don’t look dumb: on the anxiety of asa meetings – a guest post by jeff guhin
Jeff Guhin is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Virginia and earned his Ph.D. in sociology at Yale University. This post is a reflection on being an early career scholar at the ASA meetings.
Much like death, a meeting at ASA is generally short and anxiety-provoking for all parties involved. Think of the weird status distinctions of all of those friends-of-your-advisor meetings for the job market: sitting on a sofa in one of the halls, people watching so as to avoid too much eye contact. Passers-by wonder to whom that famous sociologist is talking (you! she’s talking to you!). Acquaintances of the high status individual feel permitted to interrupt. Your friends walk on past but ask about it later. All of these anxieties mask a much larger one: you’re a product at a market, and you damn well better not look dumb. If ASA is really about exchanging ideas and only secondarily about displaying cattle, then ASA isn’t working. It’s very hard to develop an idea if your primary goal in any conversation is not looking like an idiot.
To our discipline’s credit, the discomfort of those meetings is rarely the fault of the senior scholars themselves. The overwhelming majority of professors I’ve met at ASA have been extremely supportive and encouraging. I was shocked by how many made time to chat for a while in the halls. I recognize that I’m white, male, and straight, and also that I went to a top 20 program, and while believe these scholars would have been as kind to people in different contexts, I obviously can’t say for sure.
The majority of the people I met weren’t very famous sociologists anyways: they were the majority of the people I read, folks who write good articles about stuff I study too. These are folks who might or might not work in elite programs but who produce excellent work and come to ASA to talk about it, in their panels, sure, but also with junior scholars like me who want to get better at what we do.
This is where the anxiety comes in, both for these more typical meetings and the more high-stakes talks with prestigious scholars or people on hiring committees. On one hand, the purpose of ASA is an exchange of ideas, and the best exchange of ideas is a little bit sloppy: the thoughts might well be stupid, but you’re getting them out there, and they get better through the conversations with new people doing similar work. Yet ASA is also a marketplace at which you can prominently display the only product not already available on your website: that dazzling and capacious mind.
Trying out new ideas in conversation—which strikes me as the most important thing these conferences can provide—is often just too risky. Stick to already tested ideas instead, because while it’s possible the professor you met will think that was a smart person with an idea that still needs work, the professor might also think that idea was dumb so therefore its thinker is dumb too. I don’t have data on this, but it would make sense that the stakes for this are much higher for people not coming from privilege. If you’re from a lower-tiered school, if your advisor is not especially known or connected, if you’re not white, male, or straight, then you might well be going into a conversation with a professor who assumes your inadequacy, even if only subconsciously. Saying one dumb thing might just be all the proof that senior scholar needs.
Sticking to a few pitches you know definitely work seems like a safe bet. But it’s also sad, because it makes the meetings a long series of tea ceremonies rather than actual intellectual exchanges. I wish there were a solution to this besides that I hope the higher-status interlocutors in these conversations are generous and big-hearted, and that the lower-status folks show some courage. Or maybe the status hierarchy is just too formalized, and those of us who don’t yet have a job should only let our guards down to other folks like us. If that’s the case, fellow folks on the job market, feel free to find me: I’ll be that one sociologist who looks awkward sitting in the hall.