The Designated Listener

My scientific adviser Israel Gelfand was one of the greatest mathematicians in Russia. His seminar was famous.

One of the unique features Gelfand invented for his seminar was a role for a seminar participant that he called a designated listener (kontrol’nyy slushatel’ in Russian). I played this role for four years.

This is how it works. The speaker starts his lecture and Gelfand interrupts him. He then turns to me and asks if I understand what the speaker just said. If I say “no,” he says that I am a fool. If I say “yes”, he invites me to the blackboard to explain. Usually, Gelfand finds some fault in my explanation and calls me a fool anyway. As a result, whatever I do, I end up as a fool.

Ironically, I admired Gelfand for the way he conducted his seminars. I went to so many seminars where it was clear that no one understood anything. He was the only professor I knew who made sure that at least one person at his seminar โ€” himself โ€” understood everything.

The problem was that he convinced me that I really was a fool. I dreaded Mondays and I considered quitting mathematics. The situation changed when I started dating Andrey, my future second husband. He made a strong effort to convince me that I was not a fool; rather, Gelfand was a bully. I understood what Andrey was saying, but I wasn’t able to take it to heart. Not that I trusted my supervisor more than my lover, but I was more willing to believe that something was wrong with me than with someone else.

Andrey’s hard work wasn’t in vain. One fine day Professor G. from Western Europe was invited to give a talk at Gelfand’s seminar. During his talk Gelfand interrupted him many times, told him that he wasn’t a good lecturer, and that his results were neither interesting nor meaningful. After several hours of torture Professor G. became tearful. At that moment it hit me that Andrey was right. I am thankful to Professor G. for his tears; they opened my eyes.

The next step for Andrey was to convince me to resist Gelfand. His idea was for me to tell Gelfand, the next time he asked me if I understood: “Go f**k yourself!” (I mean the Russian equivalent).

At that time, I had never pronounced the f-word, even in my own head. But I didn’t have any other ideas. So I started preparing myself to do this. Finally one day I was ready. Gelfand interrupted the speaker and turned towards me as if he were about to ask me to be the designated listener. I looked back at him. He paused, looked at me again, and turned around. He never asked me to be the designated listener again.



  1. SpeedKills:

    Seminars! You get to figure out what language the speaker is using. The rest is maths.

  2. joji:

    Now, you are no longer a designated listener. Standing up to something takes many forms. Is it in the body language?

  3. Tanya Khovanova:

    Certainly, non-verbal communications ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Lowe:

    Was Andrey ever around Gelfand? Would he have had the opportunity to speak to him? Would that have been appropriate?

  5. Tanya Khovanova:

    Andrey was also Gelfand’s student.

  6. Maximilian:

    I like very much the end of this story! Almost too good to be true!

  7. Successful Researcher:

    I just learned that Israel Gelfand is no longer with us. R.I.P.

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