Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This page written circa 27 March, 2008 .

Kay has complained recently that I sometimes make her feel stupid. It goes without saying that I am not doing this deliberately. Indeed, a man might be tempted to attribute such a perception to some female instinct for self-deprecation---I am acquainted with persons of the female persuasion renowned for their ability to interpret events in the most critical possible way. Unfortunately there is further evidence.

Some two decades ago I started getting students to fill out anonymous feedback forms in my classes. This was novel in Sydney University Engineering in the 1980s, though it is mandatory and formalised now from USyd to UoW. I forget the wording, but a message that I got from those forms was that I left some students feeling stupid. I had no idea what was causing it then, and I still don't.

One's first inclination is to rationalise this away. After all, I am supposed to look fucking clever. I make my livelihood from knowing a lot of stuff and standing around trying to make it look easy in classes and labs. In these days of impoverished academia, a number of people are employed to do this and are getting away with it knowing a whole lot less than I do, which only makes me look better. My mother described me as her little diamond---brilliant but hard---and I have always been a bit of a know-it-all. It is easy to look smart when you have a head start, so is it not to be expected that a few people might feel overwhelmed?

However, the effect is rather worse than simple intellectual comparison. I am leaving people with the impression that I am annoyed or disappointed in their performance. I put Kay down, or at least I leave her with the impression that is what I am trying to do.

Have you ever watched "Doc Martin"? I am afraid I identify with this character so I love this wonderful program. It is about a first-class surgeon who winds up being a GP in a small seaside village in Cornwall. He is a medical powerhouse with all the bedside manner of a stereotypical surgeon, i.e., zip, zilch, and nada. He tends to say at once what needs to be said, on the theory that truth justifies the delivery. If you don't like what he has to tell you, it is your problem because he is right. Of course the townsfolk know he is a medical tour de force, and given this village has medical problems of greater statistical improbability than the crime in Midsummer Murders, they develop a grudging appreciation of him in spite of the blunt directness. I think I am doing a Doc Martin, but it ought not to account for people feeling put down... or does it?

I am assured by Kay, acting as a clearing house for comments, that the above two instances are not isolated. I would like to address this problem. Therefore I need your help, dear reader: If I have ever done this to you, please help me figure out what I am doing that leads to this. If you wish to comment anonymously, contact Kay.

Joan Norton: Look, Marty, you do realise that the villagers are dusting off their pitchforks, don't you?
Dr. Martin Ellingham: Yes. Exactly how many generations ago did the inbreeding start with these people?

PS: Thanks to all for your feedback. I have most significantly observed that Martin Ellingham's position represents laziness. His peremptory, staccato manner may reflect wisdom, respect and truth, but it does not include what many expect in social exchange: Time taken to allow for and avoid unintended negative interpretations that can be placed upon facts alone. I'll work on providing that.

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