The Duck of Minerva

The Stupid Things People with a Ph.D. say on Airplanes

10 April 2013

“My main job [as an assistant professor at insert-flyover-university-here] is advising presidential policy on public religious life.” I actually heard a Ph.D. tell his neighbor that on an airplane.

I know that there might be more worthwhole topics for my first post in months (I haven’t been a total slacker, I have been doing some programming), but none is more pressing …

I have made back-to-back trips to conferences (first ISA and then MPSA) this week, and have connected through Atlanta each time, providing me with the rare opportunity to ride the airplane with other political scientists who I do not know personally.

In these journeys, I have realized that political scientists are weird animals, and we say dumb things to strangers on airplanes. More examples below the fold.

I know that we are rarely let out of our university worlds, and even more rarely let out in packs. But that seems to be no excuse for losing our brains. And, through careful study, I have identified a number of ways we lose our brains on airplanes.

The first, most frequent, and most annoying way we lose our brains is by absolutely not credible bragging. In addition to the junior faculty member who apparently mediates between Obama and the religious community, I have heard academics claim work ten hours a week, get paid to write books, work secretly for foreign governments, be shareholders in their universities, teach more celebrities than have ever attended a particular university, and/or have an inordinate influence on [insert political situation here]. Some favorites that I’ve overheard in the last week: “[Insert state governor here] relies on me for information;” “I’ve studied [insert profession of fellow traveller here] and could tell you how to do it better;” “I can explain [terrorism/the financial crisis/other macrohistorcial trend] so everyone can understand it;” “I  fail students just for fun;” or “I was offered [insert prestigious job/reward here] twice but just had to turn it down for the good of my family.” This brand of brainless-academic-on-a-plane is acutely aware that the people around him/her do not know how bland, boring, and relatively unimportant our jobs really are, and is attempting to prey on an unsuspecting, non-academic audience for self-glorification.

Second to the breed of academic that brags too much is the one who is a control freak. It turns out that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t fly the plane more efficiently, control our connections, direct the pilot, or make any other sort of real impact in changing how the airline industry operates. But that does not stop some of us from trying. I was on a plane delayed three hours on the runway – the full length of the delay was announced when it started. The Ph.D. across the aisle from me spent the next three hours obsessing loudly about whether or not s/he was going to make his/her 90 minute connection. First, no, you’re not; and if you’d paid attention in methods class, this might have become obvious to you. But second, and above that, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, nor can the unsuspecting non-academic who happened to be seated next to this particular Ph.D. Yet many, many academics say stupid things like this on an airplane: “I’m sure cell phone signal does not actually interfere with navigation;” “Boarding this way would be more efficient;” “I think that if we taxi less, I will make my connection;” “I wonder what the pareto optimal weight in an airplane is?;” “I believe the cab ride from the airport will be more than 50 dollars and less than 55 …” Yet in all of these calculations, the control-freak academic does not ask questions like: how many potential tenure-letter writers are listening to me act like a fool? Or how much control do I actually have?

This brings me to the last sort of stupid-Ph.D.-on-a-plane. This is the Ph.D. to whom it has never occurred that they are on the same plane with other academics going to the same conference. S/he shows up in his/her pajamas, and/or otherwise outrageously dressed. S/he then proceeds to behave badly on the plane – sharing with the random stranger next to him/her how much his/her department sucks, how bad his/her discussant draw is, how s/he hasn’t written a paper, how his/her [subpar] department is the best in [insert region here], how the conference s/he is about to attend is so bad, the funny thing s/he posted on PSJR last week, that s/he is seeking a spousal hire, and other information no other political scientist should actually hear.

So I have advice for all three of these sorts of stupid-Ph.D.-on-a-plane candidates: shut up, and read a book. Then I won’t blog about you while you talk.