Academic Tumbleweeds

Why eccentricity thrives on campus


A colleague and I were musing about why there are so many eccentric people in academia. We agreed that this eccentricity exists within a broad spectrum, from merely pixilated to plainly certifiable. But wherever it falls, craziness of one sort or another goes with the territory (we don’t, by the way, exempt ourselves). We are convinced that it is more prevalent within the university than outside its walls.

My colleague came up with what I thought was an apt metaphor to explain this phenomenon.

He described visiting Missouri years ago, soon after a major flood. The soil from the river had created a kind of desert area along its banks where once there had been a variety of vegetation. When he returned the next year, he found that this desert had begun to sprout flora—but of the most unusual sort. Not the natural mix that used to be there but singular samples of various plant life existing on their own in separate areas of the terrain: patches of crab grass, sunflowers of enormous height, tumbleweeds that had achieved the size of boulders. Under normal circumstances, crabgrass and sunflowers might mix with other growth. You might see a tumbleweed, but it would be small, blocked in its development in a variegated landscape. But in this desert scape after the flood, there were no inhibitors; each of these forms could develop without check. A few years later, when my friend returned to the area, these aggressively distinctive forms were gone. The diverse vegetation had returned and swallowed them up.

One could argue that society curbs or chastens its citizens’ behavior so that business can be carried on with relative ease. If you don’t buckle a bit to certain norms, you won’t survive in the marketplace. But academia stands outside this hurly-burly, which is why it is called the Ivory Tower. Tenure assures a lifetime job, so those who have it aren’t required to restrain their natural eccentricities. This has its benefits. New ideas get generated within the academic environment that can’t sprout anywhere else, where they would be viewed as too far-fetched and outside-the-box. But at the same time that creativity is encouraged, dysfunctional behavior is also allowed to exist unchecked. As a result, like those giant tumbleweeds on the flooded banks of the Missouri, characters emerge who are aberrant, even monstrous, and can impede the simple act of getting from here to there.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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