Over at In the Middle, Karl says that one of his “least favorite questions” is to be asked if he’s read all the books on his bookshelves. (And Jeffrey follows up that post with a series of pictures of readers’ bookshelves — he’s asking for contributions — including one belonging to yours truly. So far everyone has a copy of Getting Medieval, but only I have a Quentin Tarantino action figure.) Anyway, back to Karl’s post. He concludes the post this way:
If you’re in a talkative mood, let’s talk about the least favorite questions we get as readers and/or academics. If you’re feeling generous or humane, turn off the irritation and wonder at the questions. Do what you do best and
I don’t mean to hijack his idea and bring it over here, but the conversation over there has taken a different kind of turn. (Given that it was inspired by the documentary Derrida, that’s not really surprising!) So I thought I’d post my response here, especially since mine’s not a simple one-liner.
One commenter mentioned that he hates getting asked for book recommendations, and I have to concur that that’s a problematic one for me, too. It fills me with dread and anxiety, because I assume the person wants a good contemporary novel and I have to say I haven’t read as many of those as I’d like. (I still have The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay sitting forlornly on my shelf waiting for me to turn back to it. It calls to me every summer and says, “You know you want to! At least I’m not as long as a Pynchon novel! And I’m a whole lot more lovable!”) But I do read a lot of hard boiled detective fiction and historical mysteries, so if they like anything in the mystery genre, I can recommend something. If not, I’m stuck. (Although I did read The Nanny Diaries on a plane once and found it quite charming. Really!)
So that question throws me for a loop. And can I tell you, it’s especially NOT the question I want to answer when I’m getting my annual exam at the gynecologist’s office. Seriously. (Hm, maybe I should have suggested she pick up a copy of the latest issue of Speculum. Hahahahaha! OK, dumb medievalist joke. Apologies to the non-medievalists out there.)
But the questions that really, really, really perplex me are the ones that I get because I’m a medievalist — the ones that start with popular misinformation about the Middle Ages and base the whole point of the question on those false assumptions. It’s the “where do I start with that?” question. I got one of those at the talk I gave last week. It started with, “I’d always learned that the reason that nothing changed for centuries in the Middle Ages was because [insert something about the Church here, of course], and so….” At that point, I nearly started to panic, thinking, “Oh god, where do I start with how wrong that is?” But it turned out that what he was actually asking (the “and so” part) was something more concrete and local and provided a “teaching moment” about the differences between popular topics for sermons and actual lived lives. The rest of his question is what I answered, ignoring that introduction — or actually, completely rewriting the assumptions of the first part productively. So that one I could handle.
But often, they come with so many things wrong with them, I don’t know where to start. It’s one thing if you’re in the classroom — or people are there to hear you speak about your field of expertise — but if it’s the guy sitting next to you in the plane, it’s really hard to walk that line between cheerful, “Actually, I’m delighted to be able to tell you that that’s actually a myth/misperception” and coming across as a pedantic asshole. Most of the time I think I do the former, but it takes such work and fills me with such angst. Which is not to say that I mind the questions — heck, I once convinced a guy on a plane of the value of studying the past and of the liberal arts in the general, so it’s all worth it — but once in a while I wish I didn’t have to be “on” all the time. At least it beats the response many of us in English get — the “Oh, I better watch my grammar around you, then.”
So, I’ll broaden Karl’s question: in your line of work (academic or otherwise) what questions from non-specialists or the general public do you find difficult to deal with and why?