April 5, 2012, 10:00 am

This article in Vanity Fair left me thinking that it’s only a matter of time before performance-enhancing drugs become the norm rather than the exception in the academy. I mean, what happens you realize that the assistant professor that your department just hired can concentrate for hours and hours without taking a break for weeks on end? What happens when you realize that s/he is far more productive than you are because of these extraordinary powers of concentration? And then, what happens when you learn that the secret to her or his success is a prescription for methylphenidate? What are you going to do about it*? As for me, I’ll probably go out for a bike ride and then take a nap. But that’s because I’m old and pretty much past my prime already. But if I could still be a contender — whatever being a contender means — I wonder if I’d think twice and call my doctor.

Here’s the thing: I’ve long known that there are people in the profession who are smarter than I am (some of these people have offices near mine). My response to such cruel realities has been, on the one hand, to acknowledge my limits and, on the other hand, to work my ass off to try to make up the stagger. Put another way, I’ve accepted that nature is fickle (Bill Cronon is a once-in-a-generation intellect; I’m not) and tried to overcome the vagaries of genetics with a response rooted in nurture (my willingness to work hard)**. That said, I think I’m going to find it pretty difficult to take when it turns out that people are outperforming me because they’re relying chemical enhancements*** to help them publish.

Now wait, before you give the obvious reply, yes, I know this already happens. Eric drinks coffee. I don’t. And that’s the only reason he’s written four books and I haven’t. Really, though, if there were a pill that would allow me to be significantly more productive, I worry that I’d think long and hard about taking it. Actually, I suspect that choice is already here. It’s just that I don’t have the right dealer.

* Whitey.

** The nature/nurture divide is far too simple here, I know. Some people are smarter and harder working than I am. Oh well.

*** Especially when it turns out that some people process these chemicals more efficiently than other people and thus have better results when they ingest them. Oh, nature, you are truly cruel!

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