Academics are not always very likeable. This isn’t just the popular stereotype found in the pages of campus novels of the bookish but socially challenged swot or the egomaniac self-publicist that communicates his or her elevated status at every available opportunity. No, it’s not simply that university teachers get a bad press. Academics themselves don’t much like other academics, and often feel deep estrangement from their colleagues as people. Perhaps part of the problem is that our forms of self-presentation are tied to the modern academic desire to be taken seriously – that is, the embodiment of entrepreneurialism, ‘being smart’ and ‘world-class’ braininess. This means many of our most appealing human qualities are kept hidden like closely guarded secrets. We are always doing our best not to give too much away.
Today I went to a meeting hosted by a national research council. It invited grant holders past and present to come together to discuss a research programme and to ‘network’. All of the thirty or so academics present were successful people from a wide variety of disciplines. The facilitator suggested that in order to get to know each other we go around the room and introduce ‘yourself, your respective projects, say something about what you want out of the day’. Then, finally, he suggested, ‘say something about you that others may not be aware of’. ‘Oh no’, I whispered to myself as a collective groan of self-consciousness seemed to rumble around the room.
We started with the visiting speaker from the research council who gave an impressive account of his credentials but chose a diversionary tactic when it came to saying something about himself. ‘Something about me? Well I’ve never been on X Factor.’ I was next in line and said, ‘I haven’t been on X Factor either but I am a working musician.’ As more people introduced themselves a picture emerged of the secret lives of academics. A young women from the research council said, ‘My passion is Tudor history.’ Another said rather solemnly, ‘I am a bee keeper.’ Among the group there were also allotment holders, chicken breeders and people who had recently taken up tango dancing. A folk musician said she’d not long ago performed at a prestigious venue in Lancaster and a portly and bespectacled senior professor told us, ‘My claim to fame is that in the 60s I gave Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones guitar lessons – not that it did him much good.’ A woman in perfect BBC received pronunciation said, ‘You wouldn’t know it from my accent but I am Glaswegian.’ Another member of the group told us she was an opera singer while a younger female academic said that surfing trips to Cornwall in a yellow camper van provided her way to escape the pressures of academic life. My favourite moment was when a seemingly austere middle-aged academic confessed that he had ‘been known to juggle and eat fire’.
By the end of the ‘ice-breaker’ my opinion of the exercise had not only thawed but I’d also warmed to my academic colleagues.
During the course of the day I found myself looking around the room smiling to myself as I watched this wonderfully strange collection of bee keepers, folk singers and fire eaters all doing their best to not give up on what American musicians call their ‘straight jobs’.