Professors come in a wide variety: the stodgy literature professor who hasn’t cracked a smile from behind his mustache in 40 years; the searingly brilliant mathematician who can never remember where she put her car keys (spoiler alert: she rode a bike here); the aging-hippie history prof who schluffs around the front of the room in Birkenstocks, spinning captivating anecdotes about the Civil War but, who you know, in his heart, is still on Phish tour in the early-90s. And don’t forget the long-suffering adjunct, subsisting on a diet of vending machine snacks and toiling in the cruel obscurity of your university’s vaunted doctoral program.
It takes all kinds to make a university go ’round. But most of them have something in common. They’re a pretty weird bunch. Eccentricity ripples through the ivory tower like fog mists over a mountaintop. Why are academics so strange? Why are professors so peculiar? Does the doctoral beget the oddball, or does oddness predispose one to a PhD?
These questions prompted us to think of frequently paraphrased and mis-attributed quote which, in actuality, belongs to French intellectual and Revolution-era writer Germaine de Staël . When her “De l’Allemagne” was excerpted and translated to English for 1814 publication in The Universal Magazine, it produced the following observation:
“… sometimes even in the habitual course of life, the reality of this world disappears all at once, and we feel ourselves in the middle of its interests as we should at a ball, where we did not hear the music; the dancing that we saw there would appear insane.”
This is a romantic take on professorial eccentricity, to be sure, but it probably won’t help you communicate effectively during office hours?
Lucky for you, we’ve come up with 10 answers that may actually help you relate a little better to the colorful character lecturing before you:
Earning a doctoral is a monumental test of endurance. The process of formulating your own research question, performing your experiment, defending your findings, and publishing your dissertation will be the most difficult hurdle of your academic life. The experience is at turns energizing and demoralizing, inspiring and demeaning, buoyed by dreams of greatness and grounded by harsh reality. This process—which could occupy anywhere between three, five, and seven years of your life—is a marathon that will test your threshold for burnout, rejection, self-doubt, and sleeplessness–a long period of obscurity flecked by occasional glimpses at clarity. And it is on the strength of those glimpses that one must build a career and future. A high attrition rate is necessary to root out those who aren’t qualified to stand at the top of their respective fields. But what of those who survive into the professorship? Be assured that these individuals have lived in the academic trenches, and they are changed for it in ways that can only be understood by those who have also been there.
Before you question your professor’s weirdness, ask yourself this: how weird would you be if there was little risk of losing your job for it? That’s the beauty of tenure. Once earned, tenure affords a professor a lifetime of job security. The point of tenure is that it allows distinguished academics the freedom to speak, conduct research, and pursue projects without fear that their methods or objectives will result in dismissal. In essence, what this means is that you can’t lose your job just for moving to the beat of your own drummer. Those of us who work in accounting firms, HR departments, and ad agencies may moonlight as weirdos on the weekend, but we have to button all of that up on Monday morning, lest we be considered a poor fit for an otherwise straight-laced company culture. Simply stated, professors don’t have to pretend to be normal.
The other thing that tenure protects is the right to free speech and freedom of expression. Unlike your high school teachers, your college professors are allowed to use foul language, express political opinions, and disclose just a little too much information about their personal affairs. This can make for a more compelling political science course…or for a really awkward physics course. Either way, your professor is fully within his or her rights to use the full scope of the First Amendment in the line of duty. This makes the professorship unique among professions. The power to speak one’s mind is the power to be as strange as one wants.
Is it that your professor is strange, or that she is so deeply immersed in a single subject area that all else seems abstract and unimportant? Both. It’s definitely both. But it’s true that for some academics, the world is divided into two categories: your area of study, and everything else. One who believes that nothing else matters but advancement in the field of organic chemistry may have precious little time for things that we might consider normal like television, socializing, or owning a hairbrush. One who lives entirely within classical literature may seem in some ways to be almost isolated from the modern world surrounding the rest of us. Devoting first your education, and subsequently, your professional life, to a single subject may denote a very specific kind of brilliance and, simultaneously, a uniquely aloof relationship with everything else outside of that subject.
Some choose a life in academics because it provides the opportunity for deep, immersive, and constructive solitude. Of course, collaboration and interaction are required in your pursuit of a doctoral. But if you like long, quiet hours spent reading, researching, writing, and reflecting, the doctoral could be a decade well-spent for you. This is one of those chicken-versus-egg things. Did the natural introvert choose the doctoral? Or did the doctoral create the introvert? Seems like a worthy topic for a dissertation actually. While the causation may be unclear, the correlation can’t be missed, and it’s possibly one reason your professor is incalculably brilliant when it comes to calculus, but prone to fits of anxious boredom at the thought of a conversation over a pint.
Not all of your professors are highly-decorated, modestly famous, and protected by tenure. Some are adjunct professors. In fact, according to Resilient Educator, of roughly 1.5 million faculty instructing in four-year degree programs, 47% are adjunct professors. Adjuncts are typically part-time, contract-basis instructors. More often than not, adjuncts have earned a master’s degree in their area of focus and are now currently enrolled in a doctoral program. Just like full professors, your adjuncts may be pretty strange folk inherently, but there’s also a conditional factor here. Remember what we told you about the long and difficult journey toward a doctoral? Consider that this is what your adjunct professor is experiencing every waking moment outside of your classroom. Now consider that this adjunct is probably working as many (or more) hours as a full professor designing curricula, grading assignments, and holding office hours (even though most adjuncts don’t actually have an office). Now add to this an hourly payscale without benefits. Is your adjunct weird, or just really tired, frustrated, and anxious? Probably all of these things. So regardless of how strange your adjunct professor may seem, be kind.
Ever heard of the Biosphere II experiment? It was this ambitious but quixotic experiment in the early 90s during which a group of experimenters agreed to isolate themselves from the world inside a closed ecological system in the middle of the Arizona desert. Among their various goals, they hoped to further the prospect of space colonization through their findings. Why do I lead with this seemingly random anecdote? Because I’m a weird academic, and weird academics love circuitous anecdotes. But, here’s the point. The individuals engaged in the experiment basically went mad in their isolation, descending into a condition that one participant thereafter termed “confined environment psychology.” For those who live life entirely within the academy, the outside world may feel like another universe. The pace, goals, and environment of a campus, a lecture hall, or a research laboratory can feel a million miles away from the rush of commerce, the momentum of politics, or the din of celebrity culture. Those who stay within the bubble may stave off madness, but there’s an insular culture that inclines one to imbibe in a quaff of quirk. Oh, and just between us, read more about the Biosphere at your leisure. Wild stuff.
Neuroscience tells us that the brain’s two hemispheres function in two completely distinct ways. The left hemisphere is associated with logical reasoning, linear thinking, mathematical process, and fact-based perception whereas the left hemisphere is associated with imagination, artistic inclination, visualization, intuition, and emotional acuity. There is a theory which holds that each of us is either left-brained—prone to analytical and scientific thinking—or right-brained—prone to creative and artistic thinking. There is absolutely no scientific proof that this theory is true, but it’s worth mentioning because, whatever the reason, some of us are indeed more scientific in nature, while others of us are prone to creativity. It is perhaps the case that the professorship is more frequently a calling to those who lean hard in one direction or the other—that professors are often a prime example of what we might call extremely left-brained or extremely right-brained people. When one removes all nuance, either extreme might come off as a bit eccentric.
Your elementary and high school teachers have been formally trained as actual educators. Most professors have not, and it shows. Professors are experts in their respective fields, and many are highly trained in research, well-published, and are, in some cases, rather polished public speakers. But these qualifications have also allowed many to bypass the formal channels of a teaching education. So what may come off as eccentricity may in fact be inexperience, discomfort or indifference to the conventions of curriculum, pedagogy, or evaluation. Professors experience little to no professional development as actual educators, which is hardly meant to impugn the wisdom they have to share. But it may be one explanation for unusual classroom demeanor. On the other hand…
So you think your professor is strange, possibly even crazy? Sure, crazy like a fox. As a student, you are bombarded with information, material, lectures, and social media. It takes a lot to get and keep your attention. You can choose what to absorb, what to tune out, and what to sleep through. The strangest professors are also often the most captivating speakers, the most fascinating thinkers, the most inspiring teachers. Unorthodox methods can lead to indelible memories. Your professors may be strange but they’re also quite intelligent. Those who stand apart from the dull hum of information with their own idiosyncrasies are often the most effective at providing you with information that actually sticks.
Our goal here is neither to frighten you away from your own doctoral experience, nor to alienate you from your professors. To the former, we intend only to provide fair warning, and to the latter, we hope to extend a greater appreciation for where these eccentricities come from, and why they may actually be a key ingredient in that rare elixir which makes for professorial excellence.
Now that you know what your professors have been through, you might be just a little better prepared for your own journey into a life of hardcore academia. Start with a look at:
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