118

I suspect anybody who's a professor knows this story: you meet someone new in a social setting and it comes up that you're a professor. The inevitable next question is, "oh, what do you teach?"

It's a perfectly reasonable question, and one simple answer is: well, tell them what you teach! But the question also implicitly suggests that professors do nothing but teach, and to answer it directly feels like you're only reinforcing that perception. It also does nothing to steer the conversation toward your other passions, like doing research and writing grants.

Q: How do you answer this question without being rude, while still painting a more representative picture of what a professor actually does?

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    Writing grants is one of your passions? – Stephan Kolassa Jul 28 '15 at 11:02
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    I've had worse versions of that phrase. I'm black so it generally goes "Oh you're a professor? So you teach African Studies?" I generally storm off. – John Smith Jul 28 '15 at 13:49
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    @JohnSmith shame you're not a woman. You could then enjoy the confusion on their face as they tried to decide whether you teach African or Gender Studies. – terdon Jul 28 '15 at 13:52
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    @terdon : don't laugh, I have been occasionally invited (by email) to african-american faculty women meetings due to my name (which is not John Smith). – John Smith Jul 28 '15 at 13:58
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    @O.R.Mapper I think this question extends to anybody that talks to anybody outside of their own line of work. – MonkeyZeus Jul 28 '15 at 14:08

15 Answers 15

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+50

I usually get assigned to teach ____________ (e.g. introductory biology classes), but actually, most of my work at the university involves research in the area of ____________.

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    Yepp, I agree with this: KISS .. keep it short and simple... You won't be willing to explain the duties of a professor beyond teaching anytime someone will ask you this question. So give a clue, that teaching is not everything, but keep it short :) – André Kleinschmidt Jul 28 '15 at 8:42
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    Of course, few non-academians will have an accurate intuition about what "research" is. – Raphael Jul 28 '15 at 13:14
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    @Raphael, and that's hopefully the beginning of a pleasant conversation... or not.... A few days ago an acquaintance asked me what my spouse does, and I said, "Physics;" she burst out laughing, and I never did understand why. The conversation fizzled out fairly quickly after that. – aparente001 Jul 28 '15 at 19:35
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    @aparente001 Could have been a number of reasons, but with a mindset oriented on play-on-words like I have, it seemed an amusing answer to me as well. Consider that everyone participates in "Physics" - just by sitting around. (Even though you clearly intended an academic activity associated with the field of physics) – DoubleDouble Jul 28 '15 at 19:53
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    @aparente001 I prefer "Men who stare at whiteboards" as explanation. (In the case of my group, it's literally only men.) – Raphael Jul 28 '15 at 20:58
78

You say, "I'm a professor of Computer Science," or "I'm an Economics professor," or "I'm an English Professor," and see where the conversation goes.

I understand that you desire to clue the person in to the fact that you do many things other than teach, but in a social setting, it's inappropriate.

Over cocktails, you won't be able to change the perception of your conversational partner without seeming pretentious or boorish or boring. Just let it go and ask the person in return, "What do you do?"

Of course, you can say, "I teach Economics, with a focus on X, Y, and Z," (your research interests) and see if that arouses their interest and leads to a more in-depth conversation. If not, wander over to the bar and refill your glass.

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    "in a social setting, it's inappropriate" Why? – JiK Jul 28 '15 at 7:46
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    I have to clear up misconceptions (or at least try) about my field (computer science) all the time, so I second @JiK's query. – Raphael Jul 28 '15 at 9:41
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    @Raphael Exactly because you have to clear up misconceptions all the time, it's inappropriate in a social setting. You may have made the asker feel like he is an idiot. Most people already have the perception that computer science = java/c++ programming. It's very hard to change that in a few minutes. This is my opinion, not necessary ewormuth's. – scaaahu Jul 28 '15 at 10:01
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    @scaaahu I think it's very appropriate to (try and) fix misconceptions people have. It's possible to do this in a conversational (not patronizing/condescending) way. My experience is that people are honestly surprised and interested -- they just don't know. As a side benefit, you get better are the elevator "what is it you do" pitch for lay people. – Raphael Jul 28 '15 at 10:42
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    CaptainCodeman and scaaahu have my intention correct. If a person is interested enough to ask a follow-up question, then sure, have a conversation. But I don't think it's my job to spread the word that, for example, university professors work more than the 12 hours they spend teaching, and I would become a bore if I went on about that when the person asking was just making polite conversation. At a party of psychology-type people once (sorry!) I asked a man, "So what do you do?" and he said, "Why is it important for you to know?" That shut down the conversation pretty quickly. – ewormuth Jul 28 '15 at 15:13
62

If the setting is purely social and not professional, people want to socialize and be entertained. So, you go, "Yup, I teach a couple of software engineering courses, but do you wanna know the best part of being a professor?"

There you go. You can now reverse the public perception of all you do is teach (which seems to be your primary issue in your original post), and at the same time you can talk about what you really do, all the while being polite, fun and social, generally being someone people want to talk to over a glass of wine.

What do you think?

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    Excellent. Good response. Much more socially adept/aware than many! :) – paul garrett Jul 29 '15 at 0:17
44

Focus on their intention, not on their words

When thinking about social skills, the original question:

oh you are a professor, what do you teach?

Should typically not be interpreted literally. If this is asked shortly after meeting someone and telling them that you are a professor, it can be interpreted like so:

Oh you are a professor, that sounds interesting. Is there something nice that I would enjoy to hear and you would enjoy to tell regarding this? To start with something like what you teach?

To prevent confusion you would of course want to tell them what you teach (either by mentioning the name, or with a nice one-line description), but the goal is not to answer their question accurately. The goal is to have a nice conversation!

So my advice:

  1. For good form, respond by mentioning your field/what you teach in one line
  2. Follow up directly by telling something nice (Nice for the both of you!) about it. If the person is showing real interest you can do this a bit more elaborately but normally I would start very short with max 3 lines.

Example

A format could be:

I'm active in {Field name or quick description} and am mostly busy with {brief description of what you actually like, and is interesting to hear}

Note that I don't say 'but' as it somewhat implies that they asked the wrong question.

An example of this format in practice:

I teach computer science and currently I'm doing research on using sensors to detect immediately when senior citizens fall and can't get up.

Final advice: always find a way to make it relatable. In most cases this means you can focus on how the knowledge is (potentially going to be) applied, but sometimes this is a bit hard. In that case just say something fun about it.

A nice example that I heard once:

I am a math professor in the field of topology, I focus on what happens when you don't care about the difference between a dougnut and a coffee cup.

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    Oh, man! I'm doomed! "I teach computer security and my current research is on use of cellular automata for pattern recognition." {dead silence} – Bob Brown Jul 31 '15 at 11:36
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    @BobBrown that actually sounds fascinating to me, but I get your point :P Maybe "I'm researching how to get computers to recognize cats in photos" or something? That is, what the end result is, rather than the process? – Dewi Morgan Aug 1 '15 at 1:19
  • @DewiMorgan Perfect example, always try to connect it to something humorous, even if it's not strictly what you do. Incidentally I'm still looking for a funny and succinct way to describe being a SharePoint Architect other than saying "It's so broad, even we don't know how to describe it." – thanby Aug 2 '15 at 8:20
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    @BobBrown Repeat after me: "Computer science. Have you seen those nightmare pig-snail pictures from Google? Like that, only totally different." – JeffE Aug 2 '15 at 21:17
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    @Thanby: "I help teams work together like grownups instead of like uncoordinated angry mobs"? Basically, at the end of a project, what have you accomplished? I hope it's not just "architected some sharepoint" :( – Dewi Morgan Aug 2 '15 at 21:46
24

Small talk is exactly that, small talk

It is very unlikely that the other person is inquiring for you to lecture them on all of the aspects of your job.

The other person is making a sincere attempt to connect with you and doing anything at all outside what is expected will make you seem defensive and produces a bad vibe for the rest of the night.

Even if they are courteous enough to listen to everything which you do, it puts a lot of pressure on them to try and remember it for the next encounter with you. Guess what, they will probably not remember and avoid talking to you due to fears of you finding out that they remember about 10% of what you said.

My one suggestion is to keep it completely friendly and be very positive and passionate about how you craft your tone.


Other person:

Oh, you're a professor? What do you teach?

You:

This semester I have [chosen] or [been assigned to] teach about X, Y, and Z. You are a contractor I understand, is that commercial or residential?


It is supposed to be a back and forth interaction. If they do not continue to ask more questions then they simply have no current need for further information.

Now consider this:

You meet this person at another social event in the future and it can go something like this:


Other person:

Hi Dnuorg Spu! I am so glad I ran into you. I was wondering if you could help me out? My child will be attending your university next year and we are wondering if you have any information about grants in X, Y, and Z?

You:

Well you are in luck! I most certainly know about grants in X, Y, and Z, I write them.

Other person:

No kidding! I am sure glad I asked, how long have you been writing them for?

You (now you can relish in your other aspects):

I've been writing them for....


My apologies if this answer is terse but I have been struggling with the exact same issue in my profession of web development. I've learned that it is not about me and I cannot force someone to learn about me. During small talk people DO NOT CARE about the details. Small talk is an opening into extended discussion for the future.

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    I think a more appropriate counterquestion would be: "You are a contractor I understand; what paper colors do you usually choose when writing a contract?" – O. R. Mapper Jul 28 '15 at 14:10
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    @O.R.Mapper I disagree. It's not supposed to be a counter-question; it is intended to be a "social-flow" question. You will never be successful unless you learn how to socialize. Yes, their vision is narrow but that does not mean yours has to be. By sinking to their perceived level, you acquire their level of vision. – MonkeyZeus Jul 28 '15 at 14:21
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    @O.R.Mapper By trying to actively "fix" a misconception at an inappropriate time, you are merely guaranteeing the continued ignorance due to the pompous nature of the replies. The other person does not move forward in life parading everything you've told them. Instead they will converse with others in a manner like this: "Did you talk to that professor?", "Yes, I recommend staying away. He/she turns small talk into a lecture.", "Oh, what did they say?", "The heck if I can remember, I just wanted to get out of there." – MonkeyZeus Jul 28 '15 at 14:44
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    Possibly, you have had some exceptionally bad experiences. Otherwise, I couldn't imagine anyone with a basic level of interest in conversation to be put off already by a simple explanation such as "Actually, I don't teach, I run experiments." Whenever equivalent situations came up for me so far, such a statement would usually serve as the start of a long conversation, not its end. Of course, if for some reason the person in question is on a confrontation course right from the start - either personally, or against "academics" in general - the conclusion "recommend staying away." is inevitable. – O. R. Mapper Jul 28 '15 at 15:02
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    As comments beneath another answer reminded me, the definition of "small talk" and the expected honesty behind a question differes with the cultural setting you are in. – Raphael Jul 28 '15 at 21:03
22

When I saw this post two days ago, it puzzled me that everyone seemed to agree that they are asked this question routinely. Because I can't recall a single time I've been asked anything like this.

But now I understand why. It's because when someone asks me what I do, I never answer "I'm a professor". I answer "I'm a linguist". I never thought about it, but I would simply think the person asking me is more interested in knowing what I'm working on rather than knowing the name of my position.

To use an example from outside of academia, if you're a chimney sweep here in Norway, the official name of your position is actually "worker" (SKO 6014), but I have a hard time imagining that chimney sweeps go around telling people they are "workers".

So if the follow-up question people have to you telling them you're a professor bothers you, then I suggest you stop telling them the name of your position, and that you instead tell them what you are (mathematician, biologist, computer scientist, etc.).

  • Precisely this. It is a self-created situation. – JamesRyan Aug 4 '15 at 12:14
  • Most likely someone else introduced you as Professor XXX. – jf328 Feb 17 '17 at 13:49
  • @jf328 No. "Professor" is hardly ever used as a title in Norway anymore, and certainly not in my field and my generation. I've simply never heard anyone call me "Professor XXX" or introduce me as such, and I would probably think it was done as a joke if anyone did. – Sverre Feb 18 '17 at 15:20
  • Ah, by "you" I meant a general person, or the OP specifically. – jf328 Feb 18 '17 at 16:51
  • @jf328 In that case, I suggest you provide your comment as a comment to the OP's question and not as a comment to my answer. – Sverre Feb 19 '17 at 0:08
11

Professor means teacher.

In most countries, someone who doesn't teach can't be called "professor". Teaching is essential part of being a professor. This position is defined by teaching. Their assumption that professor teaches is correct.

You assume they're misguided, that they think professors do nothing but teaching. I can't help but assume you are misguided and think of "professor" as simply the highest rank, some kind of "general". There are plenty of people who want privileges of professorship but without the hassle of dealing with students. I think it's clear beyond any doubt that people who don't want to teach and who don't recognize the importance of teaching should never become professors in the first place.

Perhaps I've read you wrong. Maybe you're an educator so dedicated you can't help but educate them about what "professor" really means (in your book). If that's true, then you should try to leave work at workplace. Nobody wants to be proven wrong. Social meetings are for acquiring connections, not for acquiring knowledge. You should consider that nobody really wants this knowledge, nobody enjoys being proven wrong and your efforts are in vain: they're rather forget about "that rude nerd" as soon as they leave.

You also overvalue small talk. People are merely trying to find a common topic in conversation. Everybody has school experience to talk about. You can of course talk about your research - but conversation is by definition two-way. How many laymen could hold up a conversation on the topic you'd like to talk about? Remember that you too can't talk about details of their specialty. When chatting with strangers, we only skim our jobs to give an impression they can understand, not necessarily an impression that's true to the bone.

If you don't want to chat about teaching, don't introduce yourself as a teacher. Introduce yourself in a way that will steer the conversation towards your favorite part of your job.

Finally, if you don't want to consider any of what I wrote here, you can always answer:

I teach X. Dealing with students is fun/pain in the ass but the real highlight/headache is...

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    "Social meetings are for acquiring connections, not for acquiring knowledge." - interesting perspective. Personally, I routinely fail at acquiring connections, but I reassure myself by telling myself: "It's not a complete waste of time to be here, at least I can use this so-called social meeting for acquiring knowledge." – O. R. Mapper Jul 31 '15 at 11:40
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    @O.R.Mapper Yeah, but by "it's not a complete waste of time" you're admitting that you've failed the primary objective and from there it's just salvaging anything valuable : ) Back on topic: what I've meant is that it's safe to assume that others came there to have fun socializing, not to be lectured about meaning of words. The knowledge can be transferred in the pull model (like yours), but not push (like OP). – Agent_L Jul 31 '15 at 14:33
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    There are enough "professors" around the world without teaching duties that I think the word can bear two meanings without anyone being "misguided". [Including one of the brightest people I know.] Indeed the Oxford English Dictionary explicitly puts the rank meaning first: "II. Senses relating to academic or other professional function or status: 4. a. A university academic of the highest rank; spec. (in Britain and some other English-speaking countries) the holder of a university chair in a specified faculty or subject. Also, in N. Amer.: any teacher at a university." – Calchas Aug 1 '15 at 21:25
  • @Calchas Yeah, and Wikipedia states: "A professor is a scholarly teacher and researcher (...)". Career path to professorship that doesn't include teaching is an exception. Assumption that we're dealing with typical professor who teaches or did some teaching in the past is an expected one. – Agent_L Aug 1 '15 at 21:49
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    I like this answer. If you don't want "What do you teach?" to be the inevitable question, then tell people you're a researcher. :^) – J.R. Nov 21 '15 at 23:12
10

Why don't you just tell them what field you teach in? Most people know that professors also do research, but that is not what they are asking. Especially if they don't know much about the field, telling them about what you research is getting too much into detail unless they specifically ask about it.

10

If you don't want to be seen as a professor don't say you are a professor, say you are a researcher. The term has come to mean "any instructor, especially in a specialized field" so use a term that is more accurate to what you do.

9

There was one encounter recently where I was asked a question and gave the usual socially appropriate concise answer, until, after being pressed, I gave the "Here's what's really going on." The other person (I had not understood this) was a specialist enough to want the "Here's what's really going on" answer. But I was right to give the brief, simplified "general public" answer until I was prompted otherwise

"Just give me the time, don't build me a ____ing watch!"

That's a label and a reaction you don't want.

"So, what do you teach?" is a standard, socially appropriate question. Respond with a standard, socially appropriate answer (i.e. "Chemistry. What's your line of work?"). Be ready to needlessly have people be alienated if you take this as justification to invade and straighten out their ideas of what a professor is.

(I remember one math Ph.D. student saying, "How I envy people in particle physics! They can explain to other people what they do for work.")

If you're a mathematician, you might be interested in Theoni Pappas's The Magic of Mathematics: Discovering the Spell of Mathematics; I read an earlier title of his and found it, bar none, the most effective explanation of what exactly mathematicians do for readers who may or may not have scientific background. However, I would discourage you from adding a heavy reading assignment to help other people understand what life is like as a mathematician. Polite social conversation needs no footnotes, nor is adding footnotes an improvement.

Just give the polite answer and recognize that deepening the conversation is usually not helpful, for your reputation or for your listener's experience in meeting you.

  • I like the particle physics story! – aparente001 Aug 2 '15 at 21:25
8

Well, yes, most professions have somewhat "fixed" definitions and it's a difficult task to give yourself a label and subsequently try to change the definition of that label in people's minds.

Far better to start out with a label that more closely approximates what you truly identify with.

If you prefer to be known as a person who does research, tell them you're a researcher. If you prefer to be known as a teacher, tell them you're a professor.

In any case, it's better to give as many details about what you actually do before you drop the one-word profession label, as that gives you a chance to actually explain what you do before they develop any misconceptions you would have to erase.

  • 2
    "I'm a researcher and teacher in X" seems to be a valid description, yes. – Raphael Jul 28 '15 at 13:12
4

The person asking this kind of questions does not really want to understand your research or your career. He might just want to say something or let you say something. No matter whether or not he knows your research, teaching is a good topic related to professors. so in my opinion, if you are willing to say something to him, it's OK.

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    "if you are willing to say something to him, it's OK" - and if you are not willing to say something to him? After all, I can think of more worthwhile ways to spend time beside saying something to someone disinterested just for the sake of something being said. – O. R. Mapper Jul 28 '15 at 12:50
  • @O.R.Mapper maybe they only want to educate you about their job title? :P – JamesRyan Aug 4 '15 at 12:21
3

I would answer the question honestly and say that I teach X and also do research. In my opinion, a lot of people don't know exactly what the job of a professor is, so don't take it personal if they assume that you are only teaching. As a Computer Science professor, when I talk to some people that are not from university, it may happen that some people think that I'm teaching how to repair a computer or have some other misconceptions. In my opinion, you shoud just don't take it personal and explain what you are doing. I would try to explain using simple words and if the person ask more questions than I would go in more details. If not, then I will not talk about details and perhaps talk about another topic.

3

Develop a theory of alien minds and use it.

In Profoundly Gifted Magazine Interviews Charles Wallace Murry of A Wind in the Door, there is a discussion of "theory of other minds" as relevant both to giftedness and the autism spectrum (I'm not trying to diagnose anyone here as on the spectrum or not on the spectrum; the principle is generic):

Charles Wallace: If I may shanghai an opportunity to follow the words, "If there is an elephant in the room, introduce him..."?

Profoundly Gifted: Yes?

Charles Wallace: Asperger's Syndrome.

Profoundly Gifted: It's kind of like profound giftedness, no?

Charles Wallace: Let me quietly count to ten... Ok...

I read David Pollock's Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, and I said, "That's me!" Then I read Edward Hallowell's Driven to Distraction and it made sense. Then I read, on a medical practitioner's advice, Tony Attwood's The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, and my response was some more polite form of "Dude... pass me a toke of whatever it is that you're smoking!"

...

Furthermore, and here I am less concerned with the relationship between profound giftedness and Asperger's than improperly read research, there is a consistent finding that IQ-normal, autism-normal children do markedly better at what are unfortunately lumped together as "theory of other minds."

A much better interpretation of Attwood's data might come from splitting the theory of other minds into a separate theory of like minds, and also a theory of alien minds. A theory of like minds works with one's homeys or peeps; hence someone IQ-normal and autism-normal surrounded by IQ-normal and autism-normal classmates will coast on a theory of like minds. But, except in how it may be refined by practice, a theory of like minds that comes virtually free to everyone isn't in particular reserved to a majority of people (not) affected by XYZ condition. With some true exceptions like Tay-Sachs, everybody gets along with their peeps. Gifted and profoundly gifted click with their fellows; Asperger's people click with their fellows; To pick a few many demographics, various geek subcultures, codependents, addicts, and various strains of queer should click just as well. Everybody gets a theory of like minds virtually free; the breadth of usefulness depends on how rarely or commonly one encounters like minds, and this heavily loads the dice for Attwood's approach.

The comparison Attwood makes in interaction with autism-normal people loads the dice in a way that is totally unfair. The comparison is autism-normals' theory of like minds to Asperger's theory of alien minds; he never, ever tests autism-normals on their ability to relate to alien minds, nor does he ever test Asperger's patients on their ability to relate to like minds. And while being unsure about how far this applies to IQ-normal Asperger's patients, Asperger's patients often make herculean and lifelong efforts to develop "theory of alien minds" aptitude, and the result is not just that they connect, perhaps clumsily, with people of the same age and socioeconomic status; they make very close connections across age, race, and gender, and for that matter animals who may start off by being afraid of them. The theory of alien minds is finely honed, even if it is not a valid substitute for a theory of like minds, and once it is honed, this theory of alien minds reaches much, much further than autism-normals resting on a theory of like minds.

(Read full "interview.")

Develop a theory of alien minds, and use it in relating to people who ask what subject you teach.

For that matter, there are degrees of occasions for theory of alien minds among mathematicians. Mathematicians of one specialty cannot, as a rule, really hold a professional conversation with mathematicians of another specialty (the discipline has reached enough of a labyrinthine specialization that it's a rare beast of a mathematician who can understand 13 out of 50 papers presented at a math conference). Different adaptations are appropriate for math grad and undergrad students, interlocutors from mathematical sciences, disciplines that are not really mathematical but use statistics, humanities that do not have a pretension of being just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-"hard-sciences"-like-physics (more), educated nonscholars, adults, children. All these audiences are best reached with some form of context-sensitive bridge-building, together with a realization that you may not rightly be able to convey all you would wish (this is NOT a predicament that only applies to scholars!).

In a word, work on your theory of alien minds, and use it.

2

At the risk of provoking ire by posting a third significantly different answer to this question, even more irritatingly with a question:

You obviously want to be genuinely understood. (So do I). So, I imagine, does everyone else who has weighed in on this thread, and probably everyone who has asked, "What do you teach?"

What can you do to understand others and give them what you want from them?

A number of professions, and a lot of people, are not well understood to the outside world. If I may draw on a bestseller that doesn't have or deserve respect in the academy, a car mechanic is probably very misunderstood. People think that a mechanic is someone who loosens bolts, moves assemblies aside, and replaces parts like fan belts. But from the inside, that's maybe 10% of what a car mechanic's job description. The lion's share of a mechanic's job description is to pin down, sometimes on faint, ambiguous, or confusing evidence, what is the root cause of a mechanical problem. It's the same thing as computer programmers developing, except that the mechanic is debugging a metallic mechanical system instead of code in a computer. The unappreciated car mechanic is one part automotive robot (that partially disassembles and reassembles cars) and nine parts sleuth (that uses clues to pin down the root cause of unwanted behavior--or lack of behavior).

If you don't like people not understanding some things that are very basic to you, what can you do to give others the understanding you seek but do not receive?

(P.S. If you'd like a bookworm's place to start, you might try Please Understand Me!)

protected by eykanal Jul 30 '15 at 2:39

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