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Feeling like a pariah (even when you’re not)

Jessica Hullman wrote this memoir of her interactions with the graphics and visualization research community, and one thing that struck me was this bit describing an event from 2011, when she was a graduate student:

There was one weird moment, though . . . I couldn’t help but notice a look of horror coming over the face of someone else at the table as we were talking. . . . It was an unsettling moment, because I sensed it was about me [Hullman]. But I had no idea who the person was or how it could be so urgent.

As I was boarding the plane headed back home, I saw an email from a friend, with a link in it, saying something like, you might want to read this. It was a very critical article about my paper . . . going through the argument point by point to dismantle it, and ultimately concluding it was nonsense. I remember thinking, this is the worst thing that could possibly happen to me. I would rather lose a friendship or be dumped by someone I really cared about than have someone attack my work. It felt a bit like the world was coming to take away the one thing I cared about.

In the weeks that followed, a few people in the visualization community wrote blog posts defending the paper, leading to a broader discussion in comments. I was again moved, this time by the fact that strangers were sticking up for my work, but hated being the topic of public discussion. My mentors pointed out that it’s unlikely that someone would write a scathing critique if what I said hadn’t seemed important. So I tried to shrug it off . . .

And then this from two years later:

That year I [Hullman] was presenting a paper from my work while interning at MSR on the role of sequence in interpretation of narrative visualization. Needing to present a paper in the main track made me realize that I was less over my 2011 criticism than I thought I was. I wanted to do research and see what others were doing, but I had no desire to get up and share anything of my own. I remember telling Robert Kosara at the conference how I was dreading presenting. He was encouraging, assuring me that the community accepted my work, after all they were publishing it. I very much appreciated these words, since somewhere in my mind I still saw myself as a pariah. . . .

All this reminded me vividly of my own feelings in the mid-1990s. At that point I was a young untenured faculty member, and I’d been involved in some research conflicts, including some unpleasant experiences (see part 1 here, for example), but overall I felt like my work was getting respected. But then I started getting the side-eye from the other professors in the statistics department where I worked. They were rude and dismissive about my research, they were telling Ph.D. students not to take my classes, and then a couple of them wrote a very negative promotion review, which was bad enough in itself but even worse in that their report had lots of false statements, which implied that they didn’t go to the trouble of reading my work carefully or were just ok with lying about it. At first I thought it was a good thing that they made these factual errors and unsupported claims, as I could refute them! I wrote a long letter in response and circulated it among the faculty, and they just didn’t care.

OK, things ended up just fine for me. My point is, after what happened in my department, I was really paranoid. I was sure that those coworkers who were ready to lie about me within the department were also going around the country poisoning everyone’s view of my work. A couple months after all this happened, a statistician from another university invited me to give a talk at some conference, and I was overcome with gratitude that at least one person, somewhere, wasn’t blackballing me.

It was a weird time. I still thought my work was good, and I liked my research collaborators, but it really felt like there was an effort going on behind my back to disparage me. It took awhile for that feeling to go away. So I understand what Hullman is talking about in the above-linked post, about feeling like a pariah and being grateful to people who just treated me like a normal person and not someone to be shunned.

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