride read.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

Anything to do with the ruddy Da Vinci Code. Somehow the answer "I haven't cared enough to read because it's self-evidently poppycock" doesn't convince or satisfy.

That may just be the use of the word `poppycock' but they can't take my archaicisms away from me dammit.

The Constructivist said...

My dad's a philosopher and he's told the following in so many situations and for so long it's probably been drained of all annoyance and just become joke fodder, but for what it's worth, hee it is: "Sooooo...what are some of your sayings?"

Clio Bluestocking said...

I do antebellum U.S. history, a area in which every other layperson thinks they are an expert. Naturally I get all of the Trivial Pursuit questions on the Civil War, like "how many people died on x day at the battle of Gettysburg?" I also get the rhetorical questions like, "did you know that the Civil War wasn't really about slavery?" Most of these are actually ways for the person asking the question to discuss what they already know while respecting my education in the subject. So, I tend to just let the other person do the talking with only a few interjections here and there to correct the most egregious errors.

I also do women's history and African American history. The question that I hate the most is "but why do those have to be separated? Isn't it ALL just history?" Those raise my hackles because they are usually politically motivated by people who want to pretend neither sub-field exists. With those, however, I take a breath and address them seriously because, hey, they asked. I've actually convinced one or two people that there is a reason for specialization, too!

I also hate when people ask for history book recommendations because that is work, and I read to find information, arguments, and historiographical context. Most people want infortainment. My ability to recommend something in the field of history without giving a whole bibilography of a subject is nil. I also have to give whole dissertations on why a particular historical novel is good, bad, or worth reading.

Dr. Virago said...

Jonathan - FWIW, I *love* the word "poppycock." But next time you might try using this response: "You know it's fiction, right?"

Constructivist - Ha! That's annoying but funny. Actually, I suppose it depends on the tone of the person asking.

Oh Clio, you've got a heavy burden of questions to dread, don't you? On the bright side, at least people have some passing familiarity with your period and a sense of why it matters!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Jonathan -- I totally forgot about the Da Vinci code! Remind me, should we ever meet in person (which, if you're roaming the BL at the end of June to the middle of July, you might -- look for the pile of Carolingian books in front of a youngish-middle-aged female sitting near a gentleman with a pile of books Frankish and/or Late Antique, and it's probably me!), to tell you about my own very special way of killing that theory. It has to do with Fredegar.

Bardiac said...

I tell people that I teach Shakespeare and other really really dead people. That usually stops them long enough for me to run away. And I don't even run as fast as you do!!!

Michael said...

Yes, Goddamn Dan Brown. Try teaching anything in Art before the Renaissance. THAT they've read.

Bardiac said...

WAIT! I thought the rules say that if you buy a book, you never have to read it!! DARN!

I never quite know what to say when people ask me if we shouldn't require Shakespeare for X or Y (High School, an English major, whatever). Usually, the people who ask want us to require Shakespeare, but haven't actually read Shakespeare, or seen more than a film or two. Just weird.

Then, of course, there's the "oh, you teach English? Are you going to correct my grammar?"

That one's easy: I get paid to correct grammar. I don't do it for free.

jb said...

This isn't a question about my discipline, exactly, but it's related, and it was the Bane of My Existence for most of last semester: "How's the job market going?"

This question is the academic equivalent of "When are you two getting married?": OK when asked by a close friend, but not something that you want Random Junior Prof Who Got a Great Job while Still ABD to be asking you.

More relevant to this comment thread, however, I was recently asked whether I'd read, or planned to read, every single work of medieval literature that had been written. I was taken aback and could only hypothesize that the questioner was grossly underestimating the volume of such literature in existence. The same guy also asked me, "Is all medieval poetry bawdy?", which I heard as, "Is all medieval poetry body?", and I just stared at him blankly until someone translated. I'm sure I made a great professorial impression on the dude, all around.

Dr. Virago said...

Grrrr. Dan Brown.

Bardiac -- tell them you'll correct their grammar to Early Modern standards. :)

JB -- Also on that list should be "How's the dissertation going?" As for "are you going to read everything" question, you could start with "Well, the 1943 edition of the Index of Middle English Verse lists over 4000 entries, and then there's Old English poetry, prose in both eras, Latin works in both eras, Anglo-Norman in the later era, and Celtic literatures as well, not to mention the things that have been discovered since 1943. And there there are the continental sources, analogues, and influences. What do you think?"

I *love* [sarcasm] that assumption that our period only has a handful of texts. I get that from my colleagues who think it's no big deal that I have to account for 700 years in my early English lit class since there's supposedly so little literature. Ugh. There's about as much as, say, the 17th century, and a helluva lot more changing historical contexts!

Anastasia said...

what I hate is this exchange:

Me: I'm getting my PhD in religion.
Some Ridiculous Person: Oh....so...do you want to be a minister?

GAH.

Steven said...

Two particularly bad responses to learning I teach African history:

"Africa.... It's very tribal there, isn't it?"

"Oh, I could never study Africa. I don't approve of female genital mutilation."

meli said...

The best responses to the fact that I study medieval literature and Australian medievalism aren't questions.

1. 'That sounds really boring.' (From newly acquainted distant relations. Seriously.)

2. Delighted, disbelieving laugher, renewed every time they see me. (From Biology students. And they're studying worms.)

Oh, and there is one question.

'Is there such a thing?'

But I get that from everyone, English lit specialists, postcolonialists and medievalists included, so I guess it's only fair.