• November 26, 2014

Academic Party Games

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Question (from "Desmond"): I'm an eager and curious graduate student looking for information about how academics behave. I read in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? about games like "Humiliate the Host" and "Get the Guests." What other party games do academics play?

Answer: Ms. Mentor is loath to admit it, but Albee's play is far more exciting than most professors' lives. Few academics host operatic, melodramatic soirees. They're much more apt to hunker down with The New Yorker, listen to NPR, and nibble roguishly on some tofu.

But you're already growing impatient. Bring on the party! Er ... bring on the anxieties.

Ms. Mentor thinks it fair to say that most academics are not party animals. They were the ones who went to class, took notes, did their homework. They didn't live for "Humpday," the cherished Wednesday drinking night among party-loving undergraduates. Today's professors may have been in protests—but they were hardly ever invited to panty raids.

In the legendary past, though, faculty members were edgier. One cowboy-state university was said to foster "wife swapping," or so a job candidate was told (he fled to Southern California, "where people are normal," he told Ms. Mentor). A well-known New England college was said to be a center for romantic trade-ins "20 years ago. You got here too late, kid," a senior professor once told "Rip," a lonely new instructor. (Rip moved to the Midwest, married, raised a family, and now complains about "kids today who want everything handed to them.")

Social standards were also famously stringent in the old days. Anxious faculty wives were expected to produce elaborate dinner parties, with everything presented, flaming, on 18th-century swords. At one exclusive coastal campus, the president reportedly asked each new assistant professor, "And your brand of Scotch is?" If you named the wrong one, you were considered hopelessly gauche (and they considered that factor when they discussed who might "fit in" for tenure).

But by the 1990s, it's said, few academics even drank the hard stuff. The elite learned about wine, the folksy went for beer, and the recoverers went for Perrier.

Yes, but what about the games?

Academics are still competitive conversationalists, of course.

There's One-Up, in which Venerable Professor A makes a claim ("Eusebius is the best") that Venerable Professor B has to dispute ("Eusebius is a hopeless liar. Tertullian is the fine mind."). Then they're off and huffing. Each one orates, then waits while the other orates. No conclusion is reached, but everyone gets to pontificate.

This mine-is-bigger game is best played standing up, at receptions and move-around-the-room events. A top-notch player can do half a dozen of these jousts in an hour, honing his oratorical skills, before going home to chortle over Catullus.

One-Up is not a good game for the untenured to play. When the antler butting starts, the young are always wrong. It is their job to smile and admire, and if they speak at all, to ask respectful questions: "Where would you place Origen in this schema?"

If they're being judged by elder ogres, the young and the new do better with some entertaining repartee: "I just read about cow fighting in Switzerland." Exotic medical news ("death by poisoned carrots") always excites scholarly interest, as do tidbits lifted from Malcolm Gladwell's books.

Some shy academics train for parties by working up questions: "Everyone likes to talk about themselves, so I'll just ask them things." But if your conversation is rat-a-tat-tat questioning ("How are your classes going?" "What do you think of New Jersey?" "How about the weather!"), you'll wind up like "Gus," who was known as the Grand Interrogator. People would talk with him for three minutes, then say, "Um, I have to check on something," and flee.

Instead, you may find ways to play Real Academic Minds at Work. In Let's Get Pompous, someone proposes a simple phrase ("it stinks"), and then others translate and torture the subject according to their own disciplines.

Chemists can explain why it stinks: "A compound of hydrogen and sulfur is generated by the degradation of any generic protein, producing a putrefactinous compound known to laypeople as 'rotten eggs,' but to scientists as 'hydrogen sulfide.'"

Meanwhile, language mavens can fuss over the meaning of "stinks," tracing its origin to Anglo-Saxon olfactory misadventures ("stincan," or "to emit a smell"). Or maybe "it stinks" is a spiritual malaise, fodder for philosophers and psychologists. Is "it stinks" yet another term for "existential funk"? What's it called in the DSM?

Points are awarded for jargon, including each use of "hegemony" and "agency." Extra points are given for horrific formulations, such as "agendize" and "proliferatizing."

This game can shade into Annoy Us With Abstractions, in which professors from different fields bully each other: "What do you mean when you say 'diagnosis'?" and "How can you know that a diagnosis is really real?" and "What makes you think you'd know 'reality' if it snuck up on you?" (Ms. Mentor hides from this game.)

For the show-offy, there is always Mock Your Profession or Someone Else's, in which players must answer such questions as "What's the worst great novel you've ever read?" and "What really is the point of string theory?" Some questions are perennially vexing: "Who's the biggest fraud passing for brilliant in your field?" and "Why do we have a major in volleyball?"

And for the self-flagellating, there is Confess Your Sins, in which you describe the things you don't know or did wrong. There's "the famous book I taught, without reading it" or "the worst thesis I ever passed because of social pressure" or "the time I plagiarized and got away with it. That was the only time. Really, it was the only time."

Of course you should be flogged, but Ms. Mentor wonders if anyone in the future will speak up—for Americans are apparently getting quieter, shyer. In the 1980s, according to the Stanford researcher Philip Zimbardo, some 80 percent of Americans characterized themselves as "shy." (This is reported in Susan RoAne's useful little book, How to Work a Room.) By 2000, the figure was 93 percent, thanks to e-mail and cellphones. Now, with texting and tweeting, shy people need not use their voices at all.

With PowerPoint and online courses, professors can also teach without speaking—and today's students, Ms. Mentor notes, rarely talk with each other. Everyone's plinking and swiping on a device.

Desmond's may be the last generation in which academic games are played viva voce. There are already half a dozen Jargon Generators online, so you can even cheat at Let's Get Pompous. Eating can't yet be outsourced, but advice sometimes is.

Some day Ms. Mentor will wake up and find out she's become an app.


Question: My college is considering pluses or minuses, besides A through D, for more "grading options." These will create even more appalling sagas of grade grubbing. I don't have a dog in this fight (I don't teach pre-meds), but I'd like to go to our faculty assembly and put on a filibuster in favor of F-plus and F-minus grades as "finer gradations." I'll amuse myself and annoy the mighty. I'm retiring soon. May I do this?

Answer: Sure.


Sage readers: ´╗┐Ms. Mentor invites suggestions for other academic games. Group Rant needs some rules to keep it under control. Fine Distinctions might excite theorists of all kinds: "What are the differences between metonymy and synecdoche?" "What about Metairie and Schenectady?"

Ms. Mentor also welcomes sallies and pontifications for Valentine's Day. How can shy academics meet and mate in our barbarous times? Could Romeo and Juliet both get jobs in Verona?

As always, Ms. Mentor invites rants, gossip, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily. All communications are confidential, and identifying details undergo a surgically precise realignment. Your colleagues will never recognize your game face.

(c) Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

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