As I took a painkiller for a headache with my breakfast the other day, in advance of a first year lecture to 350 undergraduates, I was reminded of the words from the Yeoman of the Guard sung by the mournful jester, Jack Point:
Though your head it may rack with a bilious attack,
And your senses with toothache you’re losing,
Don’t be mopy and flat — they don’t fine you for that
If you’re properly quaint and amusing!
Though your wife ran away with a soldier that day,
And took with her your trifle of money;
Bless your heart, they don’t mind —
They’re exceedingly kind —
They don’t blame you — as long as you’re funny!
OK, the students don’t really want you to be funny, but they will complain if you are ‘mopy and flat’ and regardless of your state of health you have to get out there and deliver, keep them awake if not precisely entertained (though a good demo or two may even get some sign of appreciation).
As professionals we have to perform in our lectures under just about any circumstances; I even lectured when I had chickenpox caught from my children. In that case I did give the students the option of moving a few rows (even further) back in the lecture theatre if they wished, having taken medical advice as to how infectious I was likely to be. I have only once in my entire career dropped out of a lecture at the last moment, when essentially blind with the aura of classic migraine, making it impossible to see my notes or write on the overhead projector legibly (this predated Powerpoint). However, away from the lecture theatre we should be permitted to be human, to have factors that may weigh heavily on us which temporarily distract us from our normal even-tempered and creative state. Despite being scientists we still have families and personal circumstances that may get in the way of the high standard of ‘service’ we expect to be able to supply: to deliver, for instance, a rapid turn around on thesis chapters for our research students or to meet the deadline on refereeing imposed by journals. However, at times life (or worse, death) catches up with us and we should not feel obliged to try to soldier on without disclosing the pertinent facts to our colleagues.
A friend of mine recently wrote to me
I have to say, I think if more successful professors actually took on and faced up to family responsibilities, the academic world would be a much nicer place! We’re all humans first and foremost! Science can only ever be second to that, logically, though many of my colleagues have a damn good try at defeating that basic fact.
We should not forget our humanity, nor should we feel unable to explain to those we are letting down why we are being suddenly uncharacteristically ‘mopy and flat’ or indeed downright unreliable. And as supervisors of others, indeed as colleagues of others, we should likewise be aware of their own non-work-related pressures and be supportive. Ill health may strike any of us, or other members of our family. I am of the age where that horrid phrase ‘elder care’ becomes a reality, and I know many of my contemporaries who are having to face up to the associated anxiety combined with the need to make difficult decisions. For younger colleagues it may be teenage angst in their children that is keeping them awake, or the perennial crying baby that renders them tired and grumpy. All these things pass with time, but the creativity and ability to contribute to the life of the laboratory will return – unless a hostile environment drives people prematurely out.
So next time you feel like tearing a strip off a colleague for not delivering that report you were expecting, or chastising a student for failing to turn up to an important meeting with an industrial sponsor, check out the underlying reason before going on the attack. Once you have established the errant student merely had one hell of a hangover then it’s time to let loose, but if instead you find their grandfather has been rushed to hospital hold your fire. And go on holding fire until such time as that student has been able to re-establish internal equilibrium. And students, if your supervisor suddenly starts behaving as a zombie, don’t take it personally but try to work out if their baby is teething, their elderly mother has just had a stroke and been rushed into hospital or their wife has ‘run off with a soldier that day’. One of the more galling, if totally trivial examples of a lack of support in my own personal experience was when I told the senior examiner one year that I would not be able to fulfill all my examining duties because I was pregnant. His response sticks in my mind as just a trifle unsympathetic, ‘not again’ he said, as if I’d made a habit of being unreliable due to the vast number of my progeny (at that point they still numbered <2). In some senses that remark didn’t matter, but it was hardly supportive or encouraging.
The non-scientist out there may have a vision of us all as passionless machine-like lunatics, based on their vague ideas about Dr Frankenstein. We should know better that we are human and allow ourselves and those around us just occasionally to step back and catch breath as circumstances require.