Academics: Still Totally Lame

By Sean Carroll | September 24, 2007 5:10 pm

And Deirdre McCloskey wins the award for most ostentatious lameness. Not that I have anything really against Deirdre McCloskey; she’s an influential economist, a gifted writer, and has a compelling personal story to boot. But still.

Here’s the thing: the Chronicle of Higher Education asked a handful of academics to divulge their guilty pleasures. Seems like a potentially amusing parlor game, no? Well, as a moment’s reflection would reveal, no. Because you see, what could they possibly say? Most academics, for better or for worse, basically conform to the stereotype. They like reading books and teaching classes, not shooting up heroin or walking around in public dressed up in gender-inappropriate undergarments. (See, I don’t even know what would count as a respectable guilty pleasure.) And if they did, they certainly wouldn’t admit it. And if they did admit it, it certainly wouldn’t be in the pages of the Chronicle.

I was one of the people they asked, and I immediately felt bad that I couldn’t come up with a more salacious, or at least quirky and eccentric, guilty pleasure. I chose going to Vegas, a very unique and daring pastime that is shared by millions of people every week. I was sure that, once the roundup appeared in print, I would be shown up as the milquetoast I truly am, my pretensions to edgy hipness once again roundly flogged for the enjoyment of others.

But no. As it turns out, compared to my colleagues I’m some sort of cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Caligula. Get a load of some of these guilty pleasures: Sudoku. Riding a bike. And then, without hint of sarcasm: Landscape restoration. Gee, I hope your Mom never finds out about that.

But the award goes to Prof. McCloskey, who in a candid examination of the dark hedonistic corners of her soul, managed to include this sentence:

Nothing pleases me more than opening a new textbook.

Arrrgh! Stuff like that sets back the cause of academic non-geekiness for centuries!

The irony is, I totally know what she means.

  • Jennifer Ouellette

    McCLoskey sounds like she’d be incredibly dreary at a dinner party, always spouting off Italian phrases. :) But in fairness to the others interviewed, you also have guilty pleasures like LOST and “yoga toes.” :)

  • Mark

    Sunstein’s admission is by far the most guilty in an academic setting. Sure, you’re a degenerate gambler and well-known lounge-lizard, but at least you haven’t succumbed to the all-pervading evil that is television. Your colleagues can reconcile your behavior by assuming you do these things to test the mathematical poker-beating routines you’ve been working on, and to indulge your inner anthropologist. But television!? Such an admission is the academic equivalent of owning up to one’s private baby-eating hobby.

  • William

    Don’t worry, you’ve won back some of your non-geek street cred by misspelling Sudoku.

  • Sean

    Dammit. Fixed.

  • Dylab

    You don’t deserve Feynman’s desk.

  • Music of the Spherical Quotients

    Look, college teachers, like politicians, are going to get in trouble if they admit to being at all interesting. What this poll shows is just that academics need to be very careful about their public images. But we knew that already.

    There are plenty of professors who like dressing up in gender-inappropriate undergarments, using cocaine, kabbalah, shooting assault rifles, etc. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that on balance, academics have an above-average level of perversity and general weirdness. (Proof: they’re fairly imaginative people with loads of time on their hands.) But their continued employment rests on their seeming to be respectable.

  • Rue

    Mental note: If, after I get tenure, someone asks me such a question, admitting to my attendance at S&M parties or my love of the WWF are probably right out….

  • Mark

    Ah, but once you have tenure its all edible panties, firearms and blow.

  • Jack

    “Such an admission is the academic equivalent of owning up to one’s private baby-eating hobby”

    Man, you gotta be kidding me. Sean drives a *Jaguar* for chrissakes. In this era of carbo-puritanism, eating babies is for girly-men.

  • Moshe

    Kabbalah is a guilty pleasure? from my perspective that is hilarious, in my mind it’s more like the type of thing elderly people would discuss pleasantly at luncheons just after going to church, and yes Mark, also just before going home and watching TV :-).

  • Michael

    I think it would have been more entertaining if the question was restricted to musical guilty pleasures. I can imagine a well-respected theorist who happens to work better with his/her MP3 player on, but when that favorite Disney track (A Whole New World? or maybe Hakuna Matata?) comes on, he/she can’t resist taking a little mental break

  • Greg Egan

    Count me as a friend of Deirdre.

    What’s lame is when intellectuals (or anyone else) aspire to be “hip” and “edgy” — notions that are, rightly, wholly owned subsidiaries of the Coca Cola corporation. If algebraic geometers want to skydive nude into South American war zones on the weekends, that’s fine with me, but let’s not make it compulsory. Ninety-nine percent of worthwhile intellectual achievements are made by people who had the courage to swim against the tide of adolescent conformity that gave us fans of Hunter S. Thompson. Instead of trying to make academics fashionably interesting, it would be infinitely preferable to encourage and celebrate the independence of mind of those who don’t give a shit what anyone thinks is cool.

  • JoAnne

    TV? Who watches TV? Unless you’re staying up until 3 AM watching really stupid old movies with a good bottle of wine.

  • Zeno

    I’m another non-competitor in the coolness sweepstakes. But, frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. My number one pleasure is reading. Listening to music is nice, too, but reading is more engrossing. Conversations with close friends are also entertaining and a genuine pleasure. Woo hoo!

    Those inclined in that direction are welcome to demonstrate how edgy and with-it they are (do people still say “with it”?), but I hope they leave me in peace. Fortunately, most of them are too busy with their rambunctious activities to think to bother a middle-aged bachelor who neither smokes, drinks, parties, carouses, nor watches sports.

    Is it time for my nap yet?

  • Ijon Tichy

    Thank you Greg Egan! Exactly what I believe, but you state it so much better than I could, so I’ll just shut up now.

  • Josh

    Couldn’t it be a guilty pleasure because it reveals how embarrassingly nerdy one is?

  • Julianne

    But television!? Such an admission is the academic equivalent of owning up to one’s private baby-eating hobby.

    I freely admit to having watched every season of America’s Next Top Model.

    once you have tenure it’s all edible panties, firearms and blow.

    Mark, when you get t-shirts made with this, I’m totally getting one.

  • Harold

    That line by Mark made me laugh out loud to almost no end.

  • Carl Brannen

    Physicists are boring. Typical guilty pleasures of engineers: Setting off dynamite in the desert. Crawling around abandoned mines. Making your own explosives. Distilling your own vodka. Shaped Charges. Shooting high caliber weapons at night. Violating the warranty on your pocket calculator. etc.

  • Farhat

    If the secret is really guilty (not in the legal sense) most won’t admit it. Current academic politics simply don’t allow for admitting stuff like that unless you are in the protected class.

  • Ghiret

    “Violating the warranty on your pocket calculator.”

    I think that one competes with the textbooks…


  • Haelfix

    We can be even more specific. For instance if you hail from MIT, your favorite passtime might include secret techno-anarchist meetings on IRC using your hacker pseudonym. If you live in Stanford, the passtime might include smoking pot and eating Keewee.

    If you are a big shot physicist who was born in the US, you might even be considered to be a viable candidate to advise secret military organizations like Darpa.

  • PK

    I think very few academics would rate dealing with DARPA a pleasure.

  • David Moles

    “I’m too cool to worry about being cool” is definitely cheating, kids.

  • D

    That thing Greg Egan said.

  • Peter Erwin

    Sheesh. Not only are academics lame, they can’t even answer simple questions.

    The amusing thing is that Sean seems to have been the only one to really understand the question: what do you get pleasure out of doing which might be considered (by you or by others) to be wrong/damaging/declasse/perverted in some sense, which you might be (slightly) embarassed to admit doing?

    A boring “guilty pleasure” would be something like “gorging on ice cream” or “watching soap operas”[*] or “reading Harlequin romances”, all of which are common and ordinary, but at least have some kind of stigma attached to them.

    “Riding my bike” and “landscape restoration”? The people who mentioned those admit that they don’t even feel guilty about them.

    To be fair, McCloskey’s answer is a sort of complicated rendition of “Something I keep trying to do even though I know I’m no good at it” (in her case, trying to learn foreign languages), which has a certain arcane perversity to it, I suppose. In a way, I think she has Sean beat: imagining that one should feel guilty about trying to learn foreign language is way weirder than imagining you should feel guilty about visiting Las Vegas (if admittedly far less salacious).

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  • Elliot

    c’mon Sean,

    Chocolate covered bacon. no brainer.

    by the way if you look in the bottom drawer of Feynman’s desk taped to the ….


    Mark – LOL

  • Bob

    Still, at least none of them said “Lord of the Rings”.

  • Elliot


    could you expand a bit on “yoga toes”? I’ve never heard that phrase before.


  • Luke

    Given his love of Las Vegas, I think Sean would be a natural to play the Frank Sinatra/George Clooney role in another remake of Oceans 11. ‘Eleven’ refers, of course, to the number of dimensions Sean uses to break into the casinos.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Has NO ONE here ever gotten drunk/stoned with one of his/her professors?

    Good grief, what is the world coming to?

  • Eugene

    We should have a guilty pleasure thread!

  • mxracer652

    Hey, I can relate with “riding a bike”, we’re not talking a leisurly cruise around the neighborhood folks, this is downright masochism. How many people physically push themselves to the point of unstoppable cramping/open skin sores/vomiting, & enjoy it?

    Carl Brannen has it right, except I’d change dynamite in the desert to dynamite in your backyard, and add: oxy-acetylene powered cannons, putting your lawn tractor on methanol with a foot throttle & running it to 9100rpm, working over a chainsaw b/c “it just doesn’t have enough balls”, building your own speaker cabinets, changing the resistors & capacitors in your distortion pedal just to see what happens, etc.

    I guess this could be summed up as destruction, hydrocarbons and noise.

  • Peter Erwin

    mxracer652 @ 35 on riding a bike:

    Yes, but where’s the guilt? Riding a bike is virtuous: it’s transportation without pollution, and it’s exercise. (And if you read the article, you’ll see that Jacob Hacker admits that “it’s not exactly a guilty pleasure”, thus treating the question as though it were something more like “What’s your favorite hobby?”)

  • graviton383

    JoAnne: I’ll take the old movies & wine at 3AM..I’m up anyway…

  • Richard E.

    This reminds me of a scene from David Lodge’s “Changing Places” (which then crops up again in Small World, now that I think of it) where a group of English Lit. profs play a game called “Humiliation” where you win by nominating a book you have not read, but which all the players have.

    One minor character (ok, spoilers follow) is so desperate to win that he blurts out that he has never actully *read* Hamlet, which leads inexorably to him losing the respect of his department, the denial of tenure, and his banishment to the midwest from “Euphoric State”.

    Somehow forcing academics to name their guilty pleasures seems to work in much the same way…

  • Rich Monastersky

    In a shameless, self-referential move (since I’m a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education), I posted a note on the Chronicle’s Footnoted blog about your post. Check out the comments that have accumulated on our website about the academic indulgences story, to which you contributed. The best are the new lyrics to “My Favorite Things” which includes this gem of a verse:

    Skipping my classes to cruise for young gay dudes
    Strip clubs and gun running, snorting crushed quaaludes
    Stealing department chairs’ gold wedding rings
    These are a few of my favorite things

  • Blake Stacey

    Beefing up a chainsaw or making fireballs with non-dairy coffee creamer is not a guilty pleasure, merely a geeky one (particularly if you preface the “boom” with a few remarks about surface-area-to-volume ratios). Singing along to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” is a guilty pleasure: I wouldn’t admit that, even to my fellow BDSM-fetishizing, hallucinogen-abusing, Sandman-reading friends.

    Some things we keep quiet because of good taste; others because of the statute of limitations.

  • Blake Stacey

    This is perhaps a better example: Being able to perfectly lip-synch “Mr. Roboto” is a guilty pleasure. Detonating liquid nitrogen depth charges in trash cans full of oobleck is a pastime.

  • Sean

    Rich, we have a better word now for “shameless, self-referential moves.” It’s called “blogging,” and we heartily encourage it. (But it would have been too obvious to list as a guilty pleasure.)

  • Todd

    Greg Egan (above) hits the nail on the head. From the perspective of adolescence, thrilling at a new textbook really is a guilty pleasure. Not that I’m trying to say anything about arrested development, of course.

  • Blake Stacey

    I will forthrightly admit that one of my best Friday nights of recent memory (this was a warm evening in North Carolina, last summer) was cracking open a fresh copy of Zee’s Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell. And, of course, proofreading the manuscript of Zwiebach’s First Course in String Theory is a memory soaked through with sentiment.

    The problem is that (a) nobody around me right now thinks that’s odd in the slightest way, and (b) I was just like this as a teenager too. I can’t feel “guilty” about it, because guilt was never part of my emotional context on such matters.

  • spyder

    Why would one feel any guilt whatsoever for their pleasures????? The guilt, or innocence, is always in the minds of others, some less fortunate and without passion for life. However, the comment about the statute of limitations may be substantive and even make wise economic sense, given this currently climate on punishing universities (and the wars on some behaviors of some) for inviting guest speakers (or dis-inviting them), and increasing restrictions on academic freedom. Thus banality maybe necessary in the form of smoke and mirrors to hide the real ecstasies and bliss.

  • Ben

    Doesn’t the incredulous (even disapproving) response to McCloskey’s lame pleasure at cracking a textbook perversely validate her? I mean, she’s right – now it is a guilty pleasure.

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  • mxracer652

    @ Peter E,
    True, but we’re talking about two different things, riding for exercise/transportation is one thing, training to be a semi/pro cyclist is entirely different.

    I think the point Hacker admits is that the amount of time that is necessary for training cuts into your family time, hence its inherent selfishness/guilty pleasure status.

  • John Baez

    Reading this blog is one of my guilty pleasures.

  • Neil B.

    One of my guilty pleasures is arguing about metaphysical issues like God’s existence, the contingent nature of observed reality, the meaning of existence, multiple universes, modal realism, etc. in stupefyingly deep, perplexing, and intricate ways.

  • John Armstrong

    Guilty pleasure: paying attention to popular culture. Man I loves me some Britney-bashing. Sure, plenty of other people do it, but are academics “supposed” to?

    On the other hand, does it take the “edge” off it if I then use the pop-culture trivia as foddor for ridiculing Critical Theory? I’m still rather proud of my “queer reading” of “The Sign”, by Ace of Base.

  • Yasaman Farzan

    Does curving out and eating 7 kilos of watermelon with a spoon and putting back the rest in the refrigerator (instead of sliding a little piece and putting it in plate to eat) count as a guilty pleasure in American culture?
    Not that I do such a thing!

  • daisy rose

    Guilt is a useless emotion –

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  • Ted

    I wonder how much of the absence of actually interesting guilty pleasures on the part of these people is the result not of being in academia but something else – i.e., are the people who answered the question married and in their late 30s, like me? Because back when I was single and in my late 20s, I was in academia, but I actually had guilty pleasures. I don’t anymore because I have a wife and daughter now, not because of anything having to do with academia.

  • Mel Anderson

    I think Greg Egan has hit the nail on the head. The culture of “coolness” is harming kids’ perception of how the world actually works. Witness the decline of the hard sciences in universities in the UK. I read SF as a kid, and thought maths was “cool”. I was thought geeky by my peers because of it. Still am, to some extent.

    Incidentally, Greg, glad to hear you’re writing SF again, looking forward to “Incandescence” next year. I think I have just about all of you books, including “An Unusual Angle”.

  • Roger Giner-Sorolla

    Wait, she admits to enjoying opening a textbook – presumably for teaching purposes? If you’re up for tenure at a Big State University, that’s downright perverse.

  • Russell Blackford

    Well, I’ve been known to read novels by people like Greg Egan – but I can’t think of anything else off-hand. Where’s my “angel” smiley, goddammit?

  • Katie

    Seriously, Mark, how about making tee shirts that say “once you have tenure its all edible panties, firearms and blow”? I’d so totally buy one. I know a bunch of assistant professors who’d buy one.

  • BlackGriffen

    I think I may have the worst guilty pleasure for an academic – tests. I actually enjoy taking and acing a nice, challenging test. Nothing too grueling, mind, but a good couples hours of test is a thrill and its invigorating to come out knowing that you effing owned that thing.

    What makes this one so bad is that it leads to ostracism both by your peers and the general populace.

  • Julianne

    how about making tee shirts that say “once you have tenure its all edible panties, firearms and blow”

    Done! See

    Sadly, we couldn’t do mugs.

  • Scott Gerard Prinster

    What I find pathetic about most of their responses is that they’re all of the “job interview question” category: “Well, sir, I’d have to say that my greatest weakness is just working too hard and loving the company too much.” Give me a break.

  • Sarapen

    From The Guardian: Guilty pleasures of intellectuals

    It’s slightly more salacious, listing pro wrestling, Stalinist nostalgia, and Project Runway. There’s nothing in it about beating off to coffee table books about architecture or anything really interesting, though.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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