The other day a friend of mine who works in academe (she used to curl with me but after only one year couldn’t take it any more — not that I blame her or anything, this happens around me more than you’d think; she’s also sort of named after a moderately famous literary computer scientist) ‘shared’ something on what the bingo callers, talking heads and pundits like to call ‘Social Media.’ In particular, she pointed out an article in the Guardian on why, among people doing Ph.D. degrees, more women than men appear not to desire to pursue careers in academia. (The study was specifically done on chemists so it’s not entirely safe to extrapolate too far, but it does point to a potentially troubling gender asymmetry.)
The article got me to thinking — when and why did I decide not to pursue a career as an academic? Part of it was due to the employment climate of the time of course — jobs in my particular corner of academe were exceedingly rare: in essence you had to wait for someone who was roughly twenty years older than you to win the lottery, come into an inheritance or die prematurely. If that happened you still had to hope that the job would be filled and filled by someone with your particular specialty (since my specialty was ‘nothing’ this part was, um, a little tricky) then you had to be the best damned candidate in a forest of applicants, all of them at least as qualified as you and probably less annoying to boot. The prospect of — at best — spending decades as a doomed postdoc of no fixed abode didn’t really appeal to me. (In those pre-weeb days there weren’t tens of thousands of people eager to tell you how unpleasant that would be. It was enough that the postdoc in the next office was trying to support a family of four on roughly the same salary that I had as a grad student.)
That was strike one.
Strike two was what you had to look forward to if you actually succeeded. As a junior professor you’d be asked to teach the courses no one else wanted to teach while at the same time sitting on every damned committee that no one at all wanted to sit on, all the while cranking out papers like some sort of relentless, unstoppable machine. (Kind of like this, now that I think of it. Only less violent. And without an Austrian accent.) And in the end it might not even work. Call me a quitter if you like, but that didn’t really sound like a lot of fun to me.
As for strike three, well, to be a professor you have to wear uncomfortable clothes (and I’ve only worn a necktie three times since 1987) and have a strong dose of savoir-faire. Which, well, I don’t.
I knew about the neck ornaments (which is strike two-and-a-half all by itself) but I didn’t know about the savoir-faire bit until one morning after playing hockey.
In those days grad students and some of their friends and colleagues played hockey on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 AM. This ungodly hour was chosen because the ice was a little cheaper and also because, with only a minimal amount of attention to efficiency it was entirely possible to shower, change and still be at work by 9:30 with the entire day still ahead of you. Of course, grad students being what they are that didn’t always happen but it was possible.
But not everyone who played with that group was a lazy-ass grad student. Heck, some of the students (not many, certainly not me) were motivated and hardworking. Plus there were also postdocs, RAs and even a few professors (only one of whom I ever hit ‘down there’ with a slap shot) and most of them made an effort to do the 9:30 thing. (Some of them even succeeded.) In particular, one of the professors (the one that habitually played in a Red Army sweater, not that that’s relevant to the story) taught a course with a lecture at 9:30. Professors are normally expected to attend their own lectures so after every game we were treated to a demonstration of quiet efficiency and economy of action: hit the bench, strip off the equipment, load the bag, hit the shower, towel off, don the suit, tie the tie, head out the door.
Until one week his established routine was disrupted. (Before you ask, I had nothing to do with it.) He was putting on his suit and not wasting time pondering the age-old fasten/zip dilemma when…
the zipper on his pants broke. Catastrophically.
This disrupted his well-oiled and practised routine. Broken pants. Who ever heard of broken pants? More importantly, what’s a Serious Academic to do? He couldn’t just skip them, that would undoubtedly cause… consternation. But he couldn’t very well wear them. Could he? And there wasn’t time to rush home for a non-defective change of clothes. He could have borrowed something but let’s face it — borrowing from a grad student’s wardrobe is complete madness.
A dilemma to be sure. He solved it like any good physicist would, with efficiency, creativity, quiet humour and using the tools at hand.
In particular, his necktie. (Not.) He tied it so that the front bit (which I just learned is called the ‘blade‘ — the internet: not just for porn) hung down to mid-thigh, thus covering any potential… let’s call it an ‘area of controversy.’ And off he went, only a couple of minutes behind schedule and only a little (yeah, right) unfashionable.
Of course, several ‘helpful’ individuals (ahem) turned up in his lecture, sat in the back row and were remarkably focussed in their attempts to provoke a, I think it’s called a ‘wardrobe malfunction.’ He put up with the antics of these halfwits with remarkable grace, avoided an embarrassing scenario and presented a pretty good lecture on certain aspects of classical mechanics. Savoir-faire.
I couldn’t do that. Stee-rike THREE!