14 February 2011

Brainy Valentine

A few months ago, I wrote a cheeky email to WPR in response to a discussion on the drawbacks of doctors’ wearing the archetypal white lab coat. Though the conversation brought up significant issues – including the fact that the coats are often worn day after day, from one exam room to the next without being laundered (um, gross) – I felt one aspect to the white coat was overlooked.

Lab coats are sexy.

My email to the program’s producer was meant to be silly and I was pleased to receive an appropriately amused response. But, somewhere between hyperbole and nerdy humor, I was trying to make a point. Far from objectifying anyone, I was attempting to offer a reminder that smart people are attractive and interesting to be around.

Attraction, though, is a funny thing.

There is a term that my friends and I toss around in fun. It refers, broadly speaking, to the fascination one feels regarding the work, ideas, and personality of a particular academic or intellectual figure. We call it the educrush.

An educrush might be accompanied by giggle-including innuendo and private, playful teasing but that is as far as it goes. Educrushing is an experience – not uncommon among graduate students – of being awed by the accomplishments of an advisor or faculty member and wanting to consume all of his or her work in order to understand the talent they represent. When admiration for someone, known only through his/her work, is developed at a distance the educrush can have a motivating effect that inspires students to strive for excellence and achievement. And, at the same time, it can draw a student to someone nearby and create a meaningful mentoring relationship. Unfortunately, this kind of direct-contact educrush can carry a weight that leads the student to rely heavily (perhaps too heavily) on the approval of the crushee. Leonard Cassuto addressed this rather thoughtfully in an October 2010 column for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I cannot underemphasize the fact that the educrush is a purely intellectual experience. But, on St. Valentine’s Day, I am reminded of the letter I wrote last year and the way that the heart and mind intertwine. How many times has romantic love been inspired and enhanced by the recognition and appreciation of a partner’s (or potential partner’s) intellect and sense of humor?

On campus, an unchecked attraction to your smart and smokin’ hot finance professor can be a genuine problem. And we all know of cases from our own departments or colleges in which affection was returned and a seasoned academic becomes involved with a student or junior colleague. Even if things are kept, officially, on the up-and-up, the smirks and snickers are inevitable. One need only consult the many examples, from twelfth-century Heloise and Abelard to twentieth-century George and Martha, to know that higher ed romances can be… emm… problematic.

Now, I don’t want to ignore or belittle the experience of those – particularly women – who are subjected to an unwarranted sexiness verses scholarship dichotomy. But it is worth noting (in a spirit of absolute respect) that a confident and challenging mind can be a powerful aphrodisiac. I, for one, have known and fancied some truly brilliant women. I do not mean that the smart women in my life have been interesting simply on account of their insight and creativity. This is not an either/or case of brains verses beauty. The smart women I know are all beautiful. I mean it – genuinely striking creatures.

So, I ask: Is beauty simply enhanced by the intellect or is it a direct extension of the mind?

I’m inclined to believe the latter. The countless instances in which someone’s physical attractiveness has been shattered the moment he or she opens her mouth and speaks utter nonsense would seem to support this conclusion. As such, I have two enduring hopes on this grotesquely commercialized day of cupid and chocolate. First, I hope the young people I see on campus every day come to understand that flashing skin and catching someone’s eye at a party are nothing compared to finding and growing alongside a partner whose mind intrigues and arouses you. Second, I hope that all of you, dear friends, have a chance to know something close to the pleasures and affections I encounter every day with my truest friend, my unnamed co-author in all things, my bright and brainy valentine… my wife.

Image: Detail from Abelard and Heloise, Surprised by Master Fulbert by Jean Vignaud (1819)

1 comment:

  1. AAaaawwwwWW... very insightful, and SWEET too. MSR