Thursday Night Dear Colleague Letter

Here’s a blog about something that happened today that’s kind of about me but also kind of not about me.  It’s hard to tell sometimes. 

Dear Colleague,

Good evening! We’ve worked together for a few years now. Today you sent an email to the Chair that described my work as “pathetic” and asked, “Do she otherwise contribute to the Dept? [sic])” Only you didn’t send it to the Chair of our department. You sent it to me. Oops!

The truly unfortunate thing about your error is that it brings forward my worst behavior, my “bad side” if you will, and you’ll see this demonstrated in a moment. Your email made me feel almost all teh feels. It made me defensive. “She do contribute!” I wanted to remonstrate, “Oh how she do!” Then I realized that there is nothing I can show that will convince either of us that I’ve done enough work and accomplished something good. I wasn’t raised to believe that about myself, and my guess is that you weren’t raised to believe that about me either. What a pickle.

Your email made me rageful. However much disgust you feel towards me is now reciprocated in the disgust that I feel towards you. I will remember both you and your words, to the detriment of us both. Wow. It wasn’t very ladylike of me to admit that, now was it? See, now I’m failing to absorb your contempt gracefully. Sigh.

Things are further deteriorating, because your email also made me think, and thinking is one of my worst behaviors. I thought about all of the times that I’ve gotten the clear message that I don’t belong in Science. Gee, your email was a love-letter compared to some of the stuff I heard as a student. And because I know I’m not special, I multiplied this by the number of women who work in Science. And because I know we’re not special, I multiplied this by the number of women who have left Science because, unlike me, they had at least one other option that looked better.

It made me wonder. “Why the f*ck are there any women in Science at all?” I keep asking myself. Is the price that I paid and keep paying worth it? I am sure that you believe that you’ve struggled during your career. Did you ever skip a holiday in order to meet a deadline? Me too! Did you ever spend a night in a Turkish police station trying to explain the concept of rape? No? Well, I did. It can really disrupt your field season, Boy howdy. I really wish that I could say that I am special in this respect. I know that I am not.

Your words impressed me. When I read them, I felt a tingle down my legs as my endocrine glands pumped fight-or-flight hormones into my quadriceps. I became physiologically prepared to run away from the university. Do you ever feel that way at your desk? When you read a paper that contradicts your findings? When you get a proposal rejected? Do the small disappointments of our calling threaten you viscerally, like a hunted animal who has recognized the smell of her predator? Could your career come apart like a sweater unraveling, one that you have knitted all of your life? No. Supposedly mine can’t either. But I feel as if it could. Gosh, your words have power.

Guess what, I did you a favor. I forwarded your email without comment on to its intended recipient, and I put you in the cc: field. I can explain to you how that works if you ask me nicely. I’m sorry for the awkwardness, but trust me, it won’t last. We’re just the latest contestants on everybody’s favorite game-show Let’s Pretend Nothing Happened! I’ll take print-it-out-and-shove-it-in-a-file for $400.

You didn’t ask for my advice, but I am going to give you some anyway: Learn to use your email. That “to:” field is not there just for decoration and I seem to remember “reply-all:” tripping you up more than once during the last few years. But don’t be discouraged, you’re way ahead of me. You’ve already learned how to type out what you really think and send it out into the world. I am just now learning how to do the same.

Sincerely Yours,

Hope Jahren

Why am I writing all this stuff? Because I can’t help it. You can read more about that here.