When you are the expert in the room

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

This a “what should we do” question, but a fairly specific one.

Recent discussions, particularly Restore meritocracy in CS using an obscure functional language , have left me thinking “this still doesn’t say what it would be helpful for people like me (white male with computing experience starting early) to actually do about it”. Just saying to avoid the viewpoint that this reflects enthusiasm or innate ability isn’t very specific, but the discussion seemed to finish around that point.

The answers will probably be different in different contexts. For example, how about in class? The best I can think of is “don’t be eager to answer the lecturer’s questions to the class, but let someone else go first”. Would that help? Is that enough, in that context? But if you give the lecturer the impression you’re not knowledgeable, but then do well in the written exam, you can invite suspicion of cheating in the exam (this definitely happens). Or should you even make deliberate wrong answers, to lower your apparent expertise? I’d find that horribly condescending if I knew someone was doing it towards me.

And in a professional context, if you know the answer to a colleague’s question (or on a mailing list, to any question), but you hold back on it to let someone else answer, you’re holding back the asker from getting on with whatever raised the question. But is that less important than letting others answer? (I suspect it depends on the group or list concerned.)

And a branch of that one, relevant in my present job, in which part of my role in the team is specifically to be the experienced programmer who can answer people’s questions, how is it best to handle that?

And in a seminar, should you hold back in a discussion if you have advanced ideas, so as not to scare the less confident? But then, you’re not making your best technical contribution.

The most extreme suggestion I’ve seen (only once, I think) is that geeky men should get out of computing altogether, to make it more comfortable for others to get in. In which case, a big source of potential mentors would be lost.

And do the same suggestions apply to female experts?

So, I’m stumped on this and can’t contribute any significant answers, but I hope the questions are useful for discussion.

There was some discussion among the cob-loggers about whether and how to answer this question. But there was always lots of confusion about this on the LinuxChix lists while I was subscribed (I haven’t been for a few years now), men who genuinely wanted to in some way to address gender issues in computing but the only strength they saW in themselves was their expertise, and when it was suggested to them that displaying this at every opportunity was at best annoying and at worst harmful they were completely at a loss. So I think an answer is genuinely useful.

Important note: this answer is aimed at privileged people (in this context, generally men with a good technical background) hoping to check their privilege and keep it on a short leash. If you are a woman reading this, it’s entirely possible the reverse applies to you in geeky environments: you might be wanting to learn how to have more confidence in your expertise and how to inspire confidence in others. Some of these techniques might be useful to you at some times when you want to help others learn, but this answer isn’t really intended for you.

Important note 2: from here on, “you” refers to the general you, the person who want to encourage/support/etc women but is struggling to see how to do it without being dishonest about your own abilities, not necessarily “you” the person who asked this specific question. I’ve seen this a lot, so I want to try and address it in general. I’m generally going to assume that the relative expertise of the question asker is in fact a correct assessment but you should question whether you are really the expert or whether you’re partly benefiting from structural assumptions that you are.

Let me start by stating that there are at best misguided versions of this question: people who say “I want to share my expertise with women who want to get into computing! But now I’m not supposed to be intimidating. Fine then, I’ll take my expertise and go home. See how you like that, women in computing! Ahahahaha!” Don’t be one of those people. Your participation in technical and geeky groups, especially groups for learners, isn’t solely about you. If you insist on either being the top dog expert or going home… go home.

My beta reader for this suggested that much of the question is based around the assumption that in order to help build people up, you have to drag yourself down. There’s two problems with this: one is that this sort of thing isn’t a zero sum game, and the other is that not all women (or outsiders in general) are also beginners. They may be intimidated in spite of substantial ability and experience. So in many cases your role is less to try and hide your own excessive light under a bushel, and more to support the discovery of what’s already there.

When you’re the expert at work

In terms of your workplace, an approach I like is one that some activist groups make explicit: if you are the only person who knows how to do something that the organisation needs, you should make it your top priority to train at least one other person to do it. You could do some of the following:

  • presumably part of your role as designated expert, or something that you can make part of your role, is keeping a sort of list (mental or physical) of areas of expertise other programmers have, and referring questions to the other experts.
  • if something should be documented, ask the person who consults you if she can document it as she learns it. Then you can refer future questioners to that documentation, or get them to improve it. And you can credit its authors when you point people to it. And by having people teach others and write for others, you are turning them into experts.
  • if something should be automated (for example, you are consulting on a fiddly manual process) ask the person who consults you if she can automate it as she learns it.
  • when you get too busy (and this sounds like the sort of role where you are constantly in more demand than you can satisfy) decide that someone else needs to be the expert on some subset of the organisations knowledge base, and come up with some kind of handover process in collaboration with her, so that she is confident in being able to handle that set of problems and people know to go to her without even involving you.
  • consider that your own expertise is unlikely to be all-encompassing. If there’s a task that takes you half a day and a colleague half an hour, ask her for her help with it. (No need to go on and on about how she’s the expert here yay for her, just get her help.)

Note that those aren’t specific to women colleagues despite my choice of pronoun. The idea is to change the environment such that expertise is being built everywhere, not to go out of your way to make women into experts, unless you are in an environment specifically focussed on women (like LinuxChix is).

Similarly, in teaching roles, it is important to know when someone is thinking out loud on their way to the answer and when they are genuinely stumped and starting to get too frustrated to make progress. In the former case, just let them think and give them some time to put those thoughts into action.

When you’re the expert in class

Some of the question about classroom behaviour does seem a little excessively fearful. I guess there might be some classes that are structured as lectures and a final exam, but all my classes at university involved submitted assignments throughout the course in which you can demonstrate knowledge without taking up class time. A class in which people must ask questions to demonstrate their knowledge, as opposed to asking questions because they need the answer sounds like it must be terribly tedious for everyone involved. And they must be awfully small classes, or really long ones, if everyone who doesn’t regularly participate but still does well in the class is then investigated for cheating. In general, if you are required to demonstrate expertise solely in order to pass, see if you can do so in a way that isn’t public.

In terms of being part of classes or seminars, it is situation dependent. Is the class or seminar or discussion a bit introductory for you? Perhaps you should absent yourself or remain silent while the others get the hang of things, or at least wait for one-on-one approaches from other students for help rather than taking up teaching time demonstrating your knowledge. Is it genuinely challenging for you too? Well, make it visible that you’re being challenged. Be that wonderful person who asks the lecturer half way through the class “uh, I don’t think I really understood that first set of hypotheses, can we slow up?” when everyone else thought it was just them. Throw a few ideas against the wall before you think you have the answer. If someone else has a good idea, give them space to express it, thank them, and then see if you can extend it, especially in a collaborative way with the original proposer. Watch the tendency to try and set up a you-and-me-the-smart-ones dynamic with the teacher by speaking up only when you’re totally confident.

It may help periodically to actually try and measure (by making notes of who speaks when, assuming you can do it subtly) whether you are the most talkative person in the class. If you are, take a break from talking: it’s unlikely your ideas are so uniformly superior as to need that much airtime, and if they are, perhaps you need a more advanced class.

My beta reader also suggests that if you find a classroom is centred around you and other confident students and generally being a little self-congratulatory and that other students are floundering and suffering, that perhaps you should have a word to the teacher about how you feel the classroom environment is letting most of the students down.

When you’re the expert in a women-centred geek forum

In situations like mailing lists, at least places like LinuxChix which have a specific mission to be encouraging and a good place for learning, here’s some tips:

  • Have a look at the average turnaround time of the discussion. Is it common for someone to wait 24 hours to have a question answered? Well, people asking for help are probably aware that they may need to wait 24 hours (unless of course they say something like “ARGH HELP NOW DON’T DELAY FIRE FIRE FIRE IN THE THEATRE”). So make that your delay. Wait 24 hours (say), and see if they got a decent answer yet. If not, then post.
  • Very important: before you post an answer, read the other answers. It’s a common problem to have a self-appointed expert insist on re-explaining the whole thing from scratch, rather than seeing that Suzy already sorted out Jane’s compile error, so you just need to help Jane work out how to get the info she needs out of the core dump.
  • If an answer worked, but is missing a nuance, or isn’t precisely how you would have done it, consider carefully if you need to point that out. Is it actually harmful in the long run to do it the other suggested way or is it a matter of taste? Is this a good time and place to evangelise on matters of taste? It usually isn’t.

Note that none of this is denying your interest, expertise or talent: it’s not about pretending not to have it, it’s about genuinely putting it at the service of other people, and about developing similar expertise in other people.

I think it’s also important to interrogate your motivations in being the expert in women-centred groups. All of these approaches are not uncommon in tech groups with a lot of women:

  • assumptions that you, a man, must surely be the only expert in such-and-such who is part of the group, because, really, how likely is a woman to be a such-and-such expert? (There were certainly subscribers to the LinuxChix lists who believed that this was true of all of Linux systems administration, to the constant chagrin of women members who had spent 20 years in the field.)
  • assumptions that women geeks, unlike men geeks, will properly acknowledge you and respect you for your expertise, finally, the admiration you deserve!
  • the good ol’ not having enough women in your social circle thing, and being there to make friends.

The last one is tricky: here’s my take. Nothing wrong with having friends or wanting more! But, when you aren’t in a social group, attend to the mission of the group first, and the socialising a distant second.

13 thoughts on “When you are the expert in the room

  1. Keith Ealanta

    Just dropping in to propose another idea for that last list (and not an over complimentary one unfortunately).
    Because of the tendency for peoples sense of prestige in the open source community to be based on how much they feel they can contribute, I fear that some (many? a few?) guys try to help on women-centered forums because they do not feel good enough about their knowledge to feel confident to participate in the male-dominated discussion groups. They then elect to “help” in women-centered forums, justifying it as being somewhere they can contribute, while in fact using it as a place where they can see themselves as important. I fear this is mostly occuring through the exact same sexism that makes such groups relevant in the first place. A misguided belief that these groups have somehow a lower standard of discussion/information etc.
    Unfortunately they are also likely to be the sort of people who will fight hardest to justify their contributions as being selfless, and who will be highly hurt by accusations of sexism.
    I offer this thought not as an outsider, but as someone who nearly did exactly that sort of thing while younger and before my understanding of priviledge had improved to the point that I could recognise what I would have been doing.
    These days I don’t get involved in discussions generally, other than to warn of the errors I may have committed in my youth :)

    1. Mary Post author

      I’ve encountered a number of men who now or always have refused to be part of women’s technical groups that welcome men, because they recognise that impulse in themselves and therefore believe their contributions would be a net loss to the group’s mission.

      It’s certainly a good thing to consider: in what ways are you being part of an anti-oppression group for yourself? Given the answer, can you assist the group’s mission well, or not? If not, better to stay away, or lurk in order to learn, or whatever the group allows for.

    2. Meg

      The advice I’ve always given is, “are you willing to bring cupcakes?” If you want to support groups boosting the involvement of marginalized groups, the best thing you can do is take on only those jobs that don’t have to do with the mission and that someone else asks you to do. It might be “bring cupcakes to meetings”, or “watch the kids while we talk”, or “add pointers to blog comments to the wiki”, or “let our members know when you are hiring”, or “cover some minor costs”, or “sit in the meeting and listen to the cool things our members are doing.” It isn’t about answering questions (that’s something people gain confidence by doing) or being a resource (that’s something that marginalized people don’t get to be; see the link the other day about being a “goto guy”). It’s about freeing up other people to do the important work.

      And sometimes the answer will be, “no thanks, we’re fine.” Hopefully you can understand that that isn’t about you; it is about the dynamics of society which both you and the members there may unconsciously picked up. It is about putting people who don’t speak up into a position where they have to, where they get to, where they can learn to.

      That is, if you actually want to support the mission of the group. If you want to tell women how to use technology, that’s a different group (you could try teaching at an all-women’s school.) Sometimes that’s what the “men are welcome” women’s groups become. I don’t participate in those.

  2. Steph

    While many of the later sections are indeed specifically oriented towards men, as a woman in a different position of privilege (one of two people with formal computer science training in a company where most are self taught) the workplace section seems quite helpful. I think that section applies to anyone who finds himself or herself holding an undesired information monopoly!

  3. takingitoutside

    I’ll respond to the in-class aspects of the question, since I’ve been a teacher at various levels and am currently training to be a college professor. In particular, a fair portion of my classes follow precisely the sort of discussion + final paper layout described.

    The answers will probably be different in different contexts. For example, how about in class? The best I can think of is “don’t be eager to answer the lecturer’s questions to the class, but let someone else go first”. Would that help? Is that enough, in that context? But if you give the lecturer the impression you’re not knowledgeable, but then do well in the written exam, you can invite suspicion of cheating in the exam (this definitely happens). Or should you even make deliberate wrong answers, to lower your apparent expertise? I’d find that horribly condescending if I knew someone was doing it towards me.

    And in a seminar, should you hold back in a discussion if you have advanced ideas, so as not to scare the less confident? But then, you’re not making your best technical contribution.

    As written, this is foolish. The original questioner probably didn’t realize that he was doing it, but he’s given us a dichotomy where one is either “eager” or “not knowledgeable”. Actual students don’t just fall into those two categories. The real range covers slacking cheaters, normal students with problems, decent students, students with disabilities that impact how they act in class, know-it-alls (who usually don’t) and – very, very rarely – a real genius. The important part of that last one being the “very, very rarely”. If you think you are far beyond the rest of the class in almost every class meeting, you are either wrong or in the wrong class. Period. Oh, and most cheaters cheat because they have a lot of work due at once or something else is going on at the same time, not because they aren’t knowledgeable. Professors are generally aware of this.

    Speaking of professors, where are they in this description? This is a bit off-topic, but let me just add a plea for professors everywhere: if you are confused about something (how often to speak up in class, for example) ask. Please! Your prof will tell you, and you’ll be able to stop fantasizing about being accused of cheating because you tried to be polite to your fellows.

    What this all boils down to is taking a hard look at your behaviour in class and asking yourself: Am I acting like a know-it-all? If the answer is no, you’re fine. Don’t worry about it. If you’re not sure, check this list:

    1. Do you answer the teacher’s questions most of the time? More often than most of the other students? (Don’t pick out one or two relatively talkative other people, include the ones who never say anything.)
    – If yes, do you wait until you’ve practically listened to that Jeopardy song two or three times over in your mind before you answer?
    – If yes, do you sometimes not answer anyway because it’s clear that you are the only person in the ENTIRE class who is getting it?
    2. Do you interrupt people? Particularly when they are pausing midway through a sentence to collect their thoughts/rephrase/whatever?
    3. If the discussion starts on a given topic, but you want to talk about “advanced ideas”, do you wait for those who want to discuss the assigned topic to do so for awhile before introducing what you want to talk about?
    4. Do you try to talk about advanced ideas in almost every class, or is it just that the topics covered on days X and Y are near and dear to your heart?
    5. When other students ask questions while looking at the teacher, do you ever answer them for her/him?
    6. Do you ever try to explain something to the teacher? (Note: if s/he asks you specifically, this doesn’t count.)
    7. When you know for a fact that there are more advanced students in the class or that it is an advanced class (which, consequently, would have reasonably knowledgeable students), do you ever try to explain things that a reasonably knowledgeable person in the field ought to already know?

    Hopefully, I’ve made this list obvious enough that one can see how these behaviours are jerk-y. And that’s what a lot this boils down to: a student drawing attention to himself at the expense of others because he believes that he is more advanced and that what he wants to talk about is inherently better than whatever his colleagues want to talk about – in other words, out of arrogance/privilege. Talking about making wrong answers on purpose is nonsense – if you are a student, I guarantee you are making wrong answers already. If you make more on purpose you are just drawing attention to yourself in a different way. The point is to accept that sometimes the teacher needs to pay attention to other kids, and to let him/her do it.

    1. Jayn

      #2 on your list kind of got to me, because I’ve found that interruptions are pretty much the only way I can get a word in in most discussions (sadly, not just limited to the classroom–although at school, this at least actually works). I suspect it may be less because I’m female and more because my voice is softer than average. If I wait for an honest break, either someone else will start talking too (and 99 times out of 100, they’ll talk over me), or the conversation will move too far past what we were talking about for my point to be relevant anymore.

      Since I’m working on building confidence, and being willing to share my opinions (something I learned not to do in high school), I’m not sure how else to handle things.

    2. Flourish

      Having been the know-it-all in class – “That Girl” that everybody hates in class – having mostly conquered it, and then becoming a lecturer myself – I completely agree with this response.

      There are plenty of people in a class who are smart, but who don’t feel comfortable talking very much. Professors know this. You might get a slight edge on someone who NEVER talks if you occasionally pipe up, but your academic career (or even your grade in one class!) is probably not going to be destroyed if you hold your tongue in most classes.

      The way I trained myself out of speaking compulsively was by telling myself that I was only allowed to speak once per class session. That’s more than enough for a professor to get to know who you are (I suspected then, as a student, and now I know that this is true), especially if you wait until you have something really valuable to say or a really valuable question to ask. It really sucked at first, but eventually I realized that class would, in fact, go on without me constantly chattering. It would even be a better class for everyone else, and – gasp! – a better class for me, because I was learning other people’s thoughts instead of just regurgitating mine.

      Another thing that I learned very quickly to do in conference-style classes once I started trying to address my know-it-allness: whenever I found myself starting to speak and then realized that someone else had been trying to get a word in edgewise – I’d stop, right then, and say, “Ack – sorry – please, go ahead.” Then I would shut up and wait for the other person to take me up on the offer or not, and look around to see if someone else would rather speak, before starting to speak again. Other people in the class – and the professor – like you better when they see that you’re genuinely trying to address your compulsion to speak too much, even if you aren’t perfect at it.

      I’m not perfect at it to this day, but I think it’s really important for those of us with big mouths to think through our actions and try and address them – not even as an issue of feminism/supporting women, but just as an issue of politeness and being a good class or work contributor.

  4. Kim

    I did want to talk more about interrupting. When I first transferred jobs, my manager ended up saying something to me in a performance evaluation about interrupting too much. As I started watching myself and thinking about what I was doing, it occurred to me that three different things were happening:
    1) Whether to interrupt or not is cultural. Some cultures / families / areas, people talk over each other all the time. Other places, it’s Not Done (or at least, people think that way).
    2) The ability to interrupt is also a privilege. I was far from the only one on the team / building / department who was interrupting. But the ones who were allowed to interrupt were generally male and generally of higher rank (more experience, or more senior managers, etc.)
    3) As Jayn says, sometimes interrupting seems like the only way to get a word in edgewise. Like, I would start to speak at the same time or just before somebody else, and I was the one expected to stop. I DID start paying attention to what I was doing, and trying not to be rude or frequent about interrupting. But also, as I became more accepted in the group and acknowledged for my own experience, an occasional interruption became less big of a deal.

    1. tekanji

      1) Whether to interrupt or not is cultural. Some cultures / families / areas, people talk over each other all the time. Other places, it’s Not Done (or at least, people think that way).

      OMG THIS.

      My experience is that USians in general are of the “it’s okay to interrupt” school of thought (depending on context, of course) and my family especially communicates by constantly interrupting with sub-topics and then (most of the time) making one’s verbal way back to the original point.

      But then I moved to Japan, where interrupting is simply Not Done and, after a few lectures from my friends, I developed the habit of trying to determine if a person’s pause is just a pause or if it’s really that they’re done (and when I make a mistake, I stop what I’m saying and yield the floor back to them). I always get the floor after they’re done, too, so I don’t have problems like #3 on the list.

      Except now when I go home and try to have a discussion with my family, I want to have the kind of round-robin discussion (where everyone gets the floor until they’re done) and they want to have the kind of interrupting discussion and we end up fighting instead of discussing.

  5. Meg

    See, when I was in school I’d get in trouble for talking to much because I’m a girl. I know you might not have had this experience, but I am willing to share my hard-won expertise ;-)

    In school, I always limited myself to three short constructive comments per class. Focusing on short comments made me refine what I was going to say, think about what the important point was, what it was I really wanted to know or contribute. Think twitter; people stop listening well after about three sentences, so try to get good, content-filled sentences. Three comments, because I would happily have had a dialog with the teacher, but that wasn’t going to help anyone else learn. Constructive, because telling the other students when they were wrong is the teacher’s job, not mine.

    Don’t get things wrong on purpose; that doesn’t make anyone feel better. The other students probably don’t care how competent you are; they care that you are aggressively participating, which makes it intimidating for them to raise their hand. They are unlikely to pay attention to your achievements, because why would they? It’s nothing to do with them.

    No matter how brilliant you think your comments are, dominating a classroom is unfair. Even if 90% of the other students participate at the same level of intensity, those last 10% are being left out, and they deserve the same consideration and attention you do. If the class is boring or too easy or you already know the stuff, see if you can find an alternative, don’t stick around and make it less useful for other people. Independent studies, skipping over classes, AP tests (which you can take without taking the class) and just talking to the Dean are all ways to make everyone’s educational experience better.

    Finally, the most important thing is to learn to read group dynamics. That’s the dynamics of the whole group, not just the ones loudly participating. Watch everyone else, as well as yourself. I suggest making your goal be “contribute to effective meetings or classes”, rather than demonstrations of your expertise. It makes the atmosphere less toxic, takes the weight off your shoulders and lets you hear other people’s ideas, some of which are quite interesting.

    Learn to watch for those 10% who aren’t talking. Are they lost? Are they bored? Are they just not paying attention? Are they trying to participate, but always seem to get left behind by the discussion? Are they actually participating in side conversations about the topic, rather than speaking in front of the class? Are they trying to participate, but someone else always seems to be talking or get called on first?

    Notice who isn’t talking in class, or in meetings, and then notice how other people react when they do say things, or go to say things. If the teacher ignores them (a relatively common problem, in my experience), I’d break my 3-comment rule: “$StudentName had something to say.” If the teacher was egregious or a strict disciplinarian I’d start raising my hand when $StudentName did, and then when I got called on, say, “I think $StudentName was first,” and turn around expectantly. I wouldn’t always encourage taking this approach; it puts them on the spot and might make them feel uncomfortable and sometimes there was a good reason they are being ignored (Like, say, they comment all the time, or go on at length whenever they do get called on, or they derail the argument [there was a women's studies class where someone's contribution was always "what about the Menz!?!111"]) but if they are just a little timid and the teacher is ignoring them in favor of the same three assertive men, it can be an effective strategy.

    In meetings, I make sure to offer quieter people eye contact as I’m scanning for comment, and specifically ask for their input when discussion is wrapping up. Frequently, they have ideas or concerns we would have missed, but didn’t feel comfortable “derailing” the flow of conversation by participating. I’ll also check in with meeting participants later and see if they have other ideas or concerns, and sometimes if it’s clear that they are uncomfortable expressing their ideas in a meeting I’ll attempt to address those concerns.

    I’m not good at any of this. It’s not my natural skill set; I’m ADHD, impulsive, assertive and willing to ignore anyone who can’t keep up with me. But, because of the expectations I faced, I had to learn to suppress all that. If people like the writer don’t want people like me to think they are assholes, they have to learn it too. It turns out to be an incredibly useful skill. I communicate better because I was forced to listen more and talk less; I learned to make what I said count, and hear what people are saying. I am known to be the developer you want to take to customer meetings, because I know how to tactfully and subtly make us look good and dismantle people who try to make us look bad. I can answer the questions the customers want answered, not necessarily the one they probably asked if you could parse the syntax, and I can deliver that answer in short, constructive comments.

  6. jon

    Great thread and great discussions. For tracking how much you’re speaking, if there are detailed notes or an online recording, you can go back and look at it — it can be very instructive. It’s even easier email lists and discussion forums. I will sometimes talk to organizers and participants afterwards to make sure that I have not over-participating or unintentionally cutting people off. At least for me, privilege and socialization are both at work here as well as cultural norms: I’ve spent years in environments where quick responses are rewarded, and have fallen into a lot of less-than-helpful habits.

    > In meetings, I make sure to offer quieter people eye contact as I’m scanning for comment, and specifically ask for their input when discussion is wrapping up.

    Yes! Incredibly important! Even more so on conference calls, where it can be even harder for people with quieter voices (or people who prefer not to interrupt) to get involved. I try to pause on each agenda topic and give others a chance to weigh in, and try to ask people for their input if they’ve been noticeably silent.

    Totally agree about “bring cupcakes” too.

  7. John

    I’m sure I’m one of the people who has a lot to learn from this, as given the chance I talk too much, especially if I’ve thought of something really interesting to say. I’ve been reflecting on to what extent this is `showing off’, and I’m sure there’s an element of that somewhere along the way, but by now it’s largely a matter of habit, and changing it may be a matter of changing habits rather than looking at motivations. And at the time I was forming such habits, I had very little ability to read group dynamics, and such things just weren’t taught then (I don’t think they are now, but I’m sure it would be a good idea — if suitable teachers can be found).

    Some of it is just sheer enthusiasm about the subject matter, too. In some of the environments in which I’ve worked (or studied) there’s been a culture of the whole group pushing things along onto the most advanced part of the topic they can; I never got a feeling that it was competitive, in the sense of seeing who could push it furthest; it was more like young horses galloping together for the fun of it; or perhaps like kittens play-fighting — no intent to cause injury, just taking turns to sharpen our skills collaboratively.

    From the teaching point of view, if I’m running a discussion group / tutorial / seminar / etc, I try to go round the group getting responses from everyone.

    I suspect that when an awkward geeky student (of either gender) is showing off, or just talking too often, in class, their underlying feeling might often not be so much “Look at me, I’m great”, as “Look, at least there’s something I’m not completely crap at”.

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