So, in my improv class we had a few exercises about status, discussing how to portray status differences in a scene and what sort of status combinations or changes can be funny and why. We had to do scenes with assigned status levels, and in one scene I was supposed to have the highest status. I really shocked myself by defaulting to criticism to show that I had high status! The class talked about the scene afterward, and described my behaviour as very aloof and impossible to please, but successfully high-status. It made me physically uncomfortable to act that way, and I felt kind of horrible afterward hearing people describe how I'd acted (in a scene!). But that’s what I went for as the most obvious way to demonstrate status. Some of the people after me who were highest status in their scenes were nicer about it, delegating and being gracious while being obviously dominant, and we also talked about how a person can confer high status onto others. It also made me think about softer forms of power, the sort that don’t involve constantly asserting that you are the one in charge.
The day after we did these status exercises, I went with a friend to eat lunch in the college’s faculty dining room. I thought it would be really cool to see, but then as it turned out a lot of the scene was older white male faculty members all trying to assert status. Wow. I signed up for this improv class with a friend and she had warned me that I would be seeing improv everywhere afterward, but yes, so much of what we do is about status! Or to be more precise, so much of what people do that I dislike is about status.
And in science, the criticism as status thing really bothers me in part because I feel it quashes a lot of creative scientific endeavors. Sure, it can be quick and easy to find fault. But that’s also the safest and most conservative route, which ignores a lot of clever and interesting stuff. I think scientists also tend strongly to dismiss things that are non-quantifiable as unimportant, which is how you end up with so many poorly communicated papers and talks, and also is a big part of why scientists are quick to trash science communication and outreach. If you exert status by fact-checking and criticism, why bother with anything else? Obviously, I think this is a very limiting way to approach things and total bullshit, but it has a lot of traction.
But if you are actually interested in contributing to something worthwhile, this is not the way to do criticism. I love to criticize in the sense that I love analysing things, trying to see them as a whole whole from all angles, trying to get where they work and where they don’t. Which means that when I give feedback, I like to emphasize the stuff that seems to work along with the trouble spots I have found. It’s very rare that I find a theory, a piece, an idea that I disagree with every part of, so this balanced approach to criticism is the most natural one for me. But I will say, when I realize that someone else is viewing discussion as a competition, I can have a hard time not trying to win. Which is to say, I sometimes buy into the status values that other people put on things, even though I don’t really want to, because of my own ego. I’m hoping to get better at this, in science and in other contexts. In improv as in life.