Coming from a teaching institution, I consistently push against the stereotype that I can’t be as good as someone from a big research institution.
Last week I had the pleasure of speaking in a symposium along with a couple of the most prominent people in tropical biology. There were other good, non-famous, people there too. It was great fun, and I gave a damn good talk, even though the topic was slightly outside my normal line of research. After the conference, a periodic collaborator of mine told me that I was able to “hold my own” with the high-powered crowd. This was clearly a form of congratulations. Keep in mind that this is a person who I’ve known for over fifteen years.
What I thought, and didn’t choose to say, is: “That’s a funny thing to mention. Of course I did. Why would you think otherwise? Would somebody think that I might not be able to?”
If I worked at a big research university, nobody would have ever congratulated me on “holding my own” in the presence of more esteemed scientists. I would just be expected to fit in. If anything, my presence in the symposium should indicate my enhanced stature, not a temporary ability to be acceptable in the presence of the great ones.
Why didn’t I tell my buddy that this compliment wasn’t a compliment? Why didn’t I say that he revealed his own bias, or his own low expectations?
I didn’t say anything because it wouldn’t do any good. I’d sound petulant. Some might say that I’d be looking for an insult where one was not intended. (Perhaps that what readers are thinking now.) Perhaps it would give the false impression that I’m unhappy.
I don’t see the remark about “holding my own” as a personal insult because I understand that it originated from a bias against my employer rather than against my work. This is especially the case because this colleague is in an entirely different subfield and I doubt he’s read many, if any, of my papers.
In that symposium, there were many people in my sub-subfield in attendance, who are quite familiar with my work. I don’t know what they were thinking, and I’m not going to ask. All I can do is continue to show again, and again, and continually, that I belong. Maybe one day, my colleagues won’t have to compliment me on holding my own with the big boys and girls.