Why I Can’t Avoid Dating Academics

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, December 17, 1999


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 date.

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 question.

“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 response.

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

“On what?”

“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 toad.

“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 friends with.”

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 nuances.

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 ecstasy.

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.