18 February, 2013
I suspect many of us have experienced (and probably enacted) one of the standard put-downs of intellectual life. It may be a seminar paper, a student presentation, a conference lecture, but at some point or other someone will ask: ‘have you read such and such?’
Given the veneer of respectability that surrounds such events, you usually have two options: say yes, you have, and cut the person off; say no, and give up the high ground completely.
So, after discussing this with Christina, let me make a few alternative suggestions for how to respond:
1. ‘Given that your suggestion is a blatant effort at one-upmanship, I’m not going to engage in your desperate game’.
2. ‘Isn’t word association a wonderful thing! Obviously, a word I said has triggered something in your cerebral cortex, and out pops a suggestion for a book’.
3. ‘Could you say a bit more? … No, I’m afraid that’s completely irrelevant to my work and I have no idea why you brought it up, you tool’.
4. ‘I bow to your superior knowledge and wide reading …’
4 January, 2012
The put-down: it is a fine art, turned into a lethal modus operandi by a few. It is one thing to share a joke over beer concerning a mate who is getting a little too full of him- or herself. It is entirely another to use it as a way of advancing that brilliant career called academia.
You find it in the mode of intellectual flexing at conferences (like a body-builder’s posing routine, except of the mind – and thereby far less enticing), in the way meetings or seminars are run, and often in anonymous reviewing. Once let loose in the reviewing process, these attractive characters love to use phrases such as: ‘As I tell my students …’; ‘This reads like a student essay …’; ‘This author obviously speaks English as a second language …’; ‘I don’t know why this author bothered; she should not give up her day job …’. Or you can check my ‘about‘ page.
But the one who makes it a priority in life is another case entirely. It begins with an email or a phone call, full of flattery, mentioning all that you might have written, asking to visit. Given that we are bred to seek the crumbs of renown (see the ‘Unnoticed Genius’), we fall for the silky words. After a couple of weeks or perhaps months of getting to know you, the put-downs begin. Personal attacks, whispers to friends, denigration of your work … for the only way such a person knows how to climb the intellectual ladder is to take out those he or she perceives to be above them – like dogs in a pack. Our climber may have asked you to contribute to a book that is being edited, full of illustrious names (who have usually never heard of the edited volume or its editor), but then you are unceremoniously dumped. After which the Put-Downer doesn’t even think it worth the time of day to fart in your general direction. In all this our wonderful colleague has forgotten to put-down himself.