On being (politely) called a pain in the a$$

I was talking to a friend the other day about the fact that both of us throughout our careers have often been described by others as “outspoken,”  “willful,” or even “intimidating.”  For example, at a talk I gave a few weeks ago, I was introduced by a (male) former professor as “one of the two most willful graduate students” he’s ever worked with.  This was extremely disarming–first of all, because that’s not my memory of my graduate school self*, and secondly, because of course my instinct was to argue with this characterization, although that would only have ratified his judgment of me as “willful.”  (Game, set, and match to the former professor before I even opened my mouth!)

My friend–also a white woman, also exactly my age, also middle-class, and also supposed to be a “nice girl” from the suburbs–told me a similar story about how at the conclusion of a two-year postdoc, she was introduced by the (male) director of the granting organization as someone who really “shook things up” around the place and got up in their grills about various issues.  What could she say after an introduction like that?  Once again, shutting up is the only way you can go.  You can’t argue with him without proving him right.

Now that I’m further along in my career, I don’t get called “willful” by the people I work with.  (My friend pointed out that “willful” is only an adjective she would use in describing a child’s behavior, not that of a colleague or a graduate student.)  These days I get called “intimidating” by some colleagues and my students.  I don’t think they mean it as an insult–I actually think most of them mean it in a complimentary way, so it bothers me less than being called “willful.”  But, still–there’s an implication that being “intimidating” is something unexpected or unusual.

*My memory of grad school is of a year of uninterrupted trauma and depression** followed by two years of increasing confidence in my work (and meeting Fratguy along the way.)  I took my exams at the end of my third year and then got the hell out of Philadelphia, and my life improved dramatically.

**Yes, “trauma and depression.”  What else can you call an exploitative and dishonest love affair, rumors circulated by my classmates who didn’t have fellowships (I was funded) that I was plagiarizing my own senior thesis for my first-year research paper, followed by actually being hit by a car after getting off a bus.  (I had to call a friend to come over and help me get undressed to get in the bathtub that night.  I couldn’t lift my left arm for months, but managed to get myself dressed and teach three T.A. sections the following day.)  I read all of Jane Austen’s novels that winter and cried randomly throughout the day–being an ordinarily very happy person, I was unable to recognize the signs of depression I was obviously manifesting.  Needless to say, I don’t remember having the time or energy to be all that “willful” with respect to my coursework and teaching assignments!

26 thoughts on “On being (politely) called a pain in the a$$

  1. I don’t hear “willful” as strongly gendered or as a put-down. Rather, what it suggests to me is that your former professor may, at the time he was mentoring you, have felt frustrated by your determination to go your own way and follow your own instincts, perhaps at times before his advice. However, it also sounds to me as if this is combined with a genuine fondness for you and pride in the career you’ve earned. Indeed, I even see such an intro. as slightly self-deprecating to the introducer, in so far as it seems to suggest that he may have resisted your “willfulness” at the time, but since you’ve done so well, in hindsight he realizes that he should have trusted you more.

    Just my take, without knowing must about the situation at all.


  2. Squadrato: thanks. I think he meant it as a kind of compliment–just one that was completely disarming to me. The other “most willful” graduate student he mentioned me in the company of is a man about 20 years older than me who’s a very eminent scholar, so it was certainly a very flattering comparison (for me, anyway. Probably not so much for the senior eminent scholar!)


  3. I can’t think of a time I’ve heard anyone use willful except in reference to a child’s behavior, so I’m a little less sure that it is such a banal way to describe someone. At the very least, it suggests a paternalistic relationship to one’s graduate students.

    This strikes me as the kind of ‘compliment’ that make life difficult for women and people of color — gee you’re great, but let me remind you of your inferiority/dependency/previous failings. Kindly of course, and with a smile.

    It reminds me of a recommendation letter about an African American colleague I once read: the (eminent historian) writer talked all about how he was afraid it was a mistake to admit this person to grad school, but gee, the person eventually proved them wrong! Uh, thanks for reinscribing subservience in the guise of giving a compliment.


  4. Younger LadyProf does “willful”: When I was 22, I found myself at a lunch table with four other people and the actor Cliff Robertson. My closest-ever brush–not exactly close–with Hollywood celebrity. Robertson was gracious and affable. At the end of the meal he smiled, looked me in the eye, and said, “Keep tilting at those windmills.” I have no idea what that meant. I’d said almost nothing over the two hours. I think he was referring to my lack of makeup and full set of eyebrows.


  5. Heh. I don’t know how old you are LadyProf, but back when I was in college (late 1980s/early 90s), no one wore makeup and no one had waxed eyebrows. (It was a pretty hairy aesthetic, but it sure worked for me, as I didn’t even shave my legs then.) I’m sure that from that vantage, the women of today look like they’re depilated like plucked chickens.

    “Keep tilting at those windmills” sounds like the kind of faux-deep thing an actor (or other campus visitor/special guest?) would say to someone to whom he was trying to be nice but didn’t really have anything else to say.

    In college, I once met Garrison Keillor, as his step-daughter was a fellow student. Talk about a guy who needs to groom his eyebrows. . .


  6. I get called intimidating, too, these days, which is funny considering I’m a woman of average height who’s given to smiling a lot. Apparently, self-assurance and speaking up does qualify one for “intimidating’ status.

    However, one of my male colleagues has it worse. Students are intimidated by him on sight. All he has to do is walk into a classroom, widen his eyes and lift an eyebrow for some of them to swear that he breathes fire!

    I’m sorry for your horrible time in grad school residency. It’s a good thing when you can get the hell out of Dodge (or Philly as the case may be).


  7. I have been called intimidating since birth and it has been a criticism. I have just now decided to take it as a compliment, and to stop trying to rein that characteristic in.


  8. I’ve been called intimidating too. Funny, cause I’m terminally shy and have crippling social and general anxieties that make it impossible for me to say anything in most situations. Recently a sister-in-law explained that when I do talk, it’s intimidating. I have no idea if she was referring to the shock of me actually speaking or to the content.


  9. ‘Intimidating’ and ‘willful’ are adjectives that get applied to me, as well as ‘snobby’ and ‘elitist’. In reality, I’m painfully shy and rarely speak except when I have something important to say.

    I wonder if this is a common way for people to interpret academics. We’re a kind of shaman- we hold esoteric (or at least, really unusual) knowledge that we acquire through a ritualized initiation process, and we have the power to grant status to others (through grades and degrees). So when we speak up, we’re intimidating and willful, and when we’re quiet, we’re elitist and mysterious. Because the shaman is never just a quiet basket case or a loudmouth asshole.


  10. My mother has told me that I don’t “handle criticism well.” What? How do you respond to that w/o out sounding defensive and unable to take criticism? Especially since what I think she really means is “you are not doing what I want you to do.”


  11. I get told “You’re not a pain in the ass [or strident, or abrasive, or difficult] like X.” I don’t take it as a compliment. I take it to mean “You are performing femininity adequately and therefore I will call upon you for tasks that no one else wants to do.” It has been for a few years my stated goal to make myself enough of a pain in the ass in my department that people will stop asking me to do things, and I think I’m succeeding.


  12. That’s funny LadyProf. I once found myself at a dinner table with a famous filmmaker who asked politely about my work and then switched topics, going on and on about how a woman could tell from miles away that a man was a real man, by the way he operated heavy machinery. It was difficult to know what to make of it but I figured he’d been thinking about that all day in the cinematic context and it just seemed natural to share it.

    I think much of what people say in incidental conversation fits into this “huh?” category. We have some train of thought chugging along down the line and then suddenly we are required to switch tracks. Stuff falls out of the boxcars.

    Long ago I was interviewed for a job as part of a pool that included two women. A few months later I crossed paths with a member of the committee in a professional setting. He looked at me as if he knew he should know who I was and then informed me that I was one or the other of the two women who had applied for that job.


  13. @Historiann: I don’t know which former professor you’re talking about, but I think I can guess–I believe it is someone I worked with in grad school as well. Thus, you might like this anecdote. I once participated in a seminar with a Very Senior, Very Eminent Scholar who directed the dissertation of our mutual (Historiann’s and mine) professor. I had to ask Professor Very Senior and Eminent: what was it like having him as a graduate student. The response: “The most willful student I ever had. And so damned Jesuitical!” So, Historiann, that may well either been intended as a compliment, or might have been an unintentional form of projection.

    @shaz: This said professor in question (again, assuming I am guessing Historiann’s former teacher correctly) once told me that he believed that training graduate students was *exactly* like raising children and that he used exactly the same strategies for both. (He had a permissive style in both instances.)


  14. No wonder you grew up to be a pain in the a$$ after that first year in grad school. That was definitely worse than mine, where I ran out of money and in order to eat became a bike messenger for a film company.

    Should we give a willfulness workshop at the Berks as a professional development thingie? I am so psyched to see you.


  15. I get, “You’re awfully nice for an economist” and, “You’re not as scary as most economists”

    I wonder if there’s something wrong with me…

    And man, my sympathies with grad school. I didn’t have half so many reasons to be depressed, but I was anyway!


  16. Yeah, there’s something about being done wrong and reacting accordingly (whether it be with crippling depression or boiling rage or both at the same time) that turns the female victim into a willful, insubordinate ingrate. I know this dynamic well. My grad school experience has also been hellacious, and until this year, when my colleagues find themselves without jobs and are suddenly on the bandwagon of how there’s something wrong, I was the ungrateful pain in the ass who wouldn’t allow others to enjoy the lovely time they were all having and that I deserved. (I’m exaggerating somewhat, but only somewhat.)

    It’s amazing how that works: speaking up about mistreatment, refusing to accept the BS, and you become an unfeminine, emasculating woman who won’t find a man unless you femme up and become more damsel-in-distress. (Also something I’ve been told, by a gay man who should know better.)


  17. I’m struck by how most of the accusations of willfulness seem to be coming from male advisers. But I also think it is interesting that male graduate students and male professors also get called willful, or when they grow up intimidating. I had a female adviser, who never, as far as I know referred to her students in such terms. I also have been called an intimidating professor, but when I compare myself to the males who has similar reputations, I noticed the bar is set low for women–all you have to be is smart and authoritative.


  18. “I noticed the bar is set low for women–all you have to be is smart and authoritative.” Word.

    I guess what I also find striking is that calling someone “intimidating” is a way of shifting the responsibility for one’s reaction to a person onto that person, assigning hir responsibility for others’ choices about how to feel. I have found some people in my life intimidating–but I assumed that it was my problem to figure out if I needed to work with them productively.

    I guess I really bristle at the word sometimes, because I was once informed by a Dean that I had to understand that I was “intimidating” to people in my department, although I was untenured, and also the youngest and most junior person there. IOW, I was charged with fixing people’s reactions to me although that’s the complete opposite of how power really works.


  19. I’ve frequently been called intimidating by students in end of semester evaluations. (And I am so goofy in class!) I think Katherine’s point about smart and authoritative is on target, as is Ruth’s about performing femininity adequately. I really think, at least in my context, they go together: “intimidating” codes “smart and authoritative” in conjunction with “not maternal.”


  20. yes, I think not maternal is key, and it has different significance if you are a not maternal male vs. a not maternal female. In general I think it is better to be an intimidating male than female. And Historiann I think you are right it is about shifting responsibilities away from the person who is intimidated.


  21. I’m ‘intimidating’ as well (though, like Janice, am often smiling, and like Sensible, rarely go for long without cracking a joke). I’m pretty sure it’s about the confidence, which is ironic given that, much to my dismay, I appear to have something of a complex about this. I do my best to be vigilant but still catch myself in mid-execution of wholly unnatural vocal and grammatical contortions, the result of attempts by the command center’s attempts to avoid ‘making’ people feel that way. This is rarely done convincingly, because it’s not who I am.

    (Minus the particular details, my grad school trajectory was very similar. Pain and misery, growing success, getting the hell out and on to life.)


  22. @ John S. So, Historiann being only one of the *two* most willful students in the second generation could be sort of used as another proof for the old “declension” formula we thought we had done with hearing? 🙂

    The “permissive” adverb resonates with my recollection of the experience in the same shop in a different era than either you or Historiann. The “Jesuitical” one not so much, or not at all, but then I’m not sure I ever knew what that term of art referred to.


  23. I’m an (female) undergraduate history major right now and I think many many of my professors are intimidating but selectively so. By that I mean, one professors loved anyone that spoke Polish, but I, do not, so I was often referred to wikipedia when I asked a question. I will admit that I find most of my male professors intimidating while my female professors and TAs generally are more approachable (and I, therefore, go to their office hours more). But I have had really wonderful and easy to talk to professors, both male and female.

    What I think makes someone intimidating is if they think you are stupid. By that I mean, the Polish lover made it clear that he thought I was stupid (once describing a thesis to me as an “argument,” like I was 2 years old) and he was, therefore, intimidating to me. While other professors allow me to ask questions and don’t look at me like a moron, I tend to think of them as less intimidating. So, for me it’s not really a male or female thing but rather if I leave feeling as if the person thinks that I am not totally mentally deficient.


  24. Pingback: Gender and performance in grad school : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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