A few weeks later, a September 28 conversation with Chris Matthews went something like this:
Matthews: What foreign leader do you respect the most?
Johnson: Good question. There’s um, what’s his na--.
Matthews: [Interrupts] Seriously just name any foreign leader.
Johnson: I heard you. What about the Mexican President. I’m blanking…
Matthews: You can't name ONE FOREIGN LEADER?!?!?
Johnson: I’m trying to think of this particular dude’s name but I can’t think of it.
Matthews: How stupid are you?!?!?
Okay, that’s not literally how it went. But it's how it felt-- Matthews did not act graciously. And I can relate to Gary.
You see, I have a terrible memory for certain things. Especially names, but I'll get to that in a second. It’s actually kind of nice to be able to read a book or watch a movie, and be totally surprised by the ending when I revisit it a year later. It’s not nice when friends quote their favorite movie and then hit me with a “oh my God, you haven’t seen ______?” just because I didn’t recognize the quote (from the movie that I did, in fact, see). Will Ferrell fans, I'm looking at you. I have seen Anchorman many times, thank you very much.
I’m terrible at any trivia that doesn’t directly link to my life—for instance, I might have a good guess on what year the Lion King (1994?) or the hit song Get Low (2003?) came out, but I might miss by a few decades if you had me guess the release date of To Kill A Mockingbird (even if I learned it in the past. Even if I learned it this morning.)
This was always just a minor annoyance in my life.
Then I started grad school.
Grad school brought my inability to remember certain details to light. It turned out my memory was particularly heinous for names and dates. My first task as a Ph.D. student was to “read broadly,” which meant to catch up on about 100 years of ecology literature. I’m really good at taking and reviewing notes, so I didn’t have trouble remembering content. But since academics (at least in my world) refer to past studies by their publication citation— “Chase 2003” or “Suding’s Restoration Ecology paper” or whatever—it quickly became clear that I was doomed.
In early grad school, typical conversations would often include, “wait, you haven’t heard of [famous ecologist]?” and “really, you haven’t read [such-and-such paper]?” I’d usually figure out later that I had, and just forgot the name.
At one point, I started to make flashcards with citations of papers I’d read, and the names of other scientists I was supposed to have heard of, just so I’d remember their names for conversations. Going was slow, and I decided it was a waste of time. My advisor told me I would get better with practice. Not so. There are maybe 5 papers that I’ve read many many times that I can cite from memory. All others are a crap-shoot.
This made my oral comprehensive exam really, really ugly. “Comps,” as we call them, are the test you take about halfway through your Ph.D. to see if you know anything. You defend a proposal for your dissertation project, but you also have to pass a Q&A session with your advisor and 3-4 other faculty members (your graduate committee) where they can ask you literally anything they want.
This is when I found out that my memory fails me altogether under intense pressure. Every time my committee asked me a question that I knew I knew the answer to, it was just… crickets. My brain gave me nothing. There were no thoughts. Just panicked silence.
A handful of questions I was asked during my comps were more conceptual (e.g., Give an example of a system in an alternative stable state—nailed it!) but many of them were not (Who came up with the Enemy Release Hypothesis? Who on campus testified in the supreme court against Intelligent Design? What are some empirical studies that have contributed to restoration ecology as a field?). Names and dates, man. The. Worst.
My ultimate Gary Johnson moment was probably when I was asked to list the most influential papers in ecology. (What papers would you include if you were writing your own Foundations of Ecology?) I named a few (I had very thoroughly prepared for this question) before my most senior committee member stopped me to point out that I had only named male-authored papers. She then proceeded to go down a list of 19 women, asking me to explain each one’s contribution to science. I recognized about three of names, and even then couldn’t link them to any of their accomplishments. Yikes.
My committee told me after I failed that I really needed to work on my “public speaking skills” and that they “could tell I hadn’t TAed yet” (aka taught classes). I think I’m a damn good public speaker. But I had never before had my bad memory grilled in front of four people that control my life. I wanted to point out to my committee they are not “the public,” but it didn’t seem like a good time to talk back.
I won’t claim to know whether Gary Johnson is also as bad at names and dates as I am. But I do empathize with his brain clearly failing him under pressure, and recognize that Chris Matthews' rude interview tactics likely made the situation worse for him. I believe that he does know what Aleppo is, and that he really respects the Mexican president. Whatever his name is.
Of course, no comment on whether Gary’s brain-failing renders him unfit to be president. I think it’s much more important for the president of the United States to remember the name of the president of Mexico than it is for me to recognize hundreds of scientific papers by their citation. I’m not sure about Gary, but I think I’ll be fine. Especially now that I've passed my comps.
Anybody out there have a memory as bad as me? Leave me a comment if you'd like to share your favorite memory tricks or just commiserate.