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The Elevator… and Elevating

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I’m an introvert. I’m not much for small talk, and even though I want to talk to people, I’m very bad at it. When I meet people (or get my hair cut or meet people at a party or talk to teachers at the pre-school), conversations often go like this:

New Person: So what do you do?
Me: I’m a teacher.
New Person: What do you teach?
Me: Chemistry.
New Person: Oh. I loved my chemistry teacher! He was soooo weird and blew up stuff! OR Oh. I hated chemistry… no offense. You must be smart!

There are a few things wrong with this common-for-me conversation:

  1. I need to work on self-marketing and conversation skills in general.
  2. That the word “chemistry” automatically means smart (which is self-deprecating and harmful to the speaker).
  3. That being a teacher did not make me smart.
  4. The conversation ends quickly.

A few people have asked me what-could-I-possibly-like about teaching chemistry. Today, I (and my students) played with dry ice all day long, making it sublimate, change indicator colors, vibrate coins, and (of course) blow foggy bubbles. I do enjoy being the teacher that’s remembered for doing stuff with fire/explosives/danger. It’s pretty fantastic when you hear your group of 5-year-olds school somebody on non-Newtonian fluids. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a rise out of it, too. But these aren’t things to get a conversation going with strangers.

@Mythagon, besides having awesome link-mouseovers, says that instead of an elevator speech, teachers need an elevator question in order to draw people in and ignite conversations. Coincidentally, I saw this article posted on Twitter. And then this article on Brain Pickings, about Dan Pink and his ideas into becoming a better salesman. Put your own profession into mind before watching Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity in this (short but super interesting) animation.

It’s a bit of a different tact from Dr. Tyson’s art of a soundbite idea. Instead of just impressing someone (especially people who are probably not enamored with school, since most people aren’t), get them onto your side by getting them to talk first.

So what’s the question? I’ve tried, “Why didn’t you like chemistry?” but that sounds defensive, and the person is usually apologetic to me. There’s, “Well, science is just one kind of ‘smart.’ I can’t fix drains or perform concertos or even cut my own hair,” which just sounds patronizing. And “teaching is slightly less taxing than my past life of making explosives,” sounds like bragging. “Have you seen Cosmos?” doesn’t go far if they haven’t. But none of these elevate the profession of teaching, nor get really into why you like your job, nor get someone on your side.

And it’s hard to talk about science and math when most of the rest of the world doesn’t think they want to. Talking about teaching science seems like an insurmountable challenge.

But I do get paid to make silly putty and blow things up.


11 responses »

  1. Math and science both seem to get the ‘you must be smart!’ response. Or the response were the person nods and takes a step away from you (I kid you not, it’s happened to me). Thanks for the amplification on my post.

    Teaching has an insane PR problem and I agree that getting people into conversations about education is a massive hill to climb. But man, if I’ve gotta pick a hill to plant a flag on, it’ll be that one. Appreciate all conversations around this topic and I like the angle of ‘getting the person on your side’–I’d not thought of that directly yet. Things to ponder ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Definitely been there too. I work with chemicals.

      That’s what I liked about that RSA Animate bit, the making-the-other-person an expert, and you merely guide them in productive directions. Salesmanship.

      But, yeah. Don’t know where to start/go either.

  2. This is why I’ve developed tactics to avoid getting on the elevator with other people :p

    I work in biomedical research dealing with how iron plays a role in liver pathology. My actual work mostly boils down to homogenizing mouse liver tissue in order to examine differential protein expression in response to changes in dietary iron or other treatments. So when non-science people ask what I do, sometimes I’ll just take all the science out of it and simply say, “I make smoothies out of mouse liver.”

    It can draw some funny reactions, but “you must be smart” is never one of them, haha.

    Unfortunately, I still have difficulty explaining what I do to people who understand the science. Mostly due to the fact that I feel people generally don’t find what I do interesting and it really is a niche subject. No matter who I’m talking to I find myself attempting to move on from the topic quickly.

    So I guess I can relate to the need to work on self-marketing aspect that you mentioned as well.

  3. Is this a common problem with science/math people? A friend works in flu epidemiology (so I’ve actually heard about the mouse liver smoothie thing), but she tells her grandparents that she works on the flu vaccine. Partly so they understand something of what she does, but mostly so she doesn’t have to put very strange (to most people) techniques into a context they don’t know and don’t understand.

    So how much of this is a science/math literacy problem, and how much is it a PR problem?

    • I am also oddly familiar with liver smoothies, but my spouse works for the Jackson Laboratory so I kind of have an in to mouse work above the average bear.

      Science/math literacy is a problem as is PR. The double whammy of ‘smart’ fields and lack of engagement in many schools with actual science/math creates and uphill battle.

    • Well, I think the flu is something that is easily relateable to everyone. My work deals with diseases no one has heard of like hereditary hemachromatosis and iron deficiency anemia (even though IDA is common, the public generally doesn’t know what it is or why its bad). Then to explain why dysregulation (I may have just made up that word, sorry) of iron is a problem with these diseases I need them to have a basic understanding of oxidative stress, free radicals, etc…and it can just lead to exhausting conversations that the average person just will never understand without some foundation in biology and chemistry. They’re never going to care that much about iron biology anyway, and I don’t blame them. So it leads me to just kinda blow it off so we can all move on lol.

      On the other hand I have friends who do some very niche cancer research and they can just simply tell people they work in cancer research, its not an obscure topic and people care about it.

      I think it really comes down to how relateable and simple you can make it. Some topics, like mine, are difficult to handle in that respect. Science literacy is definitely a problem. We need more people teaching in schools that can make it interesting. I personally didn’t care at all about science until I started learning about it myself after high school. I also think the language in science is a barrier gets unnecessarily complicated/boring, where it can certainly be simplified.

      I think its improving though, its getting to be “cooler” to learn about science and we do have great science communicators like Niel Degrasse Tyson making progress on the front lines. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • I should add that one of my favorite Chemistry professors from college was the guy who performed the dangerous explosions and stuff (it wasn’t based entirely on that as he was someone that genuinely was enthusiastic and cared about the students). Anyway, it sounds like you’re doing great work as a teacher. Going back to my original thought, those “dangerous” experiments give them tangible reasons to care about what’s going on. I don’t remember having science teachers like growing up.

      • So if you “didn’t care at all about science” until after high school, and have already blown off people who aren’t “going to care that much about iron biology anyway”, is this a problem for you or a problem with science literacy.

        That sounded really harsh, but at some point, I feel like a lot of science/math people just blow off the general population (or should that be, the prospective audience?) as not knowing and not being able to know about topics so why bother.

        What if you had to describe your work to, not your grandmother, but your friend’s grandmother? What would you say? And why should she care?

      • Its a problem both with me and science literacy. I can’t say which of those is a bigger contributor to the problem. I feel that I’m a horrible communicator and I probably would not be able to explain it to anyone’s grandmother. I should clarify a bit and say that If someone expresses genuine interest then I’m not going to blow them off and I’m more than happy to explain things to the best of my ability. However, that doesn’t happen often. Otherwise, I feel like I’m pushing the science talk on them, which often draws blank stares and nods. At that point it does feel like I’m wasting energy. Its part of the introvert in me too viewing the conversation as small talk, the combination of all those factors have me choosing avoidance often.

        I’m all too aware of my strengths and weaknesses and its why I’ve never considered academia as a profession. I have too much respect for the job and I know I’m not the type of person who could be effective at it…even though that doesn’t seem to stop some people.

        I’m working on my flaws though. The reason I started my own science blog was part of an effort to improve my communication skills while looking at topics that people are interested where misinformation is abound, and expanding my own knowledge on those topics in the process.

      • It sounds like you need your own soundbites. Yes, working on cancer stuff is something that most outsiders totally understand. But cancer research is such an enormous topic, that it can’t be that accurate… that’s their cop-out answer so that others won’t ask anything else.

        Rather than say you work with mouse smoothies (it’s your cop-out answer: just shuts others down, because… ew), why not say something along the lines of studying iron and liver processes (I’ve no idea if that’s accurate for your work or not).

      • Soundbites would be helpful. Sometimes I wish I could just pull out a pre-made PowerPoint presentation.

        But for me the flow of conversation is highly dependent on the situation. I usually don’t start out with smoothies, and only sometimes go there, mostly if I know the person well enough to know how they’ll react. I’ll start with nearly the exact line you suggested to gauge interest…and THEN go to smoothies when I see the disinterest. ๐Ÿ˜›

        Actually, in that case I’m more likely to follow up with “it’s difficult to explain but that’s the gist of it.” I get your point though and I don’t disagree. There are better ways of dealing with it, regardless of the level of understanding the general public has of the sciences (or perhaps the level of understanding we perceive in the public).

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