Monday, November 05, 2007

Why academic marriages work.

There are many posts in the academic blogsphere regarding the difficulties of maintaining a two-academic marriage. I've complained about the two body problem myself in the past. But there are times when being in a significant relationship with a fellow academic - especially a supportive and intelligent fellow academic, comes into its own.

To set the scene: it's our last week in Japan. A week devoted, in theory, to traveling and relaxation. However, I've been waiting for some referees' comments regarding a proposal, and I know that the time frame is such that, as they hadn't turned up by the end of my working weeks in Japan, they were certain to arrive during the traveling week. SAO (Significant Academic Other) & I have just spent two days in the Yamagata mountains at a beautiful ryokan. All stresses and strains, and about four layers of skin, have been dissolved in the volcanic springs. We return for one last night in Sendai. One last night of guaranteed internet connection and a splendid meal in my favourite Sendai restaurant.

Of course I know that the referee's comments are bound to have arrived whilst we were away. The first law of Sod is global. I turn on, tune in and freak out: the reviews arrived two days before. One excellent (if brief) review, one with valid critique and one Total. Utter. Hatchet job. Responses soonest please.

I know that reviews to every funding proposal span this spectrum - and that the outliers are usually taken lightly by the panel. Nevertheless, this is the first proposal I've played a major part in, and I feel like someone's just called my baby a minger.

SAO takes one look and correctly diagnoses hatchet-jobbery. The PI, forwarding the reviews, warned that it was hatchet-jobbery. But I feel like someone's just landed me with a dirty punch and, boy, am I mad. I go on the offensive in the only way I know how - by honing arguments, fixing weaknesses and mustering support in terms of secondary sources. Pow, pow pow. Oh yes, I am a ninja.

With not a word of complaint, in fact with all alacrity, SAO agrees to a canceling of our indulgent "Sayonara Sendai" dinner in favour of some quick ramen from an "order at the vending machine" place. He also digs out a copy of his recent paper on an associated topic [1]. He spends dinner uncomplainingly letting me jab the air with chopsticks (and, in some messy cases, ramen), helping to channel my ire into constructive responses to all three reviews, and suggesting more succinct [2] ways of countering the criticism.

He then lets me keep him awake in the hotel room, in the least fun way possible, typing (and muttering) 'til late and waking early to review what I've written. He complains not one jot when I wake him with a "morning darling - read this before we catch the train", and then packs whilst I put on a final polish and send to the PI (who, because of his odd working hours, will be awake to receive it despite it being midnight in the UK).

Now I'm not saying that any other occupation would make SAO less supportive, nor am I saying that all SAOs are so supportive by nature. But I am saying that academics, in general, are: finely attuned to distinguishing hatchet-jobs from genuine criticism; much more likely to spend more energy responding to genuine criticism; unlikely to resort first and foremost to sympathising over the hatchet-job, preferring instead to demonstrate the fallacies on which it rests. They also understand the necessity of harnessing the creative and critical insights that a really good hatchet-job provokes.

[1] One I was all too pleased to cite, not only out of wifely pride, but also because said hatchet jobber expressed doubt that such work existed ("but as there is a citation suggesting the work is under review, let us for the moment accept that it is so"), or if it did that it would ever succeed, or be of interest (as well as the paper being published, the work has also garnered positive interest from the New Scientist, CNN, the BBC, National Geographic).

[2] And in some cases less succinct. After all, "so eat it, you arrogant fuckwit", is a succinct conclusion, but not constructive.

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