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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  1. Simon Leather

    Nice post – and made me wonder if I have ever (probably almost certainly) ignorance-shamed someone inadvertently.

  2. Jeremy Fox

    This makes me think. As I’ve written on Dynamic Ecology, we’re often surprised that our advice posts turn out to be very popular, because we often think that the advice we’re writing is widely known or obvious. Of course, post traffic is a *very* imperfect measure of how many people needed the advice, since many people will read and share posts because the advice is familiar to them rather than unfamiliar. But the point is, perhaps we’re too quick to assume that “everybody” knows to write their papers with a martini glass structure, or not to put too much text on their poster, or whatever.

    Specifically with regard to things like the state of the academic job market and the likelihood that you’ll have to move around early in your academic career, I take it you think that grad students–even prospective grad students?–should be given more information early on, rather than finding this stuff out as they go? I do ask prospective grad students about their long-term career goals, and if they mention academia I talk to them about the state of the academic job market (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/advice-on-protecting-grad-students-from-their-own-optimism/). I don’t talk to them about the need to move around though.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Yes, I think ecology grad students need a lot more information. Sometimes (often?) they (we) don’t know the good questions to ask, so it’s useful to have information volunteered. Ecology, in particular, does not have an obvious transition-to-industry path (in addition to having few academic jobs), and so I see my peers (and myself) struggle mightily in the last years of PhD and first years after.

      But to be fair, I don’t think most established academics are in a good position (individually) to provide all the advice their mentees might need. That’s one thing I think is good about the Internet — and DE in particular. A range of voices, a range of experiences and perspectives really help. I had double the number of advisors and the same number of committee members as most ecology grad students. And I still found new perspectives and advice online (again, particularly through DE, which has 3 main voices and a slew more as guest posters and commentators).

      A major part of why I decided to start blogging was to help inform grad students about the academic system (from the point of view of a grad student / postdoc), as well as what lies beyond academia. Being so close to the beginning, I (think I) can remember a lot what I didn’t know when I started.

  3. Jeremy Fox

    “Ecology, in particular, does not have an obvious transition-to-industry path (in addition to having few academic jobs), and so I see my peers (and myself) struggle mightily in the last years of PhD and first years after.

    I agree this is true for many ecology graduate students, though I have little idea of the precise fraction. But I wonder if it isn’t also true for grad students in many other fields, including those with tighter connections to industry (e.g., chemistry, biomedicine). And true for undergrads as well, many of whom (across all majors) only have a vague idea of what they’d like to do with their lives, in my admittedly-anecdotal experience. If so, it’s not clear to me that prospective graduate supervisors talking to prospective grad students about the state of the academic job market and what being an academic entails would do much to reduce the amount of career-related angst and “buyer’s remorse” in the world. Don’t misunderstand, I still think it’s a good idea to try to give students information earlier rather than later what career X is like, so that they can make the most informed choices possible. That’s why I talk a bit to prospective grad students about their career plans. I’m just not sure how far that information can ever go. Even the most informed choice possible may not be all *that* informed in an absolute sense.

    For instance, many students go to college with only a vague idea of what they want to major in, and many of those who come in with a strong idea change their minds later. And I don’t think it’s possible to prevent that (or even substantially reduce the likelihood of that) by giving them more and better information about what different majors are like. You can’t really know what ecology is like until you take an ecology course; same for any other subject (ok, with some exceptions–probably if your mom or dad is an ecologist you’ll have a pretty good idea what ecology is like by the time you start college, but even that won’t help you with any other major). Same goes for grad school. You can get some idea what it’s like as an undergraduate, by doing an independent research project, spending a summer as a research assistant to a graduate student, talking to your adviser, talking to your parents if they went to grad school, etc. But you can’t *really* know what it’s like until you do it. Same goes for lots of other occupations, I bet, and lots of other major life decisions. Having kids is a famous example–you can talk to all the parents you want, but you won’t really know what being a parent is like (in particular, what it’s like *for you*) until you become a parent yourself. I didn’t really know what it would be like to move overseas until my wife and I did it. Etc.

    I mean, if Dave Tilman had told you when you started your PhD, “Margaret, just so you know, the academic job market is competitive. It’s likely you’ll have to do at least a couple of long-distance moves within a few years of finishing your PhD. And that your first tenure-track job, if you get one, will probably be pretty far from your friends and family in Boston”, would you have decided not to do a PhD? And if so, how sure are you that would’ve been the best decision for you? Honest questions.

    The point is *not* that the universe is benevolent and things always work out for “the best” (though sometimes it will–my wife and I loved living overseas more than we’d ever have imagined we would). And it’s not that you shouldn’t ever be the least bit unhappy if some decision you make doesn’t work out. It’s just that, even if you’re well-informed, surprises are inevitable in life. People have to figure things out for themselves as they go and adjust as needed. In large part because what you do changes you. Sometimes, doing X causes you to become the sort of person who doesn’t want to do X anymore, at which point you have to adjust. But no amount of up-front information about X can tell you what sort of person you’ll become if you do X. Fortunately, for people with undergraduate degrees, and especially with graduate degrees, the odds are excellent that things will work out career-wise, if not the career you originally planned then some other career.

    But at this point, I’m just channeling this old guest post from Carla Davidson, so I’ll just link to it. Might be the best thing we’ve ever published:


    p.s. apologies for the thread-derailing comment, obviously at this point I’ve drifted substantially from the topic of the original post.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Thanks, Jeremy. I don’t actually think it’s that much of a derailing thread. I actually totally agree with you. The lack of knowledge in “ignorance” is not just what you don’t explicitly learn from others or in a formal context, but also the full sum of your life experiences (or lack thereof). I think it’s particularly common for younger people to be ignorance-shamed for exactly the reasons you mentioned: you can’t *really* know what a lot of life is like until you actually try some things out. So I agree that directly providing information is limited in its usefulness. (But it’s still better than nothing.)

      And that’s why I agree that individual advisors are not really equipped (and maybe can’t ever be fully equipped) to really guide their grad students in terms of what’s possible for them. I don’t disagree that some other fields also have challenges in terms of career path for students. But there is a wide range. Astronomy, for example, has few academic positions, but the culture is such that students are very aware of it and students are trained (and recruited) for positions as consultants, etc. Computer science has an easy path to industry. Ecology, I would argue, is at the other end of the ease-of-exiting spectrum for science PhDs (along with some other fields, I’m sure).

      I actually have a post in mind to answer your “what if” question about if I’d been provided information ahead of time. The short answer is what you suppose: I’d have said to DT, “no problem, I love a challenge. Bring it.” Because in my 20’s I enjoyed going new places, meeting new people. I enjoyed intense competition. And while I wanted to live close to family and friends in the end, I was cock-sure that I was just that awesome that I could swing it. (And maybe I can… I’m here now, after all.) But having kids changed everything. Now moving is awful, a social safety net matters more than ever, job security matters in a way it never had, and I’m too exhausted to enjoy competition in my job. I could not have foreseen this as a childless 20-something, and as you point out, I don’t think that just telling young folks, would change minds. Perhaps maybe stories help more than raw information. That’s why I share mine, anyway. Stories help people see struggle, as well as possibility.

      1. Jeremy Fox

        Unanswerable question: do you think there’s a tendency for grad school, at least in some fields and at least at the PhD level, to attract the sort of person who is least prepared to handle career uncertainty? So that, in a cruel irony, many of the people least prepared to handle career uncertainty end up setting themselves up for a massive dose of it?

        I’m not just thinking of the sort of person who likes going to school and so wants to put off joining the “real world” as long as possible, though that’s part of it. I’m also thinking about how, looking back, part of what I liked about the academic ecology career path was that it was a narrow, well-defined (and yes, school-like) path, with maximal job security at the end if you walked it successfully. It’s a well-defined series of steps, or at least seemed that way to me: you go to grad school, get a PhD, do a postdoc, get a tenure-track job, get tenure, and you’re safe. To a uncertainty-averse person like me, that was attractive. But of course, if academia hadn’t worked out (as it nearly didn’t for me), I’d have set my uncertainty-averse self up for a near-maximal amount of career uncertainty! To which my response would probably have been to go back to school and train as a high school teacher–i.e. pick another well-defined, school-like career path, though one with better odds of a stable long-term job at the end. I was fine with that–I went into grad school with my eyes open about my odds of success in academia. Plus my personal circumstances were such that it would’ve been fine for me to go back to school after grad school, or even be unemployed for a little while while I figured things out. So I wasn’t at all bitter or scared or ashamed when it looked like academia wasn’t going to happen for me. But I can imagine that many people in my shoes would’ve been.

        To broaden away from my own example: think of how popular Teach for America became, though applications are now dropping as the economy recovers. I suspect in part because it offered a certain sort of college student a well-defined career path towards a secure job, with many school-like elements along the way. You fill out a Teach for America application not unlike a college application, you take a teacher training class, and then you’re given a teaching job. I wonder if that’s part of the attraction of med school and law school for many students, too–go get this degree, and then take the one secure job the degree specifically trains you for.

        Obviously, this is *very* far from a complete explanation for why anybody goes to grad school or professional school! And I know little about other career paths, so perhaps everything I just said applies just as well to people who go into business consulting or farming or whatever. Maybe that’s what most people try to do, in all walks of life–find what seems to them to be some well-defined career path. I don’t know.

        And I don’t think these musings have much in the way of career choice implications for others. Even if everything I just said is right, I don’t think it’s the case that massive numbers of uncertainty-averse, school-loving undergrads otherwise inclined to go to grad school should be steered away from that path on the grounds that they’re maybe just postponing the day of reckoning and setting themselves up for career angst later. As you say, all you can do is expose people to information and stories, and then let them figure things out for themselves.

      2. Margaret Kosmala

        Answer to unanswerable question: Yes, I think so.

        Academia has become high-risk, high-reward. But it wasn’t always quite so much so. Thirty years ago, if you were top-of-the-pack in undergrad and had a solid ability to gain research skills, you could expect a reasonably high expectation of return on that investment (i.e. tenure-track job) within a short time-frame after getting a PhD. Now the likelihood is lower such that getting the investment pay-off requires more time post-PhD (i.e. more rolls of the dice) for even the highest-qualified.

        The “story” of academia hasn’t kept pace with the times. It attracts people who are drawn to the end-game, to the stability of tenure. But the early gambit is getting tougher — maybe not in absolute numbers of jobs, but in the length of time necessary to get those jobs. For people who need income or who are risk-adverse, the lengthening of the uncertain post-PhD time is killer.

        I happen to have a high-risk personality (though it’s at its lowest ebb ever, with young kids around), and I think to myself: “is tenure really all that great? Why would I want to tie myself to the same job for 30 years? There are few other jobs in our society (government being the one exception I can think of) where you can have reasonable life-long job security. So, yeah, academia has become quite an outlier. And perhaps attracts an undue number of people looking for life-long jobs. Though I expect that if you ask most scientists about why they pursued (or want to pursue) an academic career, job security won’t be in the top few reasons on the list. Maybe more like #4 or #5.

      3. Jeremy Fox


        Everything you say seems right to me, or at least plausible, though I’d quibble with one detail: according to ASLO survey data Meg linked to a while back (sorry, can’t find it now), the typical time from PhD to tenure track job in ecology has actually *dropped* since the 1980s. I know, it surprised me too. It may be increasingly the case that success in obtaining a tenure-track job comes fairly soon after you obtain your PhD, or else not at all. Which doesn’t really change your answer, of course.

  4. Ichneumon

    This will come off as a rant, sorry.

    I don’t disagree with anything here thematically, but why not just use “condescending”, rather than jump on the body/slut/etc.-shaming bandwagon for slang of the moment? I reread every instance with the replacement and it doesn’t change your meaning at all (changing grammatically, of course).

    Everyone already dislikes condescending people and would get it pretty quickly, plus if someone comes back and reads this in 10 years, we’ll probably have moved on from the “-shaming” construction (but I guess we haven’t gotten over “-gate” for any scandal and that was quite awhile ago…). And there are some ecology/academia folks who aren’t english speakers as a first language – parsing that construction (and as both a verb and a noun) would be far more difficult than a word in normal parlance.

    Just my thoughts – spoken in a non-condescending (but slightly exasperated) tone 🙂

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      I would say that condescending is too broad a term for what I mean. I specifically mean making people feel badly for not knowing something. Condescension covers much more than that — someone can be condescending towards someone else because of how they’re dressed, for example. Additionally, I would say that people can ignorance-shame in a non-condescending way. So, not really the same thing.

      1. Ichneumon

        The former part is certainly true, but even your teasing example is condescension (e.g. I don’t see how you can “ignorance shame” in a non-condescending way – but I can change my prior given new data).

        I do agree with your broad point, and want to bring up another example that surely will ring true for everyone.

        The thing that came immediately into my head when I read this – and what I think is the worst example (and unfortunately too common) – is at the end of a seminar, usually by a grad student, where an older faculty member says one of two things

        “But surely you are aware of the seminar work of _[name you’ve never heard uttered]_ in __[year fifty years before the speaker was born]__ (and some short reason why it is essential to understanding your system).”

        or, and possibly worse:

        “[reason that the experiment couldn’t adequately address the hypothesis].”

        Note, both come with periods, not question marks, making the speaker squirm because, really how can you respond to those? And the questioner knows this, of course, its just to belittle the student or feel self-important (just email them the paper if its actually worth it).

        This is my biggest fear of when I have to actually give a seminar (4th year student now, so I guess it’ll have to be soon), something that I know I’ll lose sleep over beforehand. And I see it happen on a regular basis, usually with the same two or three professors [and occasionally a grad student will get in on it].

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