Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hot for academia

A few years ago I was speaking with a male friend about a woman I dislike (not least because, as a prospective graduate student, she repaid her host--one of my oldest and dearest friends--by sleeping with that host's live-in boyfriend). I had to acknowledge that the woman was smart, but I couldn't resist the observation that her career probably wasn't hurt by the fact that she was hot, too.

"Um," said my friend. "That's not hot."

"Come on!" I said. "She's skinny; she's blonde; she turns out well. Hot."

My friend replied that she was bony and pallid and ferret-faced.

I stared at him for a minute. "You're really trying to tell me she's not hot."

"God no," he said. "Except. . . for academia? Probably that is hot."


And so, inspired by Wonkette's similar distinction ("famous for D.C." and "famous for famous"), a phrase was born. Hot for academia.

In normal usage, the phrase is intended to dismiss someone or damn with faint praise; after all, when it comes to academic hotness or the hotness of academics, the bar is pretty low. But I sometimes use the phrase at least semi-seriously, as a way of acknowledging that there might be things that count more towards hotness in our world than just what the culture at large identifies as attractive.

Think for a minute about some of the entirely unhot individuals with high chili pepper ratings on Now, I don't place a lot of faith in the tastes of undergraduate women--who have a tendency to be charmed by those who are funny, young, and in positions of authority (and who I think are disproportionately responsible for those otherwise mystifying peppers)--but there's a point there. The enthusiastic, the funny, the devastatingly smart can be hot. So can the stylish, the outrageous, and sometimes even the imperious and demanding.

And I don't know about you, but I like living in a world where that's true.


Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh! This reminds me of some descriptive terms developed when I was in graduate school. My friends and I would use the word "academic" as a qualifier to explain/describe our fellow grad students and profs.
For example "academic tan" would describe a professor who had a mildly winsome glow about them (as opposed to the usual professorial pallor).

My hair color (light brown but I made an effort with highlights when I could afford them) was "academic blonde." etc.

Great post, Flavia!


Sisyphus said...

Heh --- here in my dept. someone coined the phrase "is he hot hot, or English major hot?"

There's always some faintly skeevy prof who's superficially very charming and attracts a coterie of adoring undergrads --- helped, we think, by the fact that so few guys are in the major (and even relatively few are profs).

Unfortunately, the female undergrads here all look like Baywatch cast members, and the male undergrads, while "hot hot," just aren't in Eng. classes. Ah well.

medieval woman said...

Love this post; love the phrase; love everything.

Love it.

Simplicius said...

Great, now I can worry you both secretly dislike me and think I'm ugly.

Ok, not really--but your last two posts together do touch on some serious academic social anxieties. And we academics do tend to be an anxious lot.

Susan said...

There are also different disciplinary styles, which relates to the concept of "hot for academia". My observation is that among women humanists, art historians are the most chic and elegant; lit people next, and historians are the least fashionable. I was once in an airport van full of anthropologists coming from their conference, and they all were dressed as if they'd just come in from the field. Of course, this refers not to overall appearance, but just how people dress.

So "academic hot" might need to be modified by disciplinary conventions.

Flavia said...

Sarah & Sis: I *love* "academic blonde" and "English major hot," and I'm prepared to steal them. Like, right now.

Simplicius: I think we tend to be an anxious lot in part because we tend to believe it is, always, *all about us* (at least, I often feel that way, and, feeling that way, I have no qualms about extrapolating to others!). But, it isn't.

(Do I need to say, additionally, how charming, etc., etc. you are? Then consider it said.)

Susan: oh, so true! I have a friend in History of Science whose parents live near one of the recent MLA sites and who thus came to meet me for coffee one day when I was mid-conference. We were watching the passers by as we talked, and she amusingly broke down all the differences between lit types and those in her field.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Heh, I guess that would explain why I have had at least one distracting and inappropriate crush on a faculty member at every level of education since junior high! Most of them weren't conventionally good-looking, either, just knock-your-socks-off brilliant in the classroom.

Anonymous said...

Flavia, you are enchanting.


One of the things I love about the academy is that I've always been attracted to unconventional hotnesses -- and they are in such abundance in this odd little world. In strange ways, sometimes. I don't go in for boys much, for example, but I get to have huge crushes on their brains, on occasion, and that's delightful.

And funny what you say about the chili peppers -- not just because it assumes heterosexuality cough cough -- but because I've always attributed the phenomenon to women. My thoughts on this are coloured by the off-kilter place that fostered me as an undergrad, but I thought that RYP's anonymity afforded a space for women, for whom otherwise to talk about hotness might be taken as unserious, to be frivolous without fear of sexist recrimination. I also think a lot of women chili-pepper other women, especially in cases of unconventional hotness, because of the affinity of one woman scholar for another that makes it easier to identify True Academic Hotness.

... Now that I think about that, I have clearly overestimated the average RYP user. Ahem. Never mind.

Mr. B. said...

Great thread.

You know, you can buy "non-academic hotness"- sorry UD. You can have it injected.

Academic hotness is somehow connected to having a (few) brain cells in addition to not looking as if you had just run into a door or did not own a comb. I remember a few years ago when there was some kind of website or calendar entitled something like stud muffins of science.

Agree about art historians being hot. Mrs. B. is an art historian.

There are also some truly (not just academic) hot female scientists, but I don't want to name names.



Flavia said...

Well I wasn't *entirely* assuming heterosexuality, Neo--I deliberately didn't gender the professors whom the undergraduate women were rating so highly, because I do believe it's true that women assign chili peppers, to professors of both sexes, more frequently than men for the reasons you note. It's hard for me to imagine a straight male student giving a chili pepper to a male instructor, but it's not at all hard for me to imagine a female student (straight or gay) giving one to instructors of both sexes.

That being said, I'll confess that it *was* a male junior professor whom I had uppermost in mind when I wrote that description--someone at INRU whose alleged cute/hotness the undergraduate women would go on and on about. I never had occasion to TA for him, but I had a friend who did and who would report her students' comments with bafflement.

Because. . . he was a nice guy and I understand he was a great lecturer. But the most positive physical description I can come up with is "hobbit-like."

gwoertendyke said...

oh my god, this is a HIL-arious post, comments included. i've only just met Mr. B., but good god, you are funnY.

an academic friend of ours once passed out on our couch while the rest of us played loud music and continued drinking--a friend looked over at him an announced that his feet looked like those of a hobbit. hobbit-like is about the funniest description of an over-inflated ego-ed academic male that i've heard in some time.

i think i've said this before but mr. whore goes crazy for academic women, loves their barely repressed sexiness, he says, and so we've often talked of the broad range of hotness that are strewn around academia. and i agree, flavia, i like that it is broad and based first in the intellectual.

Flavia said...

AW: Hee! We need more Mr. Whores in the world, is what I'm saying.

In fairness, though, I should note that the junior prof I had in mind did not have an inflated ego--he was very sweet, happily partnered, and I'm sure he was as befuddled as the rest of us by the adoration of his students.

That's a situation I'm actually rather sympathetic toward, as comic as it is. We all know the jerks who, after being socially inept in high school and college, suddenly come into their own and work it rather sleazily to their advantage. . . but I don't think most people are that calculating, and I'd imagine that it can be difficult to go from having precious little self-esteem for so many years (if only because of the ravages of grad school), to suddenly and mystifyingly being the object of adoration.

I wouldn't know about the adoration part, but I went through a serious identity transition in my early-mid 20s that also involved my sense of my own attractiveness. . . and you know, as positive as that change was overall, it was also really hard and involved some bad stuff along the way. It took me years to get a handle on what that change really meant.

Unknown said...

LOVE this post, and the whole thread. Reminds me of when my Texas friend and I used to remind ourselves that the academic hotness bar was pretty low. He always maintained that lack of preparation for any class one was teaching could be handily overcome by a fabulous outfit. I suspect this fun with hotness--one's own and others'--is a young prof's thing. It was for us, anyway. Which is why your observation about varieties of hotness in unexpected places (ie nerdiness, attitude, accomplishment as hot) is so lovely. As we age, and our mainstream hotness wanes, it's nice to know venues of hotness are still proliferating somewhere still.

Ancarett said...

Some days I've chatted over the RYP chilis with colleagues (our usual comment is "Someone thinks that person is hot?" and I'm glad to know that the concept of "hot for [insert academic discipline]" is able to explain these ratings.

I also love the comment that points out the pecking order of style and panache amongst scholars. I am always filled with anxiety when I go to a multidisciplinary conference where, as a historian, I usually end up at the bottom of the stylish sweepstakes. I don't aspire to "academic hot" of any sort; I simply don't want to look like a complete hayseed!

Anonymous said...

i used to have a professor for a joyce seminar at my college who was the antithesis of hot. he wore the usual tweedy academic jacket and your boring catalogue of button down whites and blues. but then one day, suddenly, we sat up and took notice. he was no longer sporting sweat stains in the pits of his shirts. he was... suddenly super super hot. his hair was suddenly mussed, his style more casual and he was sporting some james dean style rolled sleeve shirts. we were even enchanted by the pack of marlboros he carried in his front pockets. it made him more of a man. looking back, i realized, that this group of female upper classmen at my school were just starved for MEN. we saw him as hot, and not a product of divorce, mid-life crisis or other personal issues. oh that and he was probably a little smelly during that period as well.

Anonymous said...

In my neck of the woods - australia and cultural/critical studies - things are a little more dire than they seem in the states. In a department primarily composed of open lesbians and keg-bellied professors who still wear earrings long into their fifties and sixties, it should be like shooting fish in a barrel getting the (unwanted)attention of at least one student.

Unfortunately, my students are so conservative that to be academic hot to them, you'd need to be card carrying christian who advocates keeping the country 'white' wrapped up in something called 'australian values'. Its about as attractive as being trapped in a room with anne coulter.

What happened to the tortured bukowski-esque socially challenged boys of my undergrad years? The feminist-identified men of my youth, who aspired to romance our fifty year old miniskirt wearing socialist literature theory professor who look uncannily similar to dumbledore in the harry potter films.

Morgan said...

I thought a professor I was working with this summer was hot, hands down hot, and I e-mailed his profile to a friend and her response was "I guess he's cute for a professor" and I realized my standards of hotness have fallen.

Pamphilia said...

I love love love this post and all the comments. It is most definitely "academic" hot. It also makes me think about academic style. I love that. I love that we don't have to wear formal business suits but when we dress up for conferences we can play around or else be really really schlumfy or nebbishy. I love that we have our own kind of hot, and stylish, and cool. I love that my dear friend who is not skinny and blonde but large and gorgeous has a glut of chili peppers from her students.

We need our own Sartorialist. What say you, F and S? Willing to start an anonymous blog with photos from MLA documenting hot academic style?

Anonymous said...

in agreement with everyone, so hilarious! shall be stealing all these phrases...

gwoertendyke said...


Oso Raro said...

Damn Blogger lost my comment. Bleh. Well, hrm, let's see, I HAD said that this post struck a note, which is interesting in itself. Can it be that we doubt our hotness, or relative hotness, and place ourselves in a specific category that measures ourselves along a different, inferior scale? There are certainly academics who could stop a train, both in good and bad ways. And then there are everyday schlubs (like me LOL).

For me, academic hot means, for boys, showing up clean, with combed hair, or sporting a look above and beyond Dockers or North Face (NB to women who buy clothes for their men: please, for the of humanity, stop buying Dockers! Thanks); for the girls, skirts, a little leg, hair that has been considered, hot shoes, and nice complementary jewelry notes distinguishes one above the rest. Well-cared for hands and cuticles are important too, esp. if you think about how often students see our hands (pointing to text, writing out notes, etc).

Above all, all of this depends on how we must compete outside of the classroom. Those of us that are younger, single, and/or have a stronger aesthetic sense shall always be hotter, relatively, than our colleagues grounded in marriage and childrearing. We have to work harder at it, after all, become the fabulous luminous creatures we must be. Then again, who knows the secrets of the human heart, especially in the hot house of the classroom, where even Hobbits can become sexy.

Tenured Radical said...

A graduate student at Oligarch recently described diss. advisor as someone all the graddies in that department thought was "hot", and I was stunned, since my first response was "NOT!" Once I oput it in translation, however, I would say that they are responding to what I would characterize as a wry sense of humor, a complete lack of snobbery, an unusually gentle but incisive intelligence, and a great deal of kindness routinely extended toward others. So in this case, I think "hot" ay mean "We love her because she is so good to us and it seems effortless."

Flavia said...

Can it be that we doubt our hotness, or relative hotness, and place ourselves in a specific category that measures ourselves along a different, inferior scale?

Yes. Of course yes.

(This really is an amazing thread. Thanks to everyone for weighing in.)