Academic Nutjobs

by Kieran Healy on September 13, 2005

A column by Mikita Brottman in the Chronicle contends that

It has often been observed that the more prodigious the intellect, the more it can compromise other aspects of the personality, such as self-awareness and social grace … All vocations attract certain personality types; academe appeals particularly to introspective, narcissistic, obsessive characters who occasionally suffer from mood disorders or other psychological problems.

The piece is pretty bad, and in places is a bit stupid—John Nash is cited as an example of a “forgetful genius,” when in fact he has been mentally ill for much of his life. But it did bring to mind A.J. Liebling’s remark that the University of Chicago constituted “the biggest collection of juvenile neurotics since the children’s crusade.” (With apologies to Dan, Jacob, et al.) I notice also that Brottman contends that “Eccentric characters seem particularly common in those departments known for the more abstract realms of thought, like … most often, philosophy, the field of notorious oddballs.” Moreover, she says people with Asperger’s Syndrome—a condition freely and confidently diagnosed by amateur psychiatrists everywhere, like ADD —are characterized by their “persistent preoccupation with parts of objects.” As it happens, my wife is a notorious oddball philosopher, and is presently writing an entire book about parts of objects. Hmm.



lalala 09.13.05 at 11:27 pm

I know it’s a tangential point here, but I’ve always thought that the widely-held view that especially brilliant people lacked social ability or self-awareness was a load of crap, used more as an excuse for people to be jerks than anything else.


Delicious pundit 09.13.05 at 11:33 pm

Well, I have met actors who, while not academic intellects, were indeed prodigiously talented, and many of them could easily be said to lack self-awareness or social grace. (Ask their assistants.)

Top athletes, of course, can also be famously graceless. Perhaps it is a byproduct, not of intellect, but of being so good at something that your sins against ordinary life are forgiven.


Tom Doyle 09.14.05 at 12:41 am

Canards and stereotypes.


Espen 09.14.05 at 2:01 am

Over the years, when working with setting up speakers for meetings, conferences and research projects, I have met wonderfully smart as well as appallingly mediocre researchers and writers. As far as I can tell, there is no correlation with personality and social graces – in fact, if anything, the really smart and well known ones have turned out to be surprisingly pleasant in private, not to mention displaying interests and knowledge far outside their field.

In fact, some of the most well known people I have met have turned out to be the most humble, flexible (subject to availability, of course,) and generous.

So I agree with Tom Doyle: Canards and stereotypes.


tom lynch 09.14.05 at 2:47 am

In my experience, a lot of academics are unusually smooth and skilled in social interactions. Something which I always took to stem from their having to teach to earn a living, and network like mad to get jobs, get promotions, and get published.

Nearly anyone, academic or otherwise, who thinks about any subject harder than the average person will have a different, more nuanced, or “eccentric” view on it when compared to the mainstream.


MFB 09.14.05 at 4:31 am

You bastards are all just jealous of my beauty, suavity and outrageous good taste!!!! (scrambles to the top of bookcase and flings faeces at all oncomers)


abb1 09.14.05 at 5:27 am

Perhaps it’s just that academics don’t exhibit great personal qualitis one would expect, being shocked and awed by their prodigious intellect?


rea 09.14.05 at 6:22 am

“(scrambles to the top of bookcase and flings faeces at all oncomers)”

You can always tell an academic by the way he flings faeces–the rest of us just fling feces . . .



Seth Finkelstein 09.14.05 at 6:54 am

One aspect may be that some academics have no use for columnists, and no publicity people to handle the chores.

I would say each profession has its own way of expressing “Get lost!”, but some have it institutionalized.


Matt McGrattan 09.14.05 at 7:16 am

What Lala and Tom Lynch said basically.

Whenever I attend philosophy dept. parties I’m usually struck by how relatively normal philosophers are — or at least the graduate student/junior academic variety. There’s certainly massively fewer socially-inept freaks than in any business environment in which I’ve worked. Which isn’t surprising when you think that most humanities disciplines, ideally, prize linguistic facility, rhetorical skill, etc. as well as ‘raw’ intellectual strength and rigour.

It’s just lazy stereotyping.


Eszter 09.14.05 at 7:29 am

I do think that at times people who are very well accomplished in academia are surprisingly inept in certain social realms. I suspect this may be less common among the top ranks of people elsewhere (e.g. business world), because in other areas it will be hard for someone to get a highly ranked position when possessing obvious and visible social skill problems. For some reason, some academic departments (e.g. some of the top ones in particular) don’t seem to take such an issue with this.


tom lynch 09.14.05 at 8:03 am

This whole line of discussion reminds me of another theory I recently heard along similar lines: that the upper management of many businesses consists largely of psychopaths .

The unimpressive grain of truth in all of this is that it’s possible to hold down some jobs without a full kit of “normal” social skills. Most of us can verify this from anecdotal evidence, quite aside from any studies about what proportion of the population of managers or academics is actually dysfunctional in some medically recognised sense.

The somewhat inexcusable consequence is that the mere existence of such people leads immediately to a bunch of inadequately supported claims about how common they are, and how their “abnormal” traits are selected by the requirements of their professional lives.

There may be something going on here, but I don’t see how any conclusions can be drawn until the SNR improves a bit.


dp 09.14.05 at 8:07 am

1. I’d like to see the social cf. intellectual characterisation of journalists next…

2. It’s the oddballs that get the scrutiny. I know exceedingly brilliant academics who also epitomise the social graces. They have managed to excel in multiple arenas, as befits a polymath. But they are not going to get the attention of the press, just as the ordinary joys and successes of everyday life fail to register in the news media. There’s an irony here in that a journal of higher ed is pandering to and reproducing dumb stereotypes about academics.

3. The argument could be seen as a case of sour grapes inflicted by a jealous journo.


dp 09.14.05 at 8:26 am

Addendum to the above:

The concern with personality as it relates to job ‘fit’ must have a history. My sense of this history is that it’s only in the last two decades that such concerns have come to the fore in any number of professions, including my former field of engineering. It may be pertinent to ask why there ougth to be such concern in the first instance, particularly if it has something to do with the politics of career advancement and competition among candidates.


tom lynch 09.14.05 at 8:36 am

Could it (gasp!) be something to do with the systems of power and advancement that are common to most organisational structures?

If “our” bosses are all psychopaths and “our” coworkers are all loonies, it’s a tough world out there for “us”.


Hektor Bim 09.14.05 at 8:55 am

I also think that these are canards and stereotypes, except as it applies to the University of Chicago. There is something in the water there that makes people unpleasant and domineering toward their social inferiors. I’ve never seen anywhere else such a concentration of people so unpleasant to those below them in the social heirarchy – there is something about that university that promotes heartlessness.


gzombie 09.14.05 at 9:09 am

The column tells us that “Mikita Brottman is a professor of language, literature, and culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art,” which meansS/he’s an academic, and not a professional journalist, and S/he’s not qualified, by any stretch of the imagination, to diagnose people with Asperger’s Syndrome.


Harry B 09.14.05 at 9:10 am

Lalala is about right.

But, also, with whom are we comparing academics? For decades my main social millieu consisted of people on the very far left, rather than academics, and it always seemed to me that there was a very high proportion (though still a small minority) of misfits, social inadepts, and nasties, to be honest. But I was wrong — no millieu I have been in seems exceptional compared with the others.


Timothy Burke 09.14.05 at 9:13 am

I think there’s a confusion here about the phenomenon which is, I agree, mostly a stereotype. I think the only part of the observation that’s valid is that you occasionally meet academics who are extraordinarily dysfunctional in social terms in some way: immature, cruel, rude, what have you, and it can be a bit difficult to figure out how they not only manage to survive but thrive. In other professions and workplaces, the answer to that is power: that a nasty or dysfunctional person can make their social ineptitude a non-issue if they have sufficient money, resources, or hierarchical status. (Note that power can actually turn people socially dysfunctional when they were not so earlier in their lives…) In a few professions, it can also be talent or merit, that the dysfunctional person has some discrete talent that is irreplaceable.

With academics who are this way, I think the answer is often tenure combined with the relative autonomy and privacy of any individual academic’s daily work routines. Someone can be socially dysfunctional or graceless and yet most colleagues might not even realize that until it’s essentially too late, or even if they realize it, feel compelled to ignore it in evaluating the person for tenure. Once someone is tenured, even extreme social dysfunctionality can have few meaningful consequences, whereas even a powerful person in many other careers might eventually suffer serious setbacks due to social ineptitude.


Tim 09.14.05 at 9:25 am

This is, I suspect far less true than it once was: there was a time before computerized text indices that every Classics department worth its salt had an autistic on staff, someone you could go to and say you’re having issues with the implications of some word, and he’d rattle off all ten or twelve instances of, say, presbeia in the corpus of Greek literature.

Aside from the social-organization issues, which I’ll leave to you pros to sort out.


Andrew Reeves 09.14.05 at 9:32 am

I’m going to second the “canards and steryotypes” responses, but temper it with an observation. People in general tend to “notice the hits and ignore the misses,” which is why people claiming paranormal ability often do so well. So if you see someone who conforms to your steryotype, you’ll think, “Aha! Just like I thought,” where as the academic who is a normal person will just not be noticed.In like manner, if one goes to a comic book and role playing game store in North America, no matter how many normal people you meet there, you will probably remember the grotesquely fat guy with uncombed hair who obviously hasn’t had a shower in weeks and who thinks that by having a goatee/ponytail he will nonetheless look less uncool.It’s a good example of confirmation bias in action.


grackel 09.14.05 at 9:58 am

Risking yet another stereotype, I’d venture that there are, in academia relative to society at large, a greater proportion of people who have always been “in school” thus limiting their adult social interaction and giving rise to the phenomenon of a kind of emotional truncation, i.e. they have never grown up. Evidence is necessarily anecdotal, but everyone in academia knows which departments in their own universities are more prone to food fights over trivia. I’m not saying this is predominant, only that there are more such clueless people in academia.


roger 09.14.05 at 10:13 am

If philosophy departments are being taken over by people with the social graces, grooming abilities, and other characteristics of normal people, it will be a great shame. Philosophers, who used to imitate the death agonies of Wittgenstein in thought, or the autistic gestures of Kripke, are now content to seem like bit players on O.C.? How the great are fallen.


Jake 09.14.05 at 10:43 am

As for Chicago, I’m reminded of applying to law school there. They asked that I translate my name into a 9-digit number which would then be used for all further processing. That was a bit disturbing.


Dr. Bruce 09.14.05 at 11:06 am

For those who assert “Canards and stereotypes” I’m reminded of “racists” who claim that “Some of my best friends are black.” If you check, frequently in those cases you will find that the speaker has no friends.


Dan Simon 09.14.05 at 11:29 am

It has often been observed that the more prodigious the intellect, the more it can compromise other aspects of the personality, such as self-awareness and social grace…All vocations attract certain personality types; academe appeals particularly to introspective, narcissistic, obsessive characters who occasionally suffer from mood disorders or other psychological problems.

I think the key here is the definition of “prodigious intellect”. It’s entirely possible that pure intellectual horsepower is completely uncorrelated, or even anticorrelated with narcissism, obsessiveness and the rest. However, we have no way to measure pure intellectual horsepower, so we use the only metric available: success at something that appears to require it–such as an academic career.

Of course, success at anything is made more likely by heavy doses of neurotic obsession and narcissistic ambition, and academic research is no exception. It therefore shouldn’t be surprising that the very top echelons of every field consist largely of brilliant people with massive egos and a poor sense of perspective, while the brilliant people with normal-size egos and a healthy sense of perspective tend to settle for comfortable, modestly successful careers.


Chester White 09.14.05 at 11:37 am

Hektor said: “I also think that these are canards and stereotypes, except as it applies to the University of Chicago. There is something in the water there that makes people unpleasant and domineering toward their social inferiors. I’ve never seen anywhere else such a concentration of people so unpleasant to those below them in the social heirarchy – there is something about that university that promotes heartlessness.”


My wife is a professor at the U of Chicago (medical school, works in the SBR Building). Your observations have a grain of truth, but it’s HIGHLY dependent on which department you are observing.

I know dozens of professors/grad students/postdocs who are nothing like what you describe. If you want to wield the broad brush, the “softer” subjects (psychology, sociology, gender “studies”, etc.), incubate the more whack-job persons at the U of C. Many of these don’t have the sense or people skills to manage a hotdog cart and would perish if they had to exist in the “real world”.

I concur that the heartlessness of the administration toward young professors is legendary.

It’s not for nothing that the unofficial motto of the place is “Where Fun Comes to Die.” You can get T-shirts with that on them.


brayden 09.14.05 at 11:37 am

Sure, some of this is stereotype but I also think that academics have a peculiar form of interaction that non-academics often misinterpret as anti-social or at least dysfunctionally social. As academics we are more prone to debate and to speak our mind in front of those with whom we have disagreements than the general population is. My wife, a non-academic, was at first dismayed when I’d have friends over for dinner, and then we’d spend half the night disagreeing with each other over minute details of some esoteric argument. For those of us involved in the conversation, this was fun and very social, but for someone who’s not used to this kind of forceful exchange of thought and debate, it can be seen as graceless.

I also once recall having a discussion with a professor in his office, watching him get increasingly excited and boogley-eyed as we reached a point of disagreement. I wondered if others outside of academia might be offended by this kind of passionate debate of ideas.

Or perhaps I am lacking in social graces.


dp 09.14.05 at 12:16 pm

‘Or perhaps I am lacking in social graces.’

Best reply so far!
let me add a mea culpa, and observe that if academics are graceless, it is graceless to be an academic, and we should all start apologising right now!


Rich 09.14.05 at 12:17 pm

As you well know, most generalizations aren’t worth a damn…


bostoniangirl 09.14.05 at 12:18 pm

Oh dear. It would be very sad if we all have to be perfectly socially ept in the same way. Isn’t there some space for eccentricity? (I am not talking about cruelty or domineering behavior.) I find the occasionally absent-minded endearing.


JorgXMcKie 09.14.05 at 12:35 pm

I’ve been associated with several universities and several departments. Some have more nutcases and whachjobs than others. Organizationally speaking, unis are ill-organized at the academic level especially to aeek their stated goal.
In addition, professors, especially, are relatively protected from damage by allowing their personal psychological quirks fairly free rein. Thus, some of the act like the nutcases an whackjobs that they are will little repercussion. Not surprising, I’d say.

I would guess that any organization tends to allow and restrain different behaviors. Which are allowed and which are restrained probably depends on the organization. Why should anyone be surprised at the outward appearances that result.

I agree with brayden. When I was ABD, I lived with several others. One night a friend of one of them came in in the middle of a heated exchange between the two of us. After listening for over a half hour, he left. He returned the next night to find the same argument going on. After about 15 minutes he finally asked, “Weren’t you guys each on the opposite sides of this argument last night?” To which we replied, “Sure. What difference does that make?”


Nathan 09.14.05 at 1:32 pm

Stereotypes usually have a grain of truth to them. However, writing an article based entirely on generalizations from stereotypes is intellectually dishonest; definitely not the caliber of writing one expects to be published in “The Chronicle of Higher Education.” Rather than basing hiring decisions on stereotypes or caricatures, the author should try to evaluate each candidate based on his or her merits and fitness for the position.

Much has been written on the lack of intellectual diversity on university faculties. I believe this can be primarily attributed to the desire to hire one’s intellectual and ideological clone; the end result being academic departments where groupthink and consensus have replaced critical thinking and vigorous debate. What is needed is someone to “shake things up” and question premises that are taken for granted.

Hiring a faculty member who thinks differently may seem unnatural and make some people feel uncomfortable. It is necessary to realize that many people are very different from ourselves, and try to understand them and appreciate them for who they are. The book that has best helped me to understand other people, especially those different from me, is “Please Understand Me II” by Dr David Keirsey. The intro can be read here.


Hektor Bim 09.14.05 at 2:11 pm


Of course not everyone at the U of C is that way, but there are far more of them there than the statistical average. I also think that while the softer subjects are crueler (I know one music professor who specialized in asking questions of the class. If a student spoke up, he proceeded to quite thoroughly humiliate that person. After a while, everyone got the hint, and no one ever spoke up in his classes again.), there was plenty of cruelty in the physics department for example.

Maybe it is because there are no engineering departments or other practical subjects there, but the cruelty you seem to want to extend only to the softer subjects, in my experience, washed over all the departments there.

As for the “where fun comes to die”, I think that is mostly in reference to the undergrads, who really suffer, since they are at the bottom of the totem pole. This is probably an urban legend, but at UofC there is a one-day holiday on a Monday in winter. The story goes that they did a statistical analysis and determined that undergrads were most likely to kill themselves on that day, so they made it a day off to cut down on the embarassingly high suicide rate.


Scott Eric Kaufman 09.14.05 at 3:38 pm

I think there are a couple of issues worthy of address here (and some of them already have): the first is (as Timothy Burke already said) that tenure (and the concomitant lighter teaching load) coupled with the isolation of daily academic work will, over time, magnify whatever social problems someone came into academia with. For example, over the summer I’ve noticed a steep decline in my ability to make small-talk, and I attribute this to the attention I’ve paid to my dissertation this summer (more intense and time-intensive than during the school-year) and not having to interact with students for a couple of months. (My wife and I communicate in “married shorthand,” so that doesn’t really count.) If a couple of months does this to, imagine what someone with a grant, a cave and a computer could “accomplish.”


bryan 09.14.05 at 3:49 pm

“You can always tell an academic by the way he flings faeces—the rest of us just fling feces . . .”

while students fling faces.


Harry B 09.14.05 at 6:43 pm

“Presently”? or “Currently?”


lindenen 09.14.05 at 7:07 pm

Here’s some actual medical research showing a link between creativity and nutjobbery.

“New research on individuals with schizotypal personalities – people characterized by odd behavior and language but who are not psychotic or schizophrenic – offers the first neurological evidence that they are more creative than either normal or fully schizophrenic individuals, and rely more heavily on the right sides of their brains than the general population to access their creativity.”


Miriam 09.14.05 at 7:14 pm

It’s not for nothing that the unofficial motto of the place is “Where Fun Comes to Die.” You can get T-shirts with that on them.

I always preferred the “University of Chicago: Hell Does Freeze Over” shirts, myself.


Kieran Healy 09.14.05 at 7:47 pm

“Presently”? or “Currently?”

Presently, in the sense of “at the moment,” which is of course a perfectly valid usage.

How do you feel about the meaning of the sentence, “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive”?


save_the_rustbelt 09.14.05 at 9:01 pm

I’ve spent most of my life half in academe and half in the ‘real world.”

In many schools the business and professional school profs tend to be a little less flaky, if only because at times they have contact with the real world. We in the acounting department work hard to maintain our rep as boring stiffs.

However, tenure and life in a relatively closed system creates some really odd ducks. Odd is ok, punishing students with bizarre behavior is not.


Ted 09.14.05 at 9:40 pm

Speaking only for myself, if I had had any social skills, I would have gone to parties in high school and college instead of going to the library, and I might have avoided my current academic vocation. In graduate school I intentionally worked on this lack of skills, by going to parties and social events and being sure to talk to the wives/boyfriends/etc of the faculty and other grad students in the department, and then being sure not to dominate the conversation. They were usually sitting by themselves at the edges of the room, and were often visibly relieved to have someone to talk to who wasn’t yammering on about politics. Interacting with real people was very useful.

Here’s a University of Chicago story: I got an interview for a tenure-track position at a state school that is in the same state as the school I got my Ph.D. from. I told this to a colleague of mine at the college I was working at at the time, who was a University of Chicago Ph.D. in political science. He said, “Oh, you must have a back door connection. Did they advertise the position?” He seemed surprised when I told him that, no I didn’t, and yes they did.

That was our last conversation ever. It still pisses me off, seven years later.

Oh, and I got the job, and am up for tenure myself this year.

I’ve always liked this quote:

You may be a geek, you may have geek written all over you; you should aim to be one geek they’ll never forget. Don’t aim to be civilized. Don’t hope that straight people will keep you on as some kind of pet. To hell with them; they put you here. You should fully realize what society has made of you and take a terrible revenge. Get weird. Get way weird. Get dangerously weird. Get sophisticatedly, thoroughly weird and don’t do it halfway, put every ounce of horsepower you have behind it. — Bruce Sterling


polly 09.15.05 at 9:02 am

I like Ted’s comments and I’d like to add my own personal ramblings. Philosophy as a discipline may start off from, erm, ‘common-sensical’ point of views but it takes such perspectives to their limit, a limit that may be far off and seemingly unconnected to its starting point. It seems to me that there’s a discrepancy between the philosopher’s attitude to her immediate surroundings and the lay-person’s one. This may not be the rule but I think it’s a real tendency. If a philosophical way of thinking (whatever that means) is something you can’t/won’t turn off, is it a surprise that people will think your behaviour weird or undesirable?


Harry B 09.15.05 at 10:43 am

I was teasing — I know its a valid usage, but one that constantly confuses me (I mean it). What do you think when they ask you to “leave the airplane momentarily” when you have arrived at your destination (presumably hopefully)? I can’t use “hopefully”, but only because my grandfather made fun of anyone who did, and I feel it would be a betrayal of his memory to do so.


Ted 09.15.05 at 9:56 pm

to ted with a lower case initial letter and all you others …

I’m a geek. While I have spent more time in ‘real world’ IT departments, I have spent LOTS of time in academia.

Regardless of political tilt and regardless of intellectual ability, academics are at least an order of magnitude more normal than your typical IT denizen.

You really haven’t lived – or should I say had a near-death experience – until you attend an IT-peopled, non-business related ‘social’ party.

Absoultely NO social interaction what so ever. Except to discuss the latest set of code patches provided by a software vendor.


For those of you leaving the academy to join a corporate IT department just because it pays better, my advice is to stay put. Unless they pay you 5 times as much, it isn’t possibly worth it.

But if you do leave, and if you ever have to attend a party at a bosses or co-workers house, beg, borrow or steal a 6 week old baby with colic to bring along. That gives you an excuse to leave said party and go to a more enjoyable place.

A funeral home perhaps. Or a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.


Dick Mulliken 09.15.05 at 10:32 pm

Tangential, but your wife might be interested in THE HIDDEN ORDER OR ART, by Anton Ehrenzweig. This book presents a psychological analysis of the role of part perception whaich is at least intriguing. Rhetoric has something to offer too see metonymy and synechdoche. all of this veers off in turn into the whole process of symbol formation.
Otherwise, everybody is eccentric as hell – but some people hide it better.


Antti Nannimus 09.16.05 at 11:13 am


Look, I’ve been dealing with both academics and civilians almost all my life. The truth is that 97% of all of you are weirdos and psychopaths, unlike the 3% of us at the peak of the bell curve who are normal like me.

Have a nice day,



LCohen 09.16.05 at 10:53 pm

I find it fascinating that a “professor of language, literature, and culture” is diagnosing past failed academic co-workers as having Asperger’s Syndrome on the basis of observed behaviors and a list of diagnostic criteria.

She draws conclusions from her interpretation of the criteria the way some people see personal relevance in horoscopes.


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