This and That

  • I had an invited talk at a conference I don’t usually attend and there I met one of my former grad students, who’s now happily employed in industry. He said how one of his younger friends from his postdoc group had tried to talk to me at an earlier conference this summer, but couldn’t get to me because I was ‘too popular.’ I almost choked on my fourth coffee. I am so not a superstar; it’s hilarious that someone would see me as perpetually besieged and thus unapproachable. Although I suppose one can be a big fish if the pond is small enough. Or something.
  • You know how most people feel science is boring? I don’t know what happened to me, maybe it’s the effect of reading and writing too much fiction, but I find myself very easily annoyed and almost impossible to amuse by scientific papers. Have papers always been this goddamn awful? Or have I been exposed to an unusually bad batch of poorly written and creatively infinitesimal technical prose?
  • Maybe this is the real reason why only some hobbies are acceptable for academics in STEM fields? When you start writing fiction, technical writing becomes unbearable? The slow and painful and decidedly non-flashy nature of scientific research looks dull and drab, and, once you see it, you cannot un-see it?

Anyhow, a bit more on the acceptability of hobbies for STEMcademics. Anything physical is obviously OK, lauded even (e.g., running, rock climbing, whitewater rafting), as are music and painting, although I don’t know many practicing painters or musicians among scientists, even though I hear math and music often go together, so often that my tin ear must mean that I am deluded about my ability to do advanced math. But yes, there are a lot of runners and gym rats among STEM folks. Artisanal baking or cooking are OK, too.

Some other hobbies appear to be shameful. Nobody ever confesses to gaming or to watching movies or TV shows. A number of my colleagues lament how they wish they had more time for movies or TV, thereby simultaneously boasting how virtuously busy they are (protestant work ethic?) and signaling how lowly of a pastime they consider video entertainment to be. Then there are the hobbies that involve parts of the brain that should be used in cranking out papers, such as blogging or writing. One should never admit to engaging in these hobbies, lest one wants to be told they have too much time on their hands and should spend it writing papers instead.

I wonder how people would react to saying you don’t just occasionally play an instrument, you compose music and/or are seriously involved with a band or an orchestra. Or that you don’t just cook for your family, you’re actually a part-time chef at a restaurant and/or have written cookbooks. Or that you aren’t just a gamer, that you develop and sell games (unless you’re in CS and specialize in computer graphics or animation). Or that you’re a lifestyle or makeup vlogger. Or that you paint or sculpt so avidly that you’ve exhibited your art and/or made some serious coin off the hobby.

While running marathons seems to be universally lauded, because physical exercise is considered a good destressor and generally beneficial to your performance on the job, it seems to me that being too serious about nearly any other pursuit might raise eyebrows of colleagues; they think it siphons creativity from where it is supposed to lie: your job. As if creativity is a well you can only deplete, as if it’s not replenished (at least for some of us) by a large variety of creative pursuits.

This attitude has even been coded in the university effort reporting protocols. You don’t report the fraction of a 40-hour workweek you spend on a project; you report a percentage of your overall expended effort; presumably, when it comes to work hours, sky is the limit. There is an underlying assumption that all your effort goes into your job.

Remember Ken Cosgrove on Mad Men, who wrote science fiction? His boss Roger Sterling told him to knock it off, because the advertising job (where a client shot Cosgrove in the eye) provided everything a man could possibly need. If I remember correctly, the following night, Cosgrove wrote a sci-fi story about a robot who could only turn one knob on or off.

Not sure where I’m going with this.

Sometimes I get really grumpy about how little of myself I can show to the world, and how little the people with whom I interact get to know me and I them. It’s probably for the best, I know, for people usually consider me to be too much along every imaginable axis, but this making of myself small and palatable and partitioning of the self into bite-sized pieces is exhausting, saddening, enraging. I had a 15-min meeting with our (newish) department chair which took me two months to schedule, yet I could tell that she couldn’t wait for me to leave. She’s always been friendly and polite, but I’ve always had the feeling that whatever time we’re scheduled to spend together is too long.

So few of us really know each other. It would be nice to be known by someone other than kids and husband. But, if to be known is to always to be considered too much, then perhaps maybe not.

One could say that your colleagues are not your friends and I suppose that’s fine. But we spend decades working alongside one another, it’s almost a shame not to develop something resembling friendships, kind of like with neighbors — life thrusts you together, why not make the best of it? But most colleagues are focused on their work and family and don’t want to broach anything non-work related and don’t seem to (although, how would I even know?) have much going on outside family and work, except maybe church. Outside work, I’ve made some near-friendships in town, parents of my kids’ friends and folks in my sci-fi book club. It’s all great, but again, my foreignness (everyone else is local) and my general intensity freak everyone out. So I tone myself down, enforce quiet and passivity, and focus on absorbing. I think many people want to be heard, but don’t necessarily hear others. They want an audience, but never listen. Wanting people to consider you as a real multifaceted person, as someone who’s not just a minor character in their narrative, appears to always be an imposition.


  1. I have as friends 2 colleagues and their spouses and they really really know me, the silly side too, and it is wonderful to be oneself without measuring the whole time what you’re saying. Took me 4 years 🙂 Also, being single does nothing for social life at an age when everyone is married.

  2. I feel your pain. I am a “serious” triathlete and now assistant professor. At some point in grad school, I realized it was prudent to minimize the publicity of my training. I train way past the point of destressing, and on some days I show up to work too tired to seriously think until after lunch. While colleagues respect good athletes, they don’t necessarily respect the training that it takes to get there. But I have a very supportive spouse (also an athlete and academic) who reminds me that if I can’t live my life my way, then this job is no longer worthwhile 🙂 Now that I started my assistant professor job the training has been taking a backseat… I hope that in a few years, I can ramp it up again because I really love racing and training.

  3. The particular prejudices against outside activities varies with the field and the place. Gaming (particularly D&D and other role-playing games) is fairly common among engineering faculty. Reading fiction and attending theater performances are common among STEM faculty (many retirees are high up on the theater donor lists). One of our top engineering faculty routinely played trombone with the local symphony and opera groups. One of our chemistry faculty is writing the libretto for a Star Trek opera (which is being composed by a music faculty member).

    I have gone through various hobbies over the years (and plan to return to some of them after I retire): weaving, bicycle activism, hobbyist electronics, 3D printing, … . The hobbyist electronics lead me to create an intro course on electronics, and my main scholarly work now is writing (and endlessly rewriting) the textbook for that course.

    When I was interviewing for assistant professor positions, I brought along some needlepoint work for the dead times on planes and waiting for appointments—it was tiny (a belt on a small roller frame I had made) and quickly packed away whenever I needed to interact with people. I still have that belt, though I don’t think it fits me any more.

    I have seen signs that getting too good at things other than “the job” are treated as suspicious, though, so being a bit quiet about activities other than grant writing (the only thing the administration cares about) is probably wise.

    I think that intensity is more tolerated on the East Coast (and to a lesser extent the West Coast) than in the Midwest, and diversity of interests more tolerated on the West Coast. The Midwest likes people to fit into simple stereotypes (the bachelor farmer, the jock, the cheerleader, the town drunk, the lawyer, …). The stereotypes available for professors are rather limiting.

  4. You are misstating how effort reporting works. “Percent effort” for these purposes is percent professional effort, defined as effort related to your employment as a faculty member at your university. So peer review of grants & paperz in your field is professional effort for a science professor. Editorial screening of short story submissions to a scifi ‘zine isn’t, unless you’re a literature professor. There is no sense in which the standards of effort reporting embody the assumption that all of your physical and/or mental effort belongs to the university or whatever. And yes, obviously there are gray areas.

  5. We would for sure be friends. My favorite types are weird/intense people. Maybe I’m lucky to have found several colleagues (both in my department, but also elsewhere on campus) that I consider friends, who are pleasantly eccentric. We live in the Midwest, but I am certainly not FROM the Midwest and do not consider myself a Midwesterner. However, most/all of my academic friends are also not from the Midwest, so I don’t really feel like where you are should necessarily define people’s types within academia. How many Professors actually get jobs in their hometown/region? Maybe it’s because my University isn’t that “good” so it attracts more “balanced” people… or maybe people feel more allowed to be “balanced” because they don’t have to be ultra-super-amazing-famous here… (and certainly aren’t treated that well even if they try to be)… just decently productive and good at what they do. I’m also a bit younger, so I am still “friends” with some of the students, and they are definitely pretty “weird” in all different and wonderful ways, so we get along great, and that fulfills some of my social craving (water cooler talk, etc.). I’m curious how this dynamic will change. I’m actually friends with people who are both much older and much younger than myself.

    I have two serious hobbies: exercise (weight lifting) and gardening. Also a kid and stepkids. Who are involved in multiple activities. And we watch like 30 minutes of Netflix/etc per day. I don’t spend nearly enough time on work. I certainly don’t play up my hobbies, though will own them if it comes to it. I’m sure my level of seriousness with them becomes obvious to anyone who pays any attention. Even if they fall into the “acceptable” category, I definitely spend too much time on them.

    I also think science can be kind of boring. I do like it sometimes, of course, but it would be nice if there was a little bit more pizzazz involved (more problems, ideas, and concepts; less minutia).

  6. Ugh, I feel you on the hobbies thing. My grad mentor was ALL about this nonsense. He would talk about how part of being an academic was showing that you are also a “true intellectual” and spouted off about how having interests like the symphony, fine wines, and expressing the proper political opinions, and certain sports like running was to be lauded but with anything else keep it to one hobby and keep quiet about it.

    Fortunately it all ended up being a bunch of bourgeoisie nonsense… While a few folks at my institution are into stuff like that, all of us have interests like sports, television, games, etc.

  7. Hear you on all of this.

    I try to make a point of telling my trainees occasionally about TV I watch (Crazy Ed Girlfriend, Bojack Horseman, etc.), “time-wasting” brief obsessions I research to death before flitting to another hobby (beekeeping, multifamily investing, etc), so they don’t get the mistaken impression I’m a machine or some “pure scholar” or whatever. I do feel there can be excessive humblebragging among academics about what hobbies we make time for.

    On vacation recently it struck me that I need to write to be happier. I need to write snarky essays with my real views on things and relevant experiences, under a pseudonym if ever published (which it probably won’t be). It would be better not to publish under a pseudonym, but I want to write a bit about my family and my own and others’ rampant hypocrisies… the truth, which will not help me get tenure. Lolz.

  8. Another great post!

    I’m not sure exercise is universally lauded. Some colleagues lament how they don’t have time to exercise, at least not during the week. It blows my mind because just about every US university has a pretty decent on-campus recreational facility that’s just a few minutes walk from the office.

  9. Really interesting thoughts here. It amused me how much your list of “acceptable” hobbies reflects what I see on colleagues’ social media. My one disagreement, similar to gasstationwithoutpumps above, is gaming. Our social life with colleagues (limited though it may be) is about 50% playing board games. We play board games with a chemist couple, with a math couple, with another math friend, and with a friend who’s part of the academic computing center. Some of these people regularly host gaming afternoons where they invite everyone to come, play games, let kids run wild, and order in food. It’s fun! And there were board game nights organized by grad students when I was in grad school — it seems to have persisted quite neatly into our 30s. Maybe this is also part of the difference of being at a liberal arts school, but off the top of my head I can think of colleagues who are vocal about some pretty serious and time-intensive hobbies, like semi-professional music (from a department chair in chemistry), gardening, ceramics (we have an amazing studio in town), etc. I’m not best buds with my departmental colleagues, but my family goes apple picking with one of the other families every year, and another regularly hosts department parties at his house where all our kids take over his in-ground pool.

    I think maybe it’s a condition of academia that you never feel seen by others. We have a pretty active social life, but I do feel that even our closest relationships stop short of the intimacy that I developed with friends in my 20s. Sometimes it seems like we might know all the details of each other’s lives, but not how this person truly thinks or feels about any of them. I miss the meaning-of-life conversations that were so much more common in teens and 20s. But I think that when you start developing a friendship later, it’s just harder to reach that level of intimacy. Part of it is having kids who interrupt your conversations every 10 seconds and don’t give you time for yourself let alone a leisurely meal with a friend, but I don’t think that’s all of it. In academia, when you’re uprooting yourself every few years in your 20s, it’s just hard to put down those sorts of roots and form those sorts of relationships. But the more thoughts like yours I read on the internet, the more I realize we’re all hungry for it. Are we really all just sustaining ourselves on relationships with a spouse / occasional deep phone calls with distant old friends?

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