A story that may have relevance for others, or then again, maybe not:

When I was in college, about ten or so years ago, I was a history major. I wanted to learn to dance, so I joined a swing dance club on campus. To my surprise, this club had about twice as many men as women (in high school, the last time I’d tried dancing, the ratio had gone the other way–lots of girls, and boys only that you could drag by their ears).

But apparently, there had been some kind of word spread specifically to the STEM guys that dance was a way that they could meet girls.

So anyway. I joined the swing dance club, and met a few guys. And at one point, when socializing with the guys outside of dance class, one of them asked me what my research was on. (I had already established that I was an honors history student doing a thesis, just as he had established that he was an honors… I’m not sure if he was CS or Math, but it was one of those.)

So I gave him the thumbnail sketch of my research. Now, to be clear, an honors senior thesis, while nothing like what a graduate student would do, was still fairly in-depth. I had to translate primary sources from the original late-Classical Latin. (My professor said, basically, that while there were plenty of translations of my source material, that I’d only be able to comfortably trust them if I had at least made a stab at a translation of my own. And he was right.) And there was so much secondary material, often contradictory, that I had been carefully sorting through.

But I was able to sift it into a three-sentence summary of my senior thesis work, you know, as one does.

So I gave him that summary, and then asked–since he was also an undergraduate senior doing an honors thesis–what his research was on.

“Oh,” he said, “you wouldn’t understand it.”

Reader, I went home in a frothing rage. Because I had thought we were playing one game–a game of ‘let’s talk about what we’re passionate about!’– and he had been playing another game, which was, one-upsmanship. I had done my best to give a basically understandable brief of my research–and he had used that against me. As if my research, my painstaking translation, my digging through archives and ILLs of esoteric works, my reading of ten thousand articles in Speculum (yes, the pre-eminent medievalist journal in North America is called Speculum, I’m sorry, it’s hilarious/sad but also true), and then my effort to sum it up for him, was nothing. Because his research into some kind of algorithm or other was just too complex for my tiny brain to conceive of. Because I just couldn’t possibly understand his work.

Now, the important note here is that the person I went home to was my senior year roommate. She was a graduate student–normally undergrads and graduate students couldn’t be roommates, but we’d been friends for years, and the tenured faculty-in-residence used his powers for good and permitted us to be roommates that year. Anyway. My senior year roommate was basically… in retrospect I think possibly an avatar of Athena. She was six feet tall, blonde, attractive in a muscular athletic way, a rock climber and racquetball player, sweet but sharp, extremely socially awkward, exceptionally kind even when it cost her to be kind, and an incredibly brilliant computer science major who spent most of her time working on extremely complicated mathematical algorithms. (Yes, I was a little in love with her, why do you ask? But she was as straight as a length of rope, and is now happily married, and so am I, so it worked out.)

(Still, yes, she is my mental image of Athena, to this day.)

Anyway, I came home in a frothing rage to my roommate, the Athena avatar. And I said, “He made me feel like such an idiot, that I could sum up my research to him but his research was just too smart for stupid little me.”

And she shut her book, and smiled at me, with her dark eyes and her high cheekbones and her bright hair, and said, “If he can’t explain his research to you, then he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.”

Now I hesitated, because I’d be in college long enough to have sort of bought into the ridiculous idea that if you couldn’t dazzle them with your brilliance, you should baffle them with your bullshit. But she said, “Look, I’ve been doing work on computer science algorithms that have significantly complicated mathematical underpinnings. What do I do?”

And I said, “Genetic algorithms–that is, self-optimizing algorithms–for prioritization, specifically for scheduling.”

“Right,” she said. “You couldn’t code them because you’re not a computer scientist or a mathematician. But you can understand what I do. If someone can’t explain it like that, it isn’t a problem with you as a person. It’s a problem with them. They either don’t understand it as well as they think they do–or they want to make you feel inferior. And neither is a positive thing.”

So. There.

If you are looking into something and have a question, and someone treats you like an idiot for not understanding right away… here is what I have to say: maybe it isn’t you who is the idiot.



As an academic working in academia: this this this. Never buy into the elitist bullcrap of ‘oh, you wouldn’t understand.’ And never perpetuate that crap yourself, either out of pretension or even simple laziness. If you can’t explain it to a ten-year-old, go back and hit the books again cause you’re not there yet.


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