Yes, I’ve got tenure, but more than that I’ve been at this job for ten years and have achieved some level of success at it, if you’re defining success in terms of being invited to give talks and share your research and your perspective and that sort of thing. And oh man, has this been tough for me. Tough in a learning-all-new-sorts-of-skills kind of way.
Like last fall I got invited to go and talk at a huge convention for petroleum engineers. The room I was speaking to wasn’t that big but the convention has thousands of people at it and I was on the first-ever panel for corporate social responsibility, and I’m scared and unsure of petroleum engineers in general and didn’t know what it would be like. Also, I get really bad stage fright. Not every time. In fact, nine times out of ten I think I’m a pretty good presenter—I try to be engaging, to tell stories, to have well-designed slides. But one time out of ten I get a horrible case of the nerves and my voice shakes and my knees knock and it’s a disaster.
And I never know when that time is going to be. Which in itself is nerve-wracking. When I spoke at the conference, it was great. The anxiety beast didn’t appear, I gave a good talk, it led to more offers to speak and write articles and collaborate. Good.
It has also forced me to get more clear about who I want to work with, and to what ends. Good.
In the meanwhile I’ve gone after the presenting thing head on, primarily by teaching my own students how to present, and then forcing myself to model it for them. All this is also terrifying and difficult, but has been helpful and I’ve gotten better and a bit more confident.
But still. The petroleum engineers. I think it’s because—in my head—they can be mean. There is a fraternity-kind of thing going on when groups of them get together. And it’s mostly young men. They hoot and holler and heckle. And also, most do not give a shit about the kinds of things I give a shit about: environmental issues, social justice, deliberation. Which doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do the work. But it feels like a personal risk to talk about it with them, for sure. Maybe having tenure now will start to wear away at the feeling a bit.
And there’s the fact that the oil and gas industry is a big, nasty player in one of the biggest threats facing our planet, namely climate change.
At the same time, I’ve taught petroleum engineers for a long time, and many of them are good kids, and they are in fact interested in these issues, and they work hard in my classes, and I learn from them. Energy and environmental crises and what to do with them are complicated, too. So I always have to hold both of these things in my head when I work with them: my fear and anger, and the fact that they’re human, and they’re students, and they have things to teach me.
But then I got invited to speak again in one of their classes this week, and it was a terrible experience. I got in there and half the room of 150 student had laptops open (and it clearly wasn’t to take notes). I’m typically pretty good at classroom management, so I asked them to close their computers so we could share the hour together. I proceeded with my talk being as lively and engaging as I could, but I could tell that my request didn’t go over well. I think at that moment, in fact, a number of them decided they would ice me.
Then, to make things worse, I got that student you get some times, that student who is articulate, speaks very quickly, knows just enough political theory to be dangerous, and who is typically an ideologue intent on getting me to talk about my position on market economics even when I’m talking about something entirely different. You put up with it for a little while and endure his being cheered on by a loud but small group of fellow students who are excited to punish me for 1) making them close their laptops, 2) asking them to think about the social impacts of fracking, and 3) daring to exist when they clearly have senioritis, jobs, and just want to get the fuck out of their university.
I mean, I did okay. Much better than I would have done ten years ago. I got some emails from students thanking me for being there, and the instructors were gracious after, too. I made some points, kept my cool. But I was shaky by the end of it, for sure. The lack of civility, the combativeness, the disrespect.
What to make of it.
A few days later I boarded a plane to Virginia to talk about fracking again—a colleague had invited me to participate on a panel with a few other experts on energy policy and to judge a student debate on fracking. I’m writing this post from the plane and reflecting on going into another situation that is completely foreign to me and therefore scary.
Again, I’m out of my element. I edited my high school yearbook and played sports. I was never on the debate team. And now I’m going to be a judge alongside Al Gore’s right-hand man and Giuliani’s right-hand man. I’ve taught energy policy for a few years, but I’m not a wonk. I have some ideas that are some times hard to verbalize and which don’t always make sense and which I’m still working through. So on the one hand I’m pretty sure I know nothing and will be exposed as a fraud.
On the other hand, when I’m pretty sure I know nothing, I get to work and enter research mode: I ordered a book on debate, thinking that would help my ignorance. If I would have, I would have read an entire library of research on fracking. Just, you know, to make sure I know everything.
Still--in line with my increasing awareness of when things don't feel right--falling back on researching in order to know didn’t feel like the right move, either.
Then it occurred to me that what I needed was a book on courage, and I remembered that Brene Brown does work on courage and vulnerability and bought this book instead, which is about how to be, not what to know (and is wonderful, by the way. You should buy it. Right. Now.). Lo and behold she told a story at the beginning of that book pretty much like mine, where she gave a talk to a really hostile audience (she only found out why later) but just barreled through rather than figuring out what was going on. Here is what she says:
The second the talk ended, I grabbed my stuff and ran-walked to my car. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, my face was growing hotter. I felt small and my heart was racing. I tried to push back the instant replay of me acting crazy, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The shame storm was brewing.
When the shame winds are whipping all around me, it’s almost impossible to hold on to any perspective or to recall anything good about myself. I went right into the bad self-talk of God, I’m such an idiot. Why did I do that?
The greatest gift of having done this work (the research and the personal work) is that I can recognize shame when it’s happening. First, I know my physical symptoms of shame—the dry mouth, time slowing down, tunnel vision, hot face, racing heart. I know that playing the painful slow-motion reel over and over in my head is a warning sign.
I also know that the very best thing to do when this is happening feels totally counterintuitive: Practice courage and reach out! We have to own our story and share it with someone who has earned the right to hear it, someone whom we can count on to respond with compassion.
Brown talks about calling her sister after for that connection (I called N.—thank you, N.!), but it also occurred to me that Brown, and I, could have done more in the moment of the talk itself. Yes, the students were being rude, and no, I didn’t really want to engage the ideologue and have my lecture derailed. But it might have been interesting to take a time out from my presentation and to ask what was really going on in that room. To call on the quiet but attentive students and to have them explain things to me. To break and regroup with the course instructors to address the issues I was seeing.
That would have been better, I think. That would have been more courageous. And it would have modeled a more present, respectful communication than I enacted myself. Sure, it might have backfired. But now I’ll never know.
Doing that requires being more present in the moment and being more vulnerable. So that is my plan for Virginia. Stay present. Pay attention. Acknowledge vulnerability. Connect in the moment.