We’re going to go back to ALA Annual 2017 for this post, but in an entirely different way my last two (see Part 1 & Part 2). In this post, I’m dealing with an experience that happened before Annual officially began. Apparently, it helped set the tone for the rest of the conference.
A bit of backstory. Right now I’m collaborating with a colleague, Dr. Laura-Edythe Coleman, on a study about how librarians and museum professionals understand and perform empathy in their everyday work. My colleague (and close friend) was also in town for Annual and wanted me to meet some important museum people from the Chicago area. She mentioned a Twitter hashtag that helps bring together museum-minded individuals during different conferences for drinks, socializing, and shop talk. There had been an informal gathering set up via the hashtag for that Thursday and wanted me to attend. Okay. Makes sense. I like museums. It would be a good idea to meet more professionals in an unfamiliar world to me. Especially since I’ll be interacting with participants from museums as part of our research.
Already stressed, sleep-deprived, and overwhelmed, I was not in the best headspace for high pressure social interactions. I never imagined that this social would be so intense, but it definitely turned out to be exactly that. I arrived at the designated bar with some half-hearted excitement to meet non-librarians before an (almost) all librarian conference. A small group of the museum people and my friend were there, already into drinks and appetizers. After brief introductions, I began to feel anxious and slightly paranoid. Most of the time my anxiety and paranoia isn’t justified, but in the case I believe it was.
I immediately felt on the defense. I sensed a general disinterest in me and a patronizing attitude towards my librarian status. This mainly came from three men at the table. My attempts at common “getting to know you” conversation starters failed miserably. I tried asking about where people work, what they like to do in Chicago, etc. A conversation about local craft beer started. I mentioned some of my favorite breweries in town. And received the sneering feedback I almost always get (from men) when I express an opinion about beer. Then the man across from me asked, out of the blue, “Why do you do research?”. Seemed like an odd and bit aggressive question. I responded with, what I think, are the reasons I do research. Stuff like: Because I’m a naturally curious person. Because I enjoy it. Because I’m (occasionally) good at it. Because I think it actually does some (tiny) good in the world. And because, honestly, a big part of being an academic is doing research that you can then present and publish. Job search, tenure, and such. Also, I’m a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Research is right there in my job title.
Those reasons did not meet his approval. He sent me a very clear look that demonstrated his criticism of my thoughts. Whatever I said clearly was not the right (or his right) answer. Obviously all my doctoral work, dissertation, and postdoc efforts have taught me nothing about research. I had no idea where to go with this conversation. I asked why he did research and he responded with something esoteric and with the intent to put me in my place. I was so furious that my brain refused to comprehend his words fully. All I could think was, “I am going to lose it.” Which I almost NEVER experience. I don’t remember the last time I did. But I didn’t explode this time. I sort of wish I did, but also sort of glad I didn’t. People like that don’t deserve the amount of energy I would need to go off. I didn’t even have anywhere near that energy at the time. In these situations, it feels like they want my anger. They want an argument. A chance to show off what they know and what they think I don’t.
But here is what I would have said:
I have a fucking PhD. Did you know that is a research degree? I’ve spent about five years conducting research either in collaboration with colleagues or on my own. I’ve been (and continue to be) mentored by AMAZING researchers. I completed a dissertation a year ago. This means that I came up with original research, dealt with the IRB, collected and analyzed my data, wrote up, presented, and defended my research, and proved to my committee that I can produce quality research. I’m in the middle of a postdoctoral fellowship, a terrific position that allows me to participate in really interesting research, learn more about research, and discuss research. I’m definitely not the best researcher. Occasionally I’m good at it. But for the most part I’m constantly learning how to become a better researcher and a more critical thinker. Finally, research research research.
I’m often on the defense with men. Whether it’s what I’m doing, what I’m reading, where I’m going, what I believe, and even what I feel. I know other women have experienced this too. I do love to learn. I’m excited when someone teaches me a new thing, shows me a different way to look at something, or gives constructive feedback. But I know when people are being kind and helpful versus trying to break me by dismissing my intelligence, education, and interests. I have so little patience for this as I grow older. But I’m (finally) able to detect when men are explaining things to me. No longer shrinking inside myself quite as much. Instead, trying very hard to stand tall.
Obviously, I’m still working through some issues relating to conferencing (see Part 1 & Part 2). Thank you for continue to read. Writing helps me process uncomfortable, confusing, painful, and overwhelming experiences in ways that even therapy cannot. As I write, I learn more about myself and whatever I’m struggling with. I make connections and discoveries that I would never had if I kept it all in my head. I figure out what really happened and why I responded the way I did. Writing also helps tame my tendency to overanalyze everything. I never know exactly where writing will take me but maybe that one reason I love it. I write to go forward.