Note: When I was recently roaming around in the FSP archives to classify my 2009 posts by general topics, I found that in some cases I had absolutely no idea what the post was about based only on the title of the post. In the future, if I look back at 2010 posts, I have a feeling that this may be one of those posts. Today's title, however, is not entirely random; it contains some keywords that are central to this post.
In the recent Lorrie Moore book, A Gate at the Stair, which I very much enjoyed reading*, there is a quote by one of the characters, the mother of a college-aged daughter:
"Hmph.. Academics.. They all shoot from the hip. And the hip is always in the chair."
I didn't really get her point, and neither did the character's husband, who asked "What did you say?" and she replied:
"Keeping a safe distance never keeps one from having an opinion, is all. Having no dog in the race doesn't keep people from having extremely large cats."
OK, I get it now (sort of). I even happen to be an academic with some extremely large cats.
The reference expresses the classic view about academics being far removed from the real life that everyone else is supposedly experiencing. We keep a safe distance from.. well, how would I know? Given that most of us professors do leave campus from time to time to do many of the things that real people do, why is it so common for us to be considered so isolated from the rest of the world?
Of course, one thing that makes many professors different from most non-academics is job security. That's an important difference, but I don't think it is sufficient to explain the view exemplified in the quotation above. Tenure alone can't explain why we don't have a dog in the race (but we do have extremely large cats).
And yet, for various reasons, only some of which are valid, professors are commonly considered and portrayed as living in a strange and different world. The way that campuses tend to be arranged and the apparent distance of many academic disciplines from "normal" life accentuate the appearance of isolation, but I don't see how this is substantially different from many other professions.
On the same day that I read the above passage in The Gate at the Stair, I also read a newspaper article that referred to the esoteric world of academia, contrasting it with the real world. Is academia just a long, strange dream that some of us are having (in our desk chairs)?
Esoteric can refer to something belonging to a select few. Presumably this applies to various types of knowledge, such as medicine, law, or piano tuning, but it is typically used to mean arcane when applied to academia.
Alas. What to do, other than to sit here in my chair shooting from my hip despite not having a dog in the race? I guess I will just give my opinions, such as they are:
- The view of academia as a separate entity from the rest of the world seems to be pervasive;
- This is undeserved in many cases and is a mild symptom of anti-intellectualism;
- I bet there are many professions in which people spend more time in their office chairs than professors do and yet this is not seen as a sign of being removed from the real world; and
- I have some extremely large cats. I may have mentioned that before.
* at least until the last 25% of it or so, at which point I didn't like it so much. But before it got too grim, I loved it. I particularly laughed at the description of the main character's first Intro to Sufism class.
2 months ago