The New Term
January 8, 2014
It is January and the new term is here. It brought some things that were welcome and some that were not. For the latter, yesterday was the coldest weather I recall in three decades in Pittsburgh: minus 9 degrees Fahrenheit. I truly feared I might get frostbitten in my five minute walk into a headwind along Smithfield Street downtown to the bus stop.
What was most welcome was the new Fellows and visitors. The new group assembled this afternoon for the first time. It included an old friend, Slobodan Perovic, who is teaching in the Department of HPS this term. He had been a postdoc in 2009 - 2010 and would now be helping us extensively in the organization of the PSX4 conference later in the term.
On the table we had what had been declared the _best_ of the chocolate babka's available. Arnaud brought us some marzipan from France. Also the best marzipan, he reported. I made my speeches. There were more than usual this term and I wanted to hurry them along so we could get to the real business of the day. Each fellow would introduce him or herself.
"Tell us something about your background," I said, " and then tell us what you are thinking about now."
In order to set the tone, I went first. I launched in a ramble of whatever came to mind. The goal of my inchoate patter was as much to lower expectations for the each performance and relax the mood as it was to inform. In recalling my history, I found myself reporting the advice given to me by my dissertation advisor years ago.
"It's not what you say; it's how you say it."
That terrible piece of advice had steered me temporarily away from philosophy of science into history of science. There I could read the work of scientists like Einstein who did think that what you said mattered.
The speaking passed round the room. Each spoke for more or less time and with more or less energy. I jotted down the timing, as is my habit. Although I'd been doing something like this all through the Fall term, Carrie now noticed it for the first time.
"Are you timing us?!!" she exclaimed.
It was an awkward moment. She did not seem pleased. I'm not sure what nefarious scheme she was imagining on my part. Fearing the worst, I explained as best I could.
When 9 people are each to make a speech, there's a serious danger of running over time. The trick to keeping things in order is to know well ahead if that will be a problem. I time each person and find that we are each rather regular in the time we take. Everyone settled in naturally to a 5-10 minute speech. With a little mental arithmetic, I could see that we wouldn't run over time.
Aris was the last to speak. He too began with a random anecdote. He had also had an advisor who had had an advisor who had delivered the wisdom "It's not what you say‚ . . ."
"Ohhh‚ . . ." I gasped, so that terrible piece of advice is doing the rounds! I had no idea. I thought that it was just my bad luck to be its recipient. A horrific image formed in my mind of great waves of misdirected wisdom washing across the academic world, from Australia to Athens. It was a moment of enlightenment and recalibration.
Later, as we all sat together over dinner, Aris leaned forward over the table and suggested that I might not have understood his story. I now put the two pieces together. Aris had been a student here at Pitt two decades ago; and I had been an advisor here who had an advisor . . .
John D. Norton