I spent a lovely
evening a couple of years ago having dinner with the R.E.B.'s (the Fraternal
Brotherhood of Rachel's Ex-Boyfriends). Yes, I live a complicated life.
Andrew, an academic psychiatrist, and Mike, a physicist, kept asking
me what I wanted for my birthday. (They are, naturally, good friends.)
Finally, I confessed that what I really wanted was a good old-fashioned
I'm 37 years old, very fit, and reasonably attractive. I'm a darn good
dater. I like to date. Why couldn't I find anyone to go out with? Sparkling
conversation with a stunningly attractive and brilliant man across a
smoky barroom table -- was that too much to ask?
Of course, living in an academic community puts its own spin on the
"Can we buy you a date?" my friends asked, ever eager to help. "Oy,"
I said. Undeterred, they quickly came up with a plan: a personal ad
in our local, progressive weekly newspaper.
They proposed several possibilities for wording, all of which I emphatically
vetoed. So they decided to cut me out of the process, came up with something
on their own, and I saw it for the first time in print. It wasn't too
embarrassing, was fairly close to the truth, and produced an enormous
For days, I entertained the three of us by playing the voice-mail messages
of hopeful suitors. There was much to amuse, but not much in the way
of potential dates. While I don't think of Durham, where I live, as
a small town, the experience made me realize that I circulate in fairly
circumscribed circles. One of the callers I recognized from the running
set. Another shared mutual friends. A few identified themselves as professors
at the university where I work. Nobody promising.
Then, one fine day, I listened to a message from a guy who called himself
"Brad." Said he was athletic, said he was a writer. Also claimed to
be very handsome. That sounded pretty good. I called him. He was funny,
he was smart. We had rapid-fire witty banter from the get-go, about
running, growing up in the Northeast and being transplanted to the South,
my pet pig, his daughter, our Ivy League degrees.
Then we got down to brass tacks. "So you're a writer. What do you write?"
"Books," he said.
"Fiction or non?"
"Non," he said
"Mostly politics and history."
"I see ... Who publishes you? Trade or academic presses?"
"Mostly trade," he said. "Why?"
(Pause.) "Are you (gasp) an academic?"
(Pause.) "Are you (gasp) local?"
"What do you mean local?"
I mentioned one of the three major universities in our area. He was
local. "Which department are you in?" He told me.
At that point, I'm diving across my desk reaching for the course catalogue,
flipping frantically through the pages. "You're flipping through the
course catalogue," he said, with a bit of an edge. I confessed, my brain
spinning, knowing that I had only his first name, while the catalogue
listed faculty members by first initial and last name. "Oh my God,"
I said, before I even finished flipping to his department. "You're Brian
Brain." "Yes," he said, "and you're Rachel Toor."
I had spent 12 years in scholarly publishing as an acquisitions editor,
a groupie to the academic stars. My job had been to appreciate and admire
my authors (once I had decided to sign them up), and I pretty much did.
I loved my authors. Except for one. Of all the ads in all the world,
he had to answer mine. Not only did I know Brian Brain, gentle reader,
I despised him. He was an arrogant, narcissistic, self-important little
"Why did you lie?" I wailed. "If you'd given your real name, I would
never, ever, have called you back. Even if you'd said you were an academic,
I probably wouldn't have called."
As much as I had been an academic groupie, I had always tried to keep
my personal and my work lives separate. The association between author
and editor is intense and complex, with a shifting set of power relations.
At first, as an editor, you court the author, trying to get him or her
to publish with you. You are a supplicant. (I realize that plenty of
academics feel that they are at the mercy of publishers, but that's
another story.) Then, once the contract is signed, you become friend,
taskmaster, shrink: handmaiden to knowledge. You become part of a support
system. It's always about them, rarely about you. That's at work, but
at home I like quite a bit more attention -- I like to be the one getting
fluffed up, instead of the one who's always doing the fluffing.
Not surprisingly, my conversation with Brian Brain quickly moved from
smart flirtation to shocked silence. Then I dissolved into hysterical
laughter. "This is a hoot," I kept saying. He, on the other hand, was
not finding the situation the least bit amusing. "Look," I said, "I
went into this thing with high standards and low expectations, and in
fact what I was really hoping for was a funny story to entertain my
His voice became icy, and he suggested that if I did, indeed, feel compelled
to tell the tale, he hoped that I would at least have the courtesy to
leave out his name. I saw no reason why the turn of events should be
more embarrassing to him than it was to me, and I said so. "I don't
normally do this kind of thing," he shot back defensively. "Neither
do I," I rallied, "but if you do, you should at least have a sense of
humor about it." He hung up.
This telephone call took place at the end of the millennium, in a postmodern
age. What happened next? Reader, I dated him. He was smart, funny, and
yes, handsome. The more romantic of my friends predicted a fairy-tale
ending. But life is no fairy tale. I discovered that there had been
excellent reasons why I hadn't liked him in the first place. So it ended.
But I had learned something: Having left my job as an editor of scholarly
books, but having stayed on the fringes of the scholarly world (working
in an admissions office), given who I am, I can't avoid dating academics.
That is both good and bad.
What are the good things? Well, academics tend to be intellectually
interesting. At least to me. Before Brian, I'd been dating a guy who
owned his own small business. But at the end of the day, I'm less interested
in hearing about employees and customers (even if one is Sean Penn)
than I am in knowing about interesting books or really good job talks
given at campus interviews. The "real world," I find, doesn't hold much
fascination for me. (Though I do kind of like hearing about Sean Penn.)
Also, academics, at least in the humanities, tend to own lots of books,
so if you're stranded at their house, there's always something to read.
Then, too, academics have lots of free time. Not being on the 9-to-5
daily grind means that they are frequently free to take the afternoon
off to go for a hike, or to have a picnic, or to stop by the office
where you are working a 9-to-5 job. "Let's go on a long bike ride Thursday
afternoon," they say. "Well, I'd love to, but (firmly) I HAVE TO WORK."
Then they ask you again the next week.
Academics have no free time. Nearly every moment not spent working is
a moment spent in anxiety about not working. The distinction between
work time and free time is meaningless in the minds of most academics
I know. Which means that, when their work is not going well, you're
faced with an anxiety-ridden, depressed person who feels like a failure.
When work is going swimmingly, you never see them.
Yes, it's nice to be with people who can talk the talk of difference:
race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, the whole multiculti
shebang. You can't expect those outside academe to be hip to all the
Of course, you also can't expect academics to walk that walk all the
time. I remember when my boss in scholarly publishing, one of the distinguished
literary critics who gave us the intellectual underpinnings of political
correctness (let's call him, say, Morris Zapp) stood outside my office
gazing in at me and a female colleague. I asked him if there was something
we could help with. No, he said, smiling sweetly, he just couldn't pass
by two blondes without stopping for a moment of appreciation. When I
gently pointed out the outrageous unacceptability of that remark, he
shrugged his shoulders and said with an impish grin, "Can't help it.
I'm a product of my generation." And away he puttered.
Though it's clearly a mixed bag, I've come to realize that the good
things about dating academics far outweigh the bad. When I worked in
scholarly publishing, I enjoyed being able to dabble in the disciplines
and, especially, to go to different academic conferences. But I was
there to work. As the partner or date of an academic, you get to go
to conferences and play. I actually like academic conferences, especially
when they are on topics far afield from anything I know anything about.
Nothing like a good paper on string theory to send me into intellectual
In fact, I've found that I'm more interested in dating scientists than
humanities folks. I suspect that I may have a bit of the been-there-done-that
'tude when it comes to disciplines I've published. I like dating to
be about expanding my world. One of my best first dates was with Andrew,
who teaches medicine, but should have gone into physics. "Explain quantum
mechanics to me, briefly and without resorting to equations," I demanded
over dinner. He did, and I fell in love.
Academics also tend not to be overly materialistic. In one of my forays
into dating outside of the professoriate, I was shocked by the emphasis
on worldly possessions. Don't get me wrong -- I like nice things as
much as the next gal, but it's still kind of reassuring that I can count
on one hand the number of academics I know who wear Armani.
On the other hand, having to explain why it's good to have shirts in
more than one color can be a bit tiresome. And, at the risk of venturing
into the realm of extreme stereotyping here -- and having already confessed
a predilection for science geeks -- I must also add that it can be awkward
having to deal with the substandard attention to personal hygiene that
you sometimes find among academics. A few weeks after Andrew thrilled
me with his talk about small things moving very quickly, I gave him
a little disquisition of my own, extolling the virtues of using deodorant.
Just before we moved in together, I went through his closet and helped
him throw out every shirt with an ink stain on the pocket. That decimated
his wardrobe, but his geek status remained, happily, unthreatened.
One of the things I like most about dating academics is that they tend
to give good e-mail. Of course, the fact that nearly all academics I
know are as tethered to their Internet connections as I am makes it
easy to arrange logistics -- let's meet for lunch at noon, how about
a run this evening. Even more, I love the idea of writing someone into
your life: the little disclosures that can come so easily when electronically
transmitted, the turn of phrase that can take your breath away.
Not that e-mail's never unproblematic. I was once "set up" by a friend
who thought I'd really like his friend "Bill," who taught at an institution
about three hours away. Bill and I began e-mailing each other, and boy,
was it great. Personal, intellectual, laugh-out-loud funny e-mails.
I started to think that I could really fall for this guy. Of course,
I hadn't met Bill in person, but our mutual friend told me that, while
he had no idea what was considered attractive in men, Bill was the kind
of man that women found attractive. I assumed that, when we switched
from e-flirting to f2f (face to face), there would be immediate and
intense joujou. I assumed wrong. We had a perfectly pleasant conversation,
but joujou there was not.
Another time, I found myself wearying of a self-dramatizing faculty
date who had the habit of sending long, rambling, "this is who I am,
this who I think you are, this is what is happening with us" e-mails.
I soon became reluctant to log on. Every f2f interaction was followed
by an e-mail metacommentary. Extravagant declarations were followed
by lengthy equivocations. Wrongs, actual or perceived, were enumerated.
Repeatedly. Often. At last, when I could take it no more, I ended the
relationship. Tersely. By e-mail.
So, while my experience with personal ads in academe didn't lead to
a happily-ever-after scenario, it did provide a bit of levity, and it
taught me something about myself. For better or worse, I am drawn to
academics. While I've never wanted to be one, they are the folks I like
to be around. So, if you know someone I.S.O. a D.W.F., a man with the
mind of a Feynman, the body of an Adonis, and the sense of humor of
a David Lodge, send him my way.
Rachel Toor was an editor at Oxford and Duke University Presses.
She now works in admissions at Duke University.
http://chronicle.com Section: Opinion & Arts Page: B10