Short Tales of Academia

These stories may have appeared elsewhere in comments I’ve made, but why not pull them into a posting of their own?

My dad’s an (emeritus) history professor, who was the department chair at Johns Hopkins for a bunch of years. My sister and I grew up in the academic whirl, which is a slow whirl mostly consisting of fascinating people, interesting conversations, tall stories, and alcohol. Lots of alcohol.

As a kid one of my favorite professors was J.G.A. Pocock (who had 2 other boy kids who were cool to hang out with) – never mind the fact that he wrote a great history of Machiavelli and Florentine political thought [mm] Pockock could free translate between English, Old Norse, and Latin. He could also drink a great deal of wine. That’s not a criticism – it never seemed to incapacitate or hardly affect him – but his fondness for the stuff was a source of amazement for us kids. Mostly, my favorite thing was to try to get him to read the scenes from the Battle of Pelenor Fields in The Lord of The Rings in Norse, bardic-style. I wish I had a recording of that. But it’s hard, when you’re a kid, to put someone like that on the spot.

When The Machiavellian Moment was published, dad had a party, and sent out invitations that read “The Moment Has Come!” which we printed on the small letter-press down in the basement. My dad’s many interests, and willingness to charge off and learn odd skills (like printing with movable type and building our own print-shop) did a lot to encourage me to do likewise. It’s a behavior some people find odd but it has always been as natural to me as breathing.

Anyway, my dad told me a tale of one of his Hopkins colleagues, who taught American History (probably Jack P. Greene) who had a Chinese grad student. The professor, one day, asked the student “What sparked your interest in American history?” and the student thought for a few seconds before replying, “I am lazy.” And subtle.

Another time my dad told of a professor (it may have been him) who was invited to speak at the Political Science department at Cambridge. During the introduction, the department chairman began with, “The ‘American Experiment’ is one that we at the Political Science Department, here, have watched since its inception…” (boom!)

Dad often used to say “the fights in academia are so fierce because there is so little at stake.” I’m sure that’s not one of his, but he used it often, which led me to grow up thinking that a history department was a doom-filled valley of backstabbing machiavellians versus norse warriors who liked chanting advertisements from The Wall Street Journal as they marched into battle.


  1. Sean Boyd says

    I remember a colloquium given by a professor at my university being derailed by another professor who objected to the use of a constant in front of an expression being minimized. The objection was not that it was wrong, but that he simply disliked it: instead, he preferred removing the constant, turning the problem into an equivalent maximization problem. The resulting argument took up probably 10 to 15 minutes of a 50 minute talk.

    Also, in 1993, I had the opportunity to attend a colloquium given by Paul Erdös, the topic of which was some of his favorite results from his career. Being a lowly first year grad student, I was stuck way in the back of the standing-room-only lecture hall. One of the number theorists in the department (I never found out who, as I was too far away) made a comment about how it was possible to generalize something Erdös had done back around 1935. Erdös looked at him, said, “of course, that is obvious“ (or words to that effect) and continued on like nothing happened at all.

  2. polishsalami says

    He could also drink a great deal of wine.

    UK TV chef Keith Floyd used to hit the bottle on the air. As you can guess, it provided some fascinating content.

  3. kestrel says

    What a great way to grow up – and with a printing press in the basement! How fantastic to be constantly learning new things like that.

    We also grew up in academia as my father was a marine biologist, and constantly had grad students at the house etc. Our basement had no printing press but did have a dark room. One year at the end of a summer of research, my father noticed his little dog had a circle painted around his eye, and confronted the students about this. They sheepishly admitted that all summer long they’d been playing Johnny Quest: my father was Dr. Quest of course, and the dog was Bandit, but they traded off the other roles and dressed accordingly… he never had noticed, even when the Hadji character would wear a turban for the week they were playing that role. Apparently the scallops (I think it was scallops that year) were too interesting to pay attention to anything else.

  4. says

    There was an old engineer in Baltimore named Elting Stilwell, who died and there was an estate sale. Dad thought it might be cool so we went. And came home with a carload of stuff including a small (3×5) letterpress and a huge cast iron 8×10. Then began a process I am now familiar with: building out a shop. Dad found places that made rubber rollers. Dad found bulk suppliers for various papers. Dad found a foundry in south Baltimore that was just going out of business so the owner was literally throwing blocks of type to me saying “here take this!” And dad found type chests and I sorted type. Then I learned how to lay up a page with cast steel tensioners, and I learned what “leading” was. Mom put her foot down when the Baltimore Sun put its linotypes on sale; there was no room for one, or I’d probably be the world’s last linotype engineer.

    Stilwell had a giant, perfectly maintained motor lathe in his basement, that looked like the house had been assembled around it. I have wanted one ever since.

    I always pitied Stilwell’s kids because I bet that they had no idea what a priceless person he was. My dad is 85 now and, humans being what they are, he doesn’t use the press any more. Some day I’m going to inherit about 5 tons of lead type and cast iron. But the press was dad’s thing not mine. I was more interested in weaving chainmail at that time.

    Does anyone want me to leave them a 25-ton capacity hydraulic forging press in my will? :)

    I never saw any Johnny Quest. I think mom and dad’s strategy was to keep me too busy to watch TV.

  5. says

    Printers type used to come in a neatly packed block wrapped in paper, tied with a string. If the string popped you had a dogawful mess on your hands trying to sort the ‘p’s from the ‘d’s and ‘q’s. I believe that may be where the advice to “mind your ps and qs” comes from.

    (By the time I was a kid ‘lead’ type was mostly tin so it was safer to handle)

  6. says

    UK TV chef Keith Floyd used to hit the bottle on the air. As you can guess, it provided some fascinating content.

    There is a youtube channel that is allegedly drunken accounts of history. I experienced the very best, live, at many dinners.

  7. kestrel says

    @Marcus, #5: Yes, I’m pretty sure you are correct about the p’s and q’s. Wow, that’s really the old way… I worked at a newspaper right before they made the switch to doing page layout on a computer, so I learned the way they did it after the lead type way: cutting and pasting waxed paper on galleys. I still know how to run those old machines (not as old as your father’s): I know how to run a Compugraphic typesetting machine, how to shoot a PMT, how to set up and number a signature etc. I have to wonder what the publisher of that paper did with all his equipment after they switched to computers? It may be mouldering in a basement somewhere, just waiting for someone to discover it!

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    When I was in grad school in the mid-1980s, some of the professors were of the hard-drinking type. One of them was Johns W. Hopkins III. I presumed at the time that he was descended from the famous Johns Hopkins, but since have learned that the famous Johns Hopkins never married, and so presumably never had children (at least legitimate children). So I have no idea whether there was any familial relation between the two people.

    Link to a book by Hopkins III

  9. says

    I know how to run a Compugraphic typesetting machine,

    You can still find those on Ebay but the shipping is ridiculous. Ahhhhh the smell of solvent, though.

  10. Jazzlet says

    I too am the child of an academic, in my case a professor of pure maths. My parents didn’t do formal dinner parties partly because there were six of us, and there just wasn’t the space to have us all plus guests round the table, so they a party most years instead. One of the things my parents did do, along with other others, was try to socialise the younger maths undergrads, this being Oxford you could join the university without any special permission at fourteen, and many of the younger ones had been hothoused in maths at the cost of their broader development, which along with their age made fitting in very difficult for them. The general feeling among the maths department was that it also didn’t lead to long or happy careers, so they did their best to ameliorate the effects of the early hothousing, and that included having these kids round to dinner to help show them how to behave. Dad had very strong opinions on this, he reckoned that you could make pretty much any child a maths genius, but that it was at far too high a cost if it was achieved by leaving out everything else children need to learn. He voted against admitting Ruth Lawrence on those grounds – the reason Ruth Lawrence made the headlines was that she was only twelve and the universty assembly had to vote on whether to admit her.

  11. says

    Jazzlet @#10

    Dad had very strong opinions on this, he reckoned that you could make pretty much any child a maths genius, but that it was at far too high a cost if it was achieved by leaving out everything else children need to learn. He voted against admitting Ruth Lawrence on those grounds – the reason Ruth Lawrence made the headlines was that she was only twelve and the universty assembly had to vote on whether to admit her.

    What about asking the child what they themselves want? Alright, I understand that children can be easily influenced by adults around them. Maybe the child would prefer to play with other kids but says “I want to study math” just because they want to please their parents. But still, why not ask the child? Carefully, and paying close attention to any nonverbal cues the child makes. My problem with your father’s strong opinion is that each child is different, and this one answer might not be the right one for every single child.

    My personal experience was the exact opposite of what you are describing here. I wasn’t born normal. I could never behave like a normal child. Yet my parents and school teachers all tried to force me to act like a normal child should. And that hurt me. A lot.

    At school, I was shoveled in the same class with 27 other children who were closer to normal than me. Teachers literally tried to force me to interact with my classmates and be friends. That didn’t work. In my mind, I called my classmates “a horde of idiots.” They bored me, thus I never talked with them. On some days, I didn’t say a single word at school. I would listen to my classmates’ conversations and think that they were stupid. I had no shared interests with them. Reading books, drawing, writing poetry, or even simply staring through a window gave me more joy than the few conversations I couldn’t avoid having with my classmates. My classmates weren’t the only reason why school bored me. Some of the subjects were taught at too simple lever for me. This was especially the case with mathematics. When I was 16, I literally slept during math lessons, because I already knew all those things my teacher struggled to teach to my classmates.

    Looking back, I know I was unfair towards my classmates. I never gave them a chance. They were perfectly normal friendly children. Maybe I should have tried harder to get to know them better and befriend somebody. Or, during conversations, I should have tried to switch the conversation topic towards something I found interesting. Who knows, maybe I could have discovered some shared interests. But I never did that. I hated my classmates, and I considered them stupid.

    By the time I was 13 years old, each morning as I walked to school, I was hoping for a car to hit me whenever I crossed a street. That’s how unhappy I was with my supposedly normal childhood. I literally hoped to die in a car crash.

    There actually were some things I enjoyed about school. I loved mathematics. I used to participate in math competitions, and that gave me lots of joy. The regular tasks they gave to children were too simplistic and boring. But those tasks that I got to solve at the state lever math competitions were pure joy to think about. I also managed to befriend two of my teachers. During breaks between lessons I would spend my time just chatting with these teachers. Occasionally I also talked with my school’s librarian, I still remember how when I was 16 years old I spent a day sitting next to her desk and arguing about whether humans have free will. There was one more benefit to going to school—I learned the verbal abuse skills necessary for dealing with bullies (having no friends turned me into a potential target, and I had to fight back).

    I wasn’t a normal child and I couldn’t behave like one. Forcing me into this environment only hurt me. Adults hurt me so much and forced me to interact with other children, because they feared that I might grow up with no social skills. Ironically, it ended up differently. When I was forced to interact with children who were my age, I spent all my time sitting in a corner of the class and reading books. By the time I finished school and was finally free to do what I wanted, I actually learned some social skills. I knew that this was something I had to learn, so I practiced. I would go somewhere where nobody knew me and spend an evening pretending to be a talkative and friendly person. While studying abroad in Germany, I took the exercise to the next level—go to some students’ party and spend the whole evening talking with strangers. The task was to pretend to be funny, friendly, and make my conversation partners like me. I never enjoyed these exercises, but I got good enough at them. I just couldn’t spend ten years of my life pretending to be friendly with my classmates whom I disliked. But I could spend a single evening talking with strangers and practicing my communication skills. Oh, and I also joined a university debate club, initially for the sake of learning public speaking skills, but after a while I started to enjoy debating a lot.

    I’m still not normal. For example, most of my friends are a lot older than me. All of them are very well educated and we don’t have the usual normal discussions that friends are supposed to have; instead we discuss various topics related to science, art, etc. Even my sex life is weird; the youngest person I have ever had sex with was 32 years old at the time. And the thing is, I’m perfectly happy with who I am and how I live. I have no desire to be more normal. I used to be very unhappy while going to school; after finishing it, once I was finally free to live how I wanted, that changed, and I’m now enjoying my life a lot. I can enjoy socializing with people, it just has to happen on my terms and in a way that’s comfortable for me. I believe my parents, school teachers, and the education system in general did me a huge disservice by forcing me to live the way how the average child was supposed to live.

    I understand that other children have had different, probably even contrary experiences, which is why I think that children ought to be seen as unique individuals with different needs, and the same approach doesn’t always work for every one of them.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    … and alcohol. Lots of alcohol.

    Take it back to the Greek, and “symposium” means “drinking together” or “assembly of drinkers”.

  13. Jazzlet says

    Ieva @#11
    In the context my father was talking about you start the child on maths from pretty much straight out of the womb, these children weren’t given any choice in the matter as one or both of their parents knew they were going to produce a maths genius, and did so at the cost of everything else. Dad wasn’t saying ignore a childs natural proclivities, he was saying develop them along side developing the whole child. In your case he would have been very happy for your maths ability to be developed way beyond your peers, but would have also wanted you to be able to communicate with your peers even if most of the time you actually ended up talking with adults, he would have wanted you to have a thorough grounding in other subjects so that you could communicate with non-mathematicians, he wouldn’t have wanted you to be in that corner despising your peers.

    Dad was a maths genius, he has a lemma named after him, but it wasn’t even his first love, he went into maths because his older brother had gone into ‘natural sciences’ as Oxford called it, mostly chemistry in Uncle’s case, and Dad didn’t want to be following in his brother’s footsteps. His family consisted of three incredibly bright boys, all of whom won full scholarships to Oxford, they would have been good at any subject they chose, but as well as doing well academically their parents expected them to be able to fit in with the congregtion and at school. This was quite tough as my grandfather was a Methodist minister, and they moved their ministers every four years, so every four years the boys had to get to know a new congregation and a new school, they had to have enough social polish to deal with that. That background made them able to fit in wherever they were, their academic careers were interupted by WWII and those skills helped them survive that, and in peace time meant that they were always able fit in without compromising themselves. He felt strongly about the young men (it was overwhelmingly young men), for a lot of reasons, but the main ones were they were rarely happy people partly because they couldn’t make friends even when they had grown up, and because they all too often burnt out and were left ill-fitted to a life outside academia, to doing anything other than the maths they were no longer capabble of doing.

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