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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Quirky Academics (via the Chronicle of Higher Education)

Mikita Brottman has a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that discusses some of the quirks of academics. She writes:
...Indeed, many of us may have known, and possibly worked with, someone who fits the stereotype of the absent-minded professor -- the kind of person who can mentally calculate to three decimal points but seems unable to match her own socks. Talented thinkers with strange personalities often find a home in academe. On campuses, people are usually willing to overlook the odd behavior of their colleagues, or to accept it as part of the intellectual package; students generally find such characters quirky and lovable.

The absent-minded professor becomes more difficult to handle, however, when his behavior verges on the dysfunctional. All vocations attract certain personality types; academe appeals particularly to introspective, narcissistic, obsessive characters who occasionally suffer from mood disorders or other psychological problems. Often, these difficulties go untreated because they are closely tied to enhanced creativity, as can be the case with obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depression, bipolar disorder, and the kind of high-functioning autism known as Asperger's syndrome.

Click here for the whole thing, and a tip-o-the-hat to Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber for the link.

I'd have to agree that our "tribe" definitely has a higher concentration of quirky characters than found in the general public. The pool of of finance academics seems to actually be comprised of several sub-groups. The theoreticians are more like mathematicians. I recall one professor from grad school (probably the best theoretician I've ever met) that would regularly forget to put the cap back on his fountain pen before he put it back in his shirt pocket. More than once, it would be a couple of days before he noticed.

However, the empirical researchers are usually a bit more normal. Of course, since I'm in this camp, I might just be reflecting my biases. Because empiricists are by the nature of their work connected to the "real" world, they seem to be better grounded. There are exceptions to the rule, but at least in my experience it's been true.

However, I'd have add that many (not all, but more than a few) of the most successful academics exhibit what I call "intermittent minimal functional autism". By that, I mean the ability to shut out the external world and focus on the problem at hand with a sort of tunnel vision until they're done. I recall a couple of my grad school professors (one being the aforementioned "Dr. Fountain Pen"). If they were thinking about a problem, you could probably remove most of their furniture from under their nose and they wouldn't notice it until they came up for air. Of course, they have better publication records than me...

It reminds me of the old joke:

Q: How can you tell an extroverted finance professor?

A: He looks at YOUR shoes when he talks to you!

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