Let’s stop ignorance-shaming

The most egregious time I was ignorance-shamed I was working for a mid-sized non-profit whose mission was to raise money to fund cancer research. I had moved to a new city and had ended up at the non-profit through a temp agency; I worked part-time doing administrative tasks. While I was there, the executive director – a successful and effective leader – retired. She had been there for over a decade. The organization spent a lot of money to contract a recruitment agency to find a replacement. Eventually they hired a man who I can only describe as a con-artist. Once he was in, he clearly had no idea what he was doing. The organization booted him within three weeks, but they were left without a leader. One of the board members stepped in as an interim executive director while a new search was conducted.

This interim executive director was a retired man who I had never really met before. One day, I found myself in his office – I think he was interviewing each of the staff so he knew who was who. At the beginning, I must have asked a clarifying question that showed that I didn’t understand how our non-profit was organized beyond the immediate office. I probably asked what the board did, since all I knew was that he was from the board. He lambasted me. “How can you work here and not understand non-profit governance?!” He then took this lack of knowledge on my part to assume I was stupid. I seethed inwardly as he talked down to me for the rest of the meeting, including explaining elementary math concepts. [1] Silver lining: he did explain non-profit governance structure, so I learned quite a bit, even though I wanted to punch him in the face the whole time.

This interaction was all about power. This man was demonstrating his power over me in a really obnoxious way. I was 28, a part-time administrative temp. There was no reason I should have known anything about non-profits beyond my immediate job. But this man, stuck in his own worldview, couldn’t conceive of anyone not understanding non-profit organizational structure, since it was something so deep in his own knowledge bank – something he learned so long ago. In his worldview, if someone didn’t know something so basic (to him), then they must be stupid and worthy of contempt.

Unfortunately, academics are not immune from ignorance shaming. Academia is an odd world, with its own unwritten rules, norms, and mores. Most academics have only ever worked in academia, and those who have been around for a while have a deep knowledge bank of academic culture. When you’ve been steeped in something so long, it’s hard to remember what it was like to be a beginner.

My post on frequent moving in academia hit a nerve and generated a lot of comments – on this blog, on Inside Higher Ed where it was republished, and on social media. One type of comment I saw regularly (though thankfully not in majority) was the idea that young academics struggling with frequent moves should have known better. Frequent moving is so typical, these commenters argued, that young folks should’ve known that when they start a PhD program. They signed up for it. They’re getting their just desserts.

But frequent moving isn’t a well-known trait of early academia outside of academia. Most non-academics are genuinely surprised when you explain to them job specificity and job scarcity within academic science. [2] As a typical anecdote, my mother-in-law, who lives in Princeton NJ wondered why her accomplished son and daughter-in-law couldn’t just go and get jobs at the local university (i.e. Princeton) after they got their PhDs. There is no reason young people should know that the academic career path now involves a series of frequent moves right at a time of life when it is most difficult.

I started a PhD relatively late at age 29. Why? Because I wanted the credential that would allow me to do research professionally in a field I cared about. And because I had absorbed the mantra that the U.S. needs more scientists and engineers. I figured there were jobs everywhere. Why wouldn’t I? What goes on inside academia is opaque to the rest of the world.

Even if I had asked established academics directly about the challenges of an academic career (and I did), most wouldn’t have mentioned the early difficulties of frequent moving. They’re either older, when this transition period didn’t exist as much, or they lucked out and didn’t have to move a lot, or they weren’t much affected by multiple moves due to their identity and life circumstances, or they suffered, but made it through mostly whole. Established academics are a biased sample of people who attempt the academic career track.

So this idea that prospective graduates students should “know better” than to enter academia if they don’t want to move frequently in their late twenties and thirties is ludicrous. There is no reason to expect them to know anything about frequent moves. And suggesting that the challenges early career academics encounter when they must move frequently is “part of the deal” because they should have known better is ignorance-shaming, pure and simple.

It galls me when academics ignorance-shame. We are in the business of knowledge creation. Our whole purpose is to recognize when there is a knowledge gap (among humanity!) and try to fill it. What academic hasn’t had the experience of learning something new only to develop a dozen new questions that don’t (yet) have answers? What academic hasn’t had the experience of being surprised that no one has tackled Research Question X yet? What academic hasn’t faced their own ignorance time and again?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that ignorance-shaming has connections and intersections with issues of privilege, power, class, gender, and race. It is most often that people in positions of more power ignorance-shame those with less power. It’s easy to be trapped in one’s own worldview – to believe that everyone around you has had a similar education, similar life experiences, knows what you do. But we lead diverse lives. We know different things.

Ignorance-shaming is the flip side of imposter syndrome. And I’d hypothesize that those who have been routinely ignorance-shamed are more likely to experience severe imposter syndrome. If you already think that you should know things that you don’t or that everyone else knows All The Things [3] inside scoop: they don’t, an offhanded ignorance-shaming comment about a gap in your knowledge can be devastating to your confidence.

When I was in college, a European friend of mine was routinely ignorance-shamed by our mutual friends about his lack of knowledge of American culture. He wasn’t familiar with the Muppets, for example, and when someone made an offhand reference to Gonzo that he didn’t understand, he’d be teased. Back then, I recognized it as mean, but I didn’t know what to do and remained silent. Now I can do better and call it out. “Hey, you’re making fun of him because he didn’t grow up with the Muppets. That’s not cool. Let’s watch an episode all together this weekend and show him what it’s about.”

Let’s be conscious of the words we use. “Why don’t you know that?” “Really?! You never learned that…?” “I thought everyone knew…” “How did you get this far without learning…?” “You should have known better.” Unless you’re on an examining committee, there’s really no need to comment on someone’s ignorance about something. Recognizing our own ignorance is how we learn and grow. Recognizing humanity’s ignorance is how we do science. Recognizing another’s ignorance is an opportunity for kindness.

Permanent link to this article: http://ecologybits.com/index.php/2016/05/12/lets-stop-ignorance-shaming/

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