How to Avoid Idiots at Academic Conferences

Full kuni lemls

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By Michael Woolf

At a recent conference, while introducing speakers who actually knew about things, I informed the audience that Yiddish had 264 words for "idiot." I added that it was second only to an obscure Hindi dialect that contains 271 words designating some kind of fool, though two of them are contested. Rapt participants considered that erudite observation to be extremely impressive, though it was entirely invented.

The first bit was true in spirit, though: Yiddish has lots of words for idiot. I have, over the years, been called most of them. Fine gradations distinguish one kind of idiot from another. The schlemiel is, by way of example, not the same kind of twit as the schlemazel. The great Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, informs us that the schlemiel spills the soup, which lands, invariably, in the lap of the schlemazel.

In my travels attending international education conferences across the world, I have observed two other kinds of idiot: the infamous kuni leml (Rosten defines this person as "a yokel, a simpleton, a simple Simon," and cites a folk saying, "He is the kind who looks for a notch in the saw.") and the notorious nudnik (someone, Rosten writes, "whose purpose in life is to bore the rest of humanity").

By way of preamble — and lest you feel I am displaying prejudice — let me explain that you do not have to be Jewish to be a kuni leml or a nudnik. Both states of annoying idiocy can be found across all genders, ages, ethnicities, races, and nations. I have known an elderly nudnik from Nanjing, a young female kuni leml from Krakow, a gay nudnik from Nebraska whose partner was a handsome kuni leml with roots in Kentucky. I have been tortured by a smartly dressed articulate male nudnik from New South Wales, and have been haunted by a half-mad hippie kuni leml who was born in Kingston Upon Thames but now (she says) resides in Cape Town.

In academe, kuni lemls and nudniks are found at all levels of institutions. Manifestations of idiocy are unconstrained by income, longevity, or status. You may wonder how junior nudniks or apprentice kuni lemls get jobs in our field. Clearly they are hired by senior nudniks or experienced kuni lemls who recognize kindred spirits and can spot the genetic potential for fevered obsession in the youthful eyes of aspirants. In this manner, continuity is ensured from generation to generation.

This may be more than you need to know. The real point of this guide to surviving international conferences is to: (a) alert you to the type, and (b) suggest some probably futile evasion strategies. Although I have drawn your attention to two manifestations of idiocy, they not infrequently coexist. One form of idiocy may even generate another: The kuni lemlmay also be a nudnik, and vice versa — just as, by way of comparison, it is possible to be a carrier of yellow fever and cholera at the same time.

By the way, you may well have no idea what any of this means. Or you will dismiss what follows as evidence that Woolf is: (a) a nudnik, (b) a kuni leml, or (c) both.

Recognizing the kuni leml. Symptomatic behavior is as follows. At every conference session, the first arm waving desperately in the direction of the chair at the conclusion of formal remarks usually designates a kuni leml. Despite every effort to ignore the madness in the center of the room, the chair is eventually forced to call upon the turbulent presence.

What follows is a long, rambling discourse disguised as a question. Every "question" contains an extended autobiography and self-assessment that contrasts the fallibility of the presenters with the wisdom of the kuni leml. The "question" will have no connection with anything that has gone before.

The kuni leml is also inevitably at every session you attend and miraculously at all sessions, even when they occur simultaneously. There are two possible explanations: Either God loves idiots and empowers them to be in several places at the same time, or there are more than one of them.

Avoidance is not an easy or comfortable business. A chum of mine, as the kuni lemlcommences, pointedly looks at her watch, gathers her belongings, and — still looking at her watch (implying urgent obligations elsewhere) — mutters apologies as she departs, having trod blindly upon several of the audience. Alternatively, you may try the cellphone maneuver. Pretending distress, you exit making distraught noises while staring fixedly at the fictional message announcing a crisis that requires your immediate attention.

In both cases, members of the audience will be impressed that you have managed to escape and/or that you are an important person with pressing concerns elsewhere. They will also be annoyed because you have trodden on them.

Other tactics include falling asleep, although that, too, has drawbacks. You may wake up in the middle of the kuni leml’s interjection, or you may snore, which hypercritical colleagues could interpret as impending senility. An inventive deaf colleague I know switches off his hearing aid.

In extremis, you may pretend to faint. Although a radical action, it will certainly disrupt the flow of the kuni leml’s rhetoric (at least for a moment or two) as grateful colleagues carry your supine body to safer space.

Recognising the nudnik. The Joys of Yiddish tells us that a nudnik is "not just a nuisance." To "merit the status, "a nuisance must be a most persistent, talkative, obnoxious, indomitable, and indefatigable nag." The nudnik is, thus, a particularly noxious nuisance.

The conference version of a nudnik "needs" to speak to you urgently and closely. She or he has an idea you must hear. This idea is extremely interesting, unique, and will enrich your arid existence. It is evidence of the nudnik’s superior intelligence — though it is frequently incomprehensible and potentially costly. Close encounters are marked by spittle-driven passion. You are not required to be an active participant beyond muttering appreciative phrases along the lines of "Yes, of course," "How interesting," and "How right you are."

Avoiding s kuni leml is far more difficult than escaping one. However large the conference, you will run into nudniks every eight minutes. They will appear, inevitably, at coffee breaks. "Break" is a misnomer here. It is not a cessation of torment. Nudniks may well follow you, which is further proof that, like the amoeba, they have fissile capacities enabling self-reproduction with alarming facility.

Avoidance strategies in this case are unreliable and difficult. A dear colleague — under assault from a determined nudnik (from North Dakota), pretended to be having a stroke. The oblivious nudnik continued his peroration into the stricken ear of the prone figure.

You can try spilling something on them (red wine is good), though this is mostly ineffective. The impact is likely to be limited, as several others will have already done the same thing.

You can try a diversion to explain why you have to go — "My house has just burnt down," "My dog died," "My wife has run away with the provost," "I have a communicable disease." None of those are effective against the most determined nudniks, whose rhetorical flow is not easily interrupted by tragedy or disease.

One strategy does have a 91.75-percent success rate. It requires developing the skill of projectile vomiting at will. Even the most nudniky may find it daunting to persist in that scenario.

But such a tactic seems neither realitic nor sane. Some scholars have suggested that avoiding academic conferences altogether is the answer. That is delusion. Nudniks and kuni lemls are ensconced in your offices; They haunt the committees on which you sit, and they plague whatever meetings you attend. Going abroad is pointless. They are proficient in all languages (including Yiddish) and are found in every corner of the globe.

The reality is: There are no foolproof evasion methods. Akin to the unfortunate Sisyphus, the task of avoidance may be a futile aspiration. Thus, in anguish, trepidation, and despair at the approach of another year of academic conferences, I end with these questions:

  • Are we all nudniks?
  • Do kuni lemls rule our world?
  • What if I am a kuni leml?
  • What if you are a bigger nudnik than me?

Michael Woolf is deputy president for strategic development at Capa: The Global Education Network

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