Where Have the Eccentric Professors Gone?

Growing up, I watched quite a few movies with characters that were eccentric professors with interesting quirks. This image is based on some reality because these characters are usually an approximation of individuals in real life, played up for dramatic effect. One of the bigger shocks I had upon arriving at college was the distinct lack of quirky professors. Of course, there’s the real possibility that I am a victim of small sets. In other words, because I go to a specific school, major in a specific field, and select specific classes, I am by no means getting a representative sample of all professors in the world. However, individuals that become professors are, in some sense, self-selecting, thus, one should expect an even ethos of weirdness in every university. It could also be the case that my university is an extreme outlier in weirdness and the hiring process selects those professors that are less eccentric. With those caveats out of the way, I find that this observation, when made to other students, is not one that I share alone, and I think there are three reasons for this.

  1. Selective pressures of academia today: It could be the case that these eccentric professors don’t make it far enough in academia. The reasoning for this is quite simple. To be an academic is to be a specific type of person who is driven and knows how to navigate a hierarchical system while being personable enough to get collaborators, and supervisors until they become one themselves. As a result, those eccentric ones that are not good fits (or good enough fits to survive in this environment) are outside of academia or in places where their eccentricities do not hamper their progress. The issue with this argument is that it is not falsifiable. What does it even mean to be eccentric and where do these "eccentric ones" thrive? That said, although eccentricities are hard to define, I think we need weirder people in general. Eccentric people are wild cards, they are tricky to manage and are usually strong-willed; all traits of innovators.

  2. Cancel culture: It could be that these eccentric individuals self-censor and once they become professors, they either leave to avoid being canceled or they restrain themselves to ensure they keep their jobs. Cancel culture does not have to be the cancellation we think of today. It could be how universities weigh the opinions of student evaluations of professors that they do not like. Or it could be the way people react to unknown risks.

  3. They are in a specific field: It could also be the case that I am not in the area with eccentric professors. Or that these eccentric professors gravitate towards specific fields like astrophysics which is way more niche. However, won’t we expect to see them in philosophy? If we were to rank fields according to weirdness, philosophy should be in the top five, at least.

Overall, this issue might not be salient when compared to other issues individually, but when added to the basket of variables we have, we notice a disturbing trend in academia: being weird is only allowed in a specific context. We can call the intersectional movement a clamor for eccentricity, in some sense, but if everyone is weird in a specific way, then no one is weird. We can only get eccentric individuals when people deviate from the norm of weirdness and are courageous enough to stand their ground.

Certainty Rating: 53%


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