Wednesday, March 9, 2011

So...What Do You Want To Talk About?

My wife and a couple of her professor-friends wanted to know if they are socially awkward. I started to respond in generalities, discussing the great number of academics I have met the past 15 years. This, they interrupted, was not what they were asking. They wanted to know if THEY themselves are socially awkward. I gave them the best answer I could, considering that I truly enjoy their company. But I then retreated back to the safety of generalities.

During the course of the conversation I said that one of the things I have noticed about many social scientists is their inability to talk about much other than their own field. My wife and her friends agreed this is true, but they did not see it as a problem, since their own field is objectively the most interesting possible topic anyone could raise. They were mostly serious.

This led me to formulate a theory on the fly, but here it is five days later and it still seems true to me. My theory is this: People who choose academia as a career and end up in research positions get to that point because they LOVE thinking about certain topics. Their job is to ponder the things they like to think about anyway.
Most other people end up in jobs for other reasons.

I am a teacher. I didn’t end up in teaching because I love to think about and talk about teaching. I ended up in teaching because I love to teach. The thinking and talking about teaching only happen when I am with other teachers—and even then the topic gets pretty boring pretty fast.

Most people have jobs so that they can get a paycheck and live a life away from work. If they are lucky, they enjoy what they do for their paychecks. But the real enjoyment of life for most people comes away from work.

Academics are different from most people. They get enjoyment outside of work by thinking and talking about the things they think and talk about AT work. And they don’t always understand that other people might not share their fascination with whatever their chosen field is. The most socially adept academics do one of two things: they realize they need to broaden the list of topics they are willing to discuss, or they find a way to make their own field sound truly interesting to non-academics.

So, I am curious. Is my theory true?
Take a minute and respond to this post by answering a couple of questions in the comment box below.

1) What is your job?
2) Are most (>75%) of your friends employed in your field?
3) Are most of your out-of-work conversations about your job?
4) Do you LOVE your work?
5) Is work mostly something you do because you need money?


  1. I think if you get a sizable group of ANY co-workers together, they'll discuss their industry at the expense of others. The trick is to make sure the single-industry concentration is low.

    That said: (1) editor; (2) thank God no; (3) see #2; (4) depends on the day; (5) I would need to work even if I didn't need the money. Or maybe just stay busy.

  2. Thanks for this exploration. 1) A am an academic, a researcher, a social scientist. I am not, however, defined by these distinctions. 2)Hardly any of my friends are in my field. 3) Very few of my conversations are about my job, unless I am explaining what I do. That said, when I am doing field research I tend to tell stories, but of people I meet, not "my job" per se. 4) I sometimes love my work, and sometimes I don't, but I wouldn't stay if I loved it less. Life's too short. 5)I most definitely need the money, and the benefits, and that's sometimes all that's the prime motivator. Sometimes that has to be enough. Thank goodness, not always.

  3. I'm a teacher, too. I did not know I loved to teach until I was in grad school, on a teaching fellowship. I thought I wanted to be an academic, because, for a time, I did enjoy hanging out with folks who wanted to discuss such subjects as phallocentric codes in language, and so forth. At some point during grad school, however, I became disenchanted with the academic conversations, and more interested in our weekly meetings about teaching. And I found, much to my surprise, that I enjoyed being in the classroom.

    Most of my friends are not teachers, perhaps because I'm an adjunct and don't often get to see my colleagues. I would say that more of my out-of-work conversations are about parenting.

    I LOVE teaching, though not necessarily what I teach at the moment (comp). I'm also thinking seriously about getting a degree in school counseling. The intereaction with students is the best part of the job.

    Money? Ha ha ha!!!