Tuesday, October 12, 2010

High-functioning eccentrics

I had always - "eternity" defined as since beginning grad school - figured that the end of the eccentric prof was due above all to the educational system today, and its emphasis on well-roundedness. To get to the point where you're not only at a good college, but where you've excelled and found three or four professors willing to write on your behalf, you've probably played some team sports (in high school, if not beyond), learned what "Seven" jeans are (or the male, non-2005 equivalent), and otherwise had your normalcy confirmed, time and again. The requirements for getting a PhD and any other professional post-college outcome are virtually identical. It's not that eccentrics don't get hired or, if hired, get refused tenure. It's that they are, if employed, working at jobs that don't require proof that one came across as reasonable and competent from ages 14 to 22. They never came close to the academic job market. Damned if, former track-team member and owner if inconsistent user of a hair iron, I'm not part of the problem.

Then Jacob Levy linked to a couple of articles about the decline of the wacky prof, and they got me thinking: the absentminded professor - like the douchy banker, the sleazy lawyer - is a man. The cliché is male. While we as a society have kinda-sorta evolved to the point where "accountant," "doctor," and so forth don't necessarily bring to mind male pronouns, the professional "types" remain fixed. Profs aren't nutty these days because it's much easier for a man to be a high-functioning eccentric. The unkempt-hair, the stench of tobacco mixed with body odor, the neglected waistline flaunted, the fly unerotically unzipped, this is an image available to a man, not a woman. It's acceptable if the nutty prof has no home life, but maybe he does! If eccentricity, as too often happens, gets confused with genius, there might be an unfairly hot young acolyte, male or female, to fetch the slippers and sherry. It's not that women can't be eccentric, or even that eccentric women aren't the basis for positive-ish clichés of their own, but that lady-eccentricity doesn't read as endearing-yet-commanding-of-respect. Now that women can be profs, profs have to bathe, exchange pleasantries, and otherwise act, well, professional.


FLG said...

So, the absent-minded professor is a symptom of male privilege?

I've encountered numerous absent-minded female professors. Complete with disheveled personal appearance. Indeed, I'm pretty sure all of my female French professors are in that category.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"Now that women can be profs, profs have to bathe, exchange pleasantries, and otherwise act, well, professional."

I guess my big question is, is this causation or correlation?

If there's been a generational shift away from eccentricity (say, due to the need for professionalizaion in the face of hypercompetitive and glutted job markets), and at about the same time there's been a huge (though still imperfect) opening of the doors of the professoriate to women, then we've got all the facts covered without resorting to "women civilize unbathed men," and one of the facts we've got explained is why women PhDs didn't pick up the eccentricity norms en masse.

(That said, I'm not convinced that eccentricity has particularly gone down-- and I think I see signs that there's a generational shift *toward* it among women. The pioneer generations of women couldn't afford it, but we may be getting past that point in most liberal arts disciplines.)

Jacob T. Levy said...

PS: "educational system today, and its emphasis on well-roundedness. "

You underestimate the effect of 800 math SATs and 800 quant GREs on admissions at both levels.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think the word "privilege" implies a greater advantage than the one I'm describing here, but yes, I think it's easier for men than women to be absentminded profs. A man shows up to class late and unbathed, so he must be a genius. A woman does so and she's a bag lady who somehow managed to be a prof. I don't find it terribly difficult to believe you were taught French by eccentric women - there are certainly some. But how was their eccentricity received? Also, if they were, in fact, French, the "disheveled personal appearance" might have been cultural - French women who care about their appearances tend not to tame their hair into submission, and to an extent, intentionally messy, 'see, I'm not trying too hard' clothes can be part of the look. And Americans are particularly attentive to showering at even a hint of greasy hair, whereas men and women from many (most? all?) other places don't see this as a sign of impending doom. Even if they weren't French, if they were huge francophiles, or had spent lots of time in France, that might do it.

Of course, if they came to class in crusty track suits from the 1980s, my theory doesn't stand.


Correlation or causation... I have no idea. Maybe both? Two changes took place simultaneously - the professionalization/well-roundednessization of academia, and the entry of women - which implies correlation, but what might the influence of women have been once on the scene? And aren't the two connected, anyway? What I would guess happened is, men already would have had to be more together to get to grad school in the first place. Meanwhile women, who don't have the same opportunity to be both absentminded and respected, started changing the tone of departments.

You're right to point out the importance of test scores, but I'm not sure which fields you're referring to. Are the subjects where tweed and absentmindedness traditionally meet math based, or the ones that have become more heavily female? I suppose something like polisci could be at the intersection of needs-math and now-there-are-women. But I'm fairly certain most of us in French scored higher on the math part of the GRE than we needed to.

But now I'm wondering about the high school-to-college part of this. Do 800s on math SATs make it so students don't need to join sports teams, seem stable and friendly to their teachers, etc.? My sense from high school was that students dead set on getting into elite colleges thought - and they were right - that math wasn't enough. It used to be, which was why parents were often confused about why their math-geek children had to play football or tutor underprivileged kids or whatever, but times had changed. The colleges from which it's easiest to end up at a top grad school are, I would think, ones that have enough 800-scorer applicants that they could select only those who were also well-rounded.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"The colleges from which it's easiest to end up at a top grad school are, I would think, ones that have enough 800-scorer applicants that they could select only those who were also well-rounded."

HYPS, yes. But Chicago/ other Ivies/ Duke/ Northwestern/ etc less so; and MIT/ Caltech undergrads get into grad schools just fine.

The absent-minded tweedy English professor isn't quite the same character as the eccentric mad genius. But as far as I can tell, math, chem, physics, and even econ and the quant social sciences remain entirely open to eccentric mad geniuses, and they show no sign of having played JV sports to become well-rounded.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Fair enough. Part of what could be throwing me off is that because it was expected at my high school that nearly everyone would go to college, but that few had a legacy or superwealth-related edge. There was a sense that colleges (and not just the top three) a) would only take so many from our high school, and b) would be especially concerned that they'd be getting math nerds. Unless a kid proved himself (argh, or herself) with math genius, as opposed to impressive SAT scores, that wouldn't be enough.

Anyway, I have one last, lingering doubt on this. A lot of the time, the kids who don't come across as well-rounded nevertheless participated in activities in high school that would have allowed them to seem normal in applications, and that would have given them an edge even at places that aren't Harvard. Once arrived, they may ditch the pretense of well-roundedness and embrace pasty eccentricity, but that doesn't mean they never distinguished themselves from other applicants through extracurriculars. (I'm fairly certain I don't give off a played-team-sports vibe, and yet.)

Paul Gowder said...

I'm not sure I understand the relationship between absentmindedness, and unattractive clothes, and having weird research, and being easily pranked by students, and not being able to function without slavish secretaries... all these different properties associated with the eccentric professor and all wrapped up into the profusion of blog posts on the topic.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes - the inept high-school-teacher cliché has been conflated with the I'm-the-next-Sartre, I'm-too-much-of-a-genius-to-hand-back-papers-on-time-or-bathe-regularly university prof. The former can most certainly be female. (My high school chemistry teacher, the tiny old woman with powdered sugar from her beloved jelly donuts all over her shirt/face comes to mind.) The latter tend to be male.

Miss Self-Important said...

For my part, the more female academics I have a chance to evaluate (it takes more time in universities to get a good sample size of them than of men), the more I like the frumpy, unprofessional-looking ones. But there is a unisex sub-species of frump--let's call it hipster-frump--that seems particularly to plague the younger ones and is extremely repellent.

Britta said...

There seems to be a confusion between grad and undergrad. At the undergrad level, even with a 1600 (or whatever it is now), if you have no extra curriculars and/or mediocre grades Chicago, Duke, Cornell, etc. probably won't take you. People seem to be positing this huge gulf between the type of student who gets into HYP and the student who gets into the rest of the elite stratum of schools, but that just doesn't exist. (At some level, 18 y.o.s are just pretty accomplished, and it's a crap shoot if you get into Harvard but not Chicago). If you are otherwise unremarkable but test really well, your best bet is to go on a scholarship to your state school or a less selective regional liberal arts school or private university which is looking to bump up its test score statistics. (E.g. I know two classmates like this, one who went to Whitman College in Washington, one who went to William & Mary. Both are good but not top schools).

At the grad level, it's true that in certain fields the GRE (or LSAT or MCAT) is the determiner. No 800 in quant, and your chances of getting into a top econ dept. are nil. Conversely, with mediocre grades and a top MCAT score, you might be able to still head to a top med school. In other fields GREs are less important (though still used as a weeder tool by universities, and by some professors still seen as an IQ test), but ultimately won't get you accepted. (One top professor told me in my field when I was applying "we want you to take the GRE so we can see how smart you are.") Regardless of whether a discipline cares about test scores, none of them care if you are well-rounded, but rather if you have potential to contribute to the field.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Regardless of whether a discipline cares about test scores, none of them care if you are well-rounded, but rather if you have potential to contribute to the field."

I think that's right, but that the well-roundedness requirement eliminates many from running long before they reach senior year of college. To reconcile your point and Jacob Levy's, I think the answer is, things have changed. Chicago used to admit insufficiently-rounded eccentrics. These days many places can pick and choose among straight-A students with great test scores.

Flavia said...

I agree, generally, with your larger point about the professionalism and pre-professionalism of academics, but I'm not convinced of the connection to "well-roundedness" or the college admissions process.

I knew quite a few people in college (HYP) who qualified as eccentric--though there were certainly others who seemed glossy and well-rounded to a fault. It's my sense that someone who is, say, a passionate musician/composer, does not need ALSO to be an athlete and a writer for the student newspaper to get admitted. Well-roundedness can translate as "same old boring overachiever," and someone with an obvious passion both stands out more in the admission pool and seems more likely to be the next great whatever (where "whatever" is something other than banker, lawyer, consultant).

Thing is, those people don't usually go straight to grad school--or if they do, they drop out (sometimes returning later, or enrolling in a totally different kind of program down the line).

Let's also recall that a lot of the eccentricities of old-guard academics were enabled, in one way or another, by economic privilege: young men who may have been socially hapless, but who were well off/connected enough to go to the right colleges and to afford grad school in the pre-stipend era, and who were able (in an earlier job market) to count on a job that allowed them to support a wife who typed their manuscripts, raised their kids, and maybe, once in a while, laundered those shabby, stained clothes.

David Schraub said...

I think there is at least one female wacky prof archetype -- call it the "Professor Trelawney", most typically found in anthro departments. Usually quite smart, but very airy, out of it, frazzled hair (in the archetype). I definitely have an image in mind.