Recently, a senior emeritus professor called me out because he hadn’t seen me at a talk in a different department (let’s say it’s Astronomy). “I’ve never seen you at a single Astronomy talk,” he admonished. “You really need to go to those.” I patiently explained that I typically have a teaching conflict, which he brushed off, and repeated his imperative that I really needed “to go to those talks.” He was angry at my laziness in failing to attend these critical seminars in a tangentially related field, and didn’t respect my explanations that 1) I couldn’t, and 2) even if I could, I have to make hard choices and don’t always have the luxury of doing everything I’d like to.
Now, I’m an interdisciplinary scientist– in fact, my position is split between a departmental home and an interdisciplinary institute, which means I go to twice as many faculty meetings and probably four times as many seminars as most of my colleagues do. But the advice of this retiree was that I needed to add yet another seminar to the list, and he wasn’t afraid to scold me about this front of my colleagues. This particular professor is of the opinion that I need to be just like him — or, rather, like his retired incarnation, which has a lot of free time to leisurely enjoy talks — in order to succeed. It’s just a small example of a phenomenon I’m starting to grow tired of, which is this paternalistic attitude some of my senior colleagues — all older, white men — have. They give advice liberally, these silverbacks, from the comfortable position of retirement or full professorship.
And you know what? It’s really, really shitty advice.
When the Old White Dudes were getting tenure, they had wives to take care of the housework, the cooking, and the child-rearing. They could call up NSF program officers and chat about an idea, and get a grant by the end of the conversation if there was leftover money sitting around. They could get hired without having glamour pubs (or any pubs!), and get tenure on a handful of articles in small journals. They were often expected to phone it in on in teaching, and weren’t expected to do (or care about) outreach. They worked in departments full of people who looked just like them, and didn’t think twice about whether that even mattered.
This is, fundamentally, a different world than the one I work and live in. Today, the funding situation is different, the demand for public engagement is higher, the work-life-balance demands are lightyears away from what these guys worked with. I have grant writing demands, publishing demands, and expectations that are much higher than they ever did, and journal and grant rejection rates are higher, too.
It’s not just that these guys are out of touch with the realities of my work load; it’s that they have a totally different mindset, and it influences how they think. It should be obvious from this post that I’m talking about a very specific kind of person here. Yes, I am using “dude” as a pejorative in this context. No, that is not a blanket indictment of all men everywhere. Every single one of my advisors have been men, and I have tremendous respect for each of them. I have had some fantastic advice throughout my career from men at all career stages. I’m not talking about “men” here. I’m talking about Old White Dudes. They may be senior scholars, silverbacks, emeritus professors, or at the peak of their careers, but they are surprisingly similar. Every department has them.
These are the guys who touch me inappropriately, squeezing my knee or the soft side of my arm, massaging a shoulder to emphasize a point. They call me “honey,” or “good girl.” They railroaded the young women scholar who gave a seminar in my department last week, and dominated the Q&A. They don’t see any problems with having 7am faculty meetings or scheduling committee meetings during dinner time. They tell me that Twitter and blogging are a bad use of my time.
These are the guys who tell me that, instead of pursuing my own research ideas and developing collaborations with other young faculty, I really need to just find an established researcher and offer my services for a spot on their grant. These are the guys who introduce a successful young woman speaker by saying, “Instead of getting her MRS degree, she got a PhD in marine biology!” These are the guys who, while giving my elbow a possessive squeeze, tell me that I did such a great job in my talk that I should really just teach the section on the topic to their class for them– just three or four guest lectures, no big deal!
These are the guys who, when I do collaborate with them, never respond to emails, and getting them to send in grant text is like pulling teeth — and when they do send it in, it’s so poorly written and sloppily argued that I wonder how they ever get funded or published at all. These are the guys who blink confusedly when we bring up the lack of diversity (gender or otherwise) in our department. These are the guys who are a decade behind in keeping up with the science but still have the gall to tell me that I need to be going to seminars in Astronomy (or whatever).
I’m not taking your advice anymore, Old White Dudes.
I’ll be looking to my peers, to my mentors, to the strong women and compassionate men, to the people of color and the first-generation college students and the young parents struggling with a 2-body problem, and the diversity lunch attendees, and the allies, and all the folks looking at the challenges we face now, and will face tomorrow. I’m not interested in learning how to be successful in the old, white past, because that past is gone — in fact, it never really even existed except in the minds of a privileged few.