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I’m Not Smarter than You, I’ve Just Been Doing This a Lot Longer

When it comes to the police practitioner-researcher relationship, on occasion there is a type of amnesia that seems to affect some, but not all researchers. What I mean by this is that sometimes missing from the equation is a level of empathy and understanding for those who do not share the same level of research knowledge, as though the researcher has forgotten their own painful process of acquiring that knowledge. Yes, it’s true. The overwhelming majority of individuals who go into and come out of post-graduate research training and theory courses have some level of deep insecurity and neuroses that is only worsened through the experience of being made to feel stupid because one does not know what is meant by a “panel longitudinal study” or a “Hegelian dialectic.” Perhaps we might charitably suggest that, as a result of these traumatic events, some have suppressed their own memories of what it was like to be on the other side of a knowledge gap and armored with some newfound confidence* proceed to share their wisdom of all things research-oriented without stopping to think how others might feel when gazing across the same divide.

When it comes to working with police, I realize some uninitiated researchers may be surprised. How can it be that a police officer, an individual who is literally granted the awesome responsibility of making life-altering decisions in hairy situations, be intimidated by the nerdy kid with a pocket calculator? But, it’s true. I once sat next to an Inspector at a research meeting who leaned over and confessed she was intimidated in these settings. It’s not hard to imagine why: no one wants to feel that others are judging their intelligence simply because they don’t know something. This is exactly how those same individuals felt as grad students when they walked into their Contemporary Theory class and realized that most French theorists write to be as unintelligible as possible and they now have to write a paper on ideas they can barely grasp for 80% of their term mark. #notgood

I have a level of empathy in these situations because I all too keenly remember how it felt to feel stupid. My situation was exacerbated by the fact that my MA/PhD supervisor was one of the great minds of Criminology: Richard V. Ericson. No matter how awesome I thought my ideas were, Richard had:

1. already heard a version of it before (and would now give me a laundry list of people to read because, really, I should know this work), or;

2. Didn’t think it was such a great idea (and proceeded to deconstruct my plan with such precision and logic that I wondered why I ever bothered).

Although he never tried to make me feel less than, it was an unintended consequence of being around someone I saw as brilliant. One day, in response to a version of #1 above, I looked at him and somewhat morosely said, “I’m never going to be as smart as you.” And here is why Richard truly was a great man: he paused, gave me a long look and then said, “I am not smarter than you, I have just been doing this for a lot longer.” Although not stated as advice, this may have been the single best piece of academic advice I have ever received.

All too often we forget that knowledge and intelligence are not the same thing, and that the former is a process – a journey, not a race. I now tell my own students that not only does this mean we should be kind and patient with ourselves on that trek, but we should also remember to be kind and patient with others. Guess what, kids? No one comes out of the womb knowing the difference between a "type 1" and "type 2" error and, no matter how far along you get, there will always be something more for you to discover (or to feel stupid about).

*Equally possible, though, is they have donned a ‘fake it til you make it’ bravado.

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