01 August 2014

Discordia and reconciliation

All’s well that ends well. So all that’s not ended yet can turn out well. My professional relationship with Roland isn’t over yet. So it’s too early to draw final conclusions on it. I hope it will end well! And faithful readers of the blog might now wonder why I doubt that at all; wasn’t all well, all the time? But no, it wasn’t. There were some hard times. But it looks like these are now behind us.
And why did nothing show up on the blog about this? Well, if you have friction with your boss, writing about it on your blog, of which you know the boss in question reads it, might not improve things. And additionally; if you apply for jobs, and your potential employers google you and read you are being frictional with your immediate superior, they might think you are difficult to work with and think twice about hiring you. Yes, reader, this blog is self-censored! And what you read now is the third version of the text. It takes people of more talent and boldness to publish any material that could jeopardise a job application. The job market is hard; for me ten others! So do I lie on the blog? No. Do I purposefully gloss over things? Oh yes. So why stop glossing now? And what was there to gloss over in the first place? 

Roland is a man with strong opinions. And these opinions have got him far; he has a chair and an impressive research output. What he does clearly works. But people like me might argue that he is a bit too inclined to think that his way is the only one that works. And that he needs to do whatever it takes to make other people see that and work in his way too.   

When I just started working with him, I knew little of sea level research. Under such circumstances it can be quite nice if there’s a chap there who tells you what to do. But one learns, one has a fresh look on things, and increasingly one can, and should, find one’s own path. It is important to be in control of one’s research as soon as possible. But the more I found my feet the more I ended up brushing with Roland. 

Things came to a head during a fieldwork in Sussex. I had written a draft of the infamous Iceland paper, and Roland had sent it back to me with corrections. Some weren’t corrections; erring is human so sometimes he just had the wrong end of the stick. Most of it was useful and constructive. And then some of it was a question of style. And style, in my opinion, is the first author’s territory. And first authors should be open to suggestions, and good arguments, of course, but I’d say in the end it’s up to them whether they use, for instance, split infinitives or not. I do admit I get recalcitrant if people order you to do things simply because they say so and have the power to make you. I’m perfectly happy be explained why I’m wrong and then change my ways, but “because I say so” in my book isn’t a valuable argument. And during that fieldwork, I told Roland I allowed myself the freedom to ignore style changes that didn’t come with an explanation and that I didn't agree with. It was the wrong time. I later found out he had stomach trouble at the time; his fuse was short that day. He raised his voice to a level I won’t easily forget and told me in no uncertain terms that the manuscript had to be exactly how he wanted it. And I didn’t try to fool myself that he wouldn’t have the power to enforce that. 

From that moment on, I wasn’t enjoying my job very much anymore. It’s not very nice to work hard on something, but to know you are given no responsibility whatsoever over that work. What I didn’t know was that Roland had not revealed his deep-thought vision, but just blurted something out in an impulse, and forgotten about it immediately after. 

I still had the thankless task of finishing the manuscript after all. It wasn’t much fun, as one can imagine. Even correcting misspellings and other evident errors in Roland’s edits was stressful; every character had to his liking, apparently, rather than correct. I didn’t fight for the more fundamental issues.  And then I got hired in Bangor, and left. I revelled in the newfound freedom! Although, of course, the manuscript was still looming. 

And then the cruise approached. Antony sensed that relations were strained, and knew I would be pretty much out of things for six weeks. He suggested the final edits would be done without me. Roland agreed, and sent me an email with the gist ”how have things got so bad?” And that was when things got better. And when things were brought into daylight, I figured I could mention things on the blog. And it remains a sensitive topic but the blog is very incomplete without this story. 

I explained I had struggled with his overbearing manner; with his making changes rather than arguing for changes, and I told of my failed efforts to bring this up and talk it out. And the turning moment on fieldwork. And to my relief he answered in a constructive way. And that was when he told me he did not remember anything of the crucial incident. What? But it did explain why he had not spoken up earlier; he had thought I had just spontaneously withdrawn. And he explained he felt responsible, as the Principal Investigator of the project, for every last comma of the project output. I could see his point, but I think he forgot to also be responsible for the people in the project. If these aren’t happy the project doesn’t benefit!

But by then, it had been a year during which I had not tried to resolve the situation because I figured I would only be yelled at, and he had not tried to resolve the situation because he figured I would just withdraw within myself. But it had possibly been solvable all that time. One learns. But it’s not too late. 

I answered with another long mail, explaining how I thought we could now proceed with both the manuscript and the ongoing collaboration (iGlass!) in a better way. I have not heard since. When I get off the ship I will have to submit the Iceland paper within days; communication then will therefore probably be rather pragmatic. But in September Roland is expected to visit Bangor as an external examiner for one of our PhD students. I think we’ll be able to go and get a pint and talk things out properly! And we will have differing personal styles forever, both regarding work and regarding dealing with our fellow men, but that should not mean we can’t combine these in harmony. I hope all ends well!

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