My first quarter as a junior professor is in the books. I did not post here once in the entire quarter!
I offer two possible explanations. Perhaps I lack the ability to produce lucid, satirical prose when my mind is tired, my energy depleted by new responsibilities. On the other hand, perhaps I only pretend to lack this ability. Perhaps I’m a very clever fellow with a game theorist’s temperament, and despite having boundless intellectual energy, I have intentionally made myself appear a wearier, slower, and less energetic blogger than I am (or could be) in order to send the right signal to academia.
Object lesson: During my long absence, University of Chicago denied tenure to political scientist and influential blogger Dan Dreizner. Is it possible that this was due to his consistent habit of posting thoughtful entries to a high-profile blog? One wonders. His publication record in scholarly journals was impressive, by all accounts. But here’s the rub (and I’m trying to trance-channel some petty, curmudgeonly senior academic at this point): If he produced a high volume of excellent work while “wasting” countless hours on his blog, how much more could he have produced had he been singularly devoted to scholarly writing?
But wait a minute, you say to the curmudgeon. It may well be that engaging in public debate keeps an academic energized and connected to the real world, that an informed and practical perspective raises the quality of scholarly research, that to be out of touch with the perspectives of people outside the ivory towers is a bad thing. If a young researcher produces a high volume of high quality work, you say, we should not criticize him for the way he spends his leisure time, particularly if this activity could actually improve his research.
Not so, says my senior colleague, Dr. Edgeworth Boks. To impress academia, says Edgie, you must have no life outside of academia. Not only that, insists the good Doctor, you should appear to have no interest in ever having a life outside of academia. Why? Because if you care about something other than academia, if the real world matters to you in any way, shape, or form, then you are something of a flight risk. Departments screen for people who enjoy academia so much (and have so little talent for anything else) that they would never think to spend time on any activity outside of it. The narrower and shallower you are, the better. Dr. Boks proudly attributes his own academic success to having been, in his own words, “the narrowest, shallowest, and least interesting person at large in North America--with the possible exception of Paris Hilton.”
Consider a man with a fiance, says Edgie. She is perfect for him. She meets all his physical and emotional needs, loves him, showers attention on him. She is beyond reproach as a potential mate. She produces as much for him as he could hope for. However, she only sleeps 3 hours a night, whereas he sleeps 8 hours a night. She uses the 5 additional hours to entertain other men at the neighborhood bar. If he judges her strictly on output, he should choose to marry her. These 5 hours are a surplus. He could not expect anything more from a “normal” mate during those 5 hours, as a normal mate would be sleeping.
But this is to ignore the signal! Her behavior suggests that she is more likely to leave him. She has demonstrated a taste for the outside option.
The behavior of a junior professor is also a signal, Edgeworth proclaims. Academics perform many onerous duties such as reading and critiquing each other’s work, attending seminars and faculty meetings, recruiting new faculty, serving on committees. These behaviors may benefit the department more than they benefit the individual providing them. They are public goods. A department is wise, then, to screen for people with few outside tastes and even fewer outside abilities. Such a person will be more reliable as a provider of the public goods. This person will show up at every seminar, well prepared, perky and punctual, because this person has no outside life. (Moreover, this person would not even know where to look for a life if he or she wanted one.)
But what if you suffer the misfortune of having been born with more than one rigidly defined talent? What if you care about the world around you? What if you rely on a wide-ranging curiosity to fuel your research? You could be mistaken for a person of depth and versatility, thoroughly unsuited for academia!
Never fear, says Edgie. You play the violin? Your talent is world class? This is a problem, but not insurmountable: Amputate a few fingers.
You are a brilliant chess player? Again, there is a simple solution: Cheat in a tournament and get yourself banned for life from any and all chess organizations.
You have children and you love them? No big deal. Make a show of being a negligent parent. Leave a seminar in panic, say, and explain that your 2-year-old was found wandering alone at the local Food-mart, mumbling something about being thirsty and needing milk.
You write cogently and are recruited to pen a column for a popular magazine or newspaper? Edgie has a solution for you. Produce columns so sloppily written and unbalanced that no one could mistake them for something you put thought into. (Yet another proof of the cleverness of a certain NY Times columnist, says Edgie).
I do not agree with Dr. Boks. In fact, we have had many arguments on the issue. Most recently, he chided me for knowing the name of the Prime Minister of England. (How do you expect to become a tenured academic if you actually know something? he said.) We have agreed to disagree.
Meanwhile, Dan Dreizner appears to have landed on his feet (at Tufts, no less—though Edgie insists that Tufts erred in hiring him: Dreizner is not shallow enough to become a model academic.) As for myself, dear readers, I confess that I am not the game theorist Edgie is. My meager blogging output is not a clever means of signaling my type. I simply lack the talent to blog frequently while teaching, attending seminars, and trying to produce a high volume of scholarly research. My postings will be less frequent. I cannot do both things at once and do them well. Research will take precedence.
(I can only thank my lucky stars that I’m not as versatile as Dan...)