And All That Jazz

A creativity researcher's take on the highs and lows of pop culture and the arts.

Secret Confessions of an Academic Psychologist

Psychology professors can be dumb, too.

1. I should be good at Sudoku and crossword puzzles. I'm not. I know all kinds of trivia and I have a solid vocabulary, but I can barely finish the airline magazine's crossword. Maybe USA Today. I usually get about six responses on the New York Times Sunday Crossword before pretending I'm bored. I can do the "easy" Sudokus. Usually. The "medium" ones I think I am solving until I realize I have two 5s in one column.

2. I haven't read an actual "classic" novel since I was forced to (i.e., since my senior year of college). Even the "good literature" I rarely read consists of Wicked (before the musical) and the Dennis Lehane books like Mystic River that are close enough to thrillers to make me like them. Otherwise, I read thrillers. Harlan Coben. Laura Lippman. Jeffrey Deaver. Lee Child. Lawrence Block. Or anything else I find in the dollar bin. I tend to not read thrillers by British writers because they're too much effort to read.

3. I teach all about obedience to authority and influence and the bystander effect and critical thinking...but  I listen and say "yes, sir" when a guy in an orange vest (who didn't look like a cop) asks me to move my car away from the airport when I'm idling for two minutes waiting to pick up my wife. Another time, I was with a fellow psychology professor and we saw a very drunk guy wandering in the middle of the road. We both agreed that someone else should call the police.

4.  I've had some great psychology professors throughout my undergraduate and graduate life. But I admit that the three courses I remember the best were not psychology. They were on the Holocaust, law (Rest in peace, Charles Whitebread), and the movies (separately; it wasn't one class on Judgment at Nuremberg).

5. We have a 4 ½ year old son. Nothing I have ever learned prepared me for fatherhood. I don't know anything about child development. I don't think that anything I was ever taught about psychology has helped me in the slightest bit.

6. After I did something dumb (I think swallowing an entire plastic container of red pepper -- including the plastic container -- for five dollars on a dare), one of my friends said, "If we ever need to make money, I can just take you to a bar and take bets on whether you have a Ph.D. from Yale."

7. One former boss once described the 80-20 rule to me. This rule states, broadly, that 80% of the work on a project takes up 20% of the time. The last 20% on any project takes up the remaining 80% of the time. His point was that [the company's] goal was to create 100% work ("the Cadillac model") no matter how long it took. I instantly realized that I'm more of an 80% worker - I'm interested in so many different things that with a few exceptions, I get a paper/project to the "80%/Good Enough" mark and then submit. I like working with people with a higher cut-off than me, but I can't handle anyone who's too close to the Cadillac side. I remember that in the 8th grade, a teacher's feedback on my report card said that I was smart but lazy. The teacher grudgingly acknowledged that even with 80% effort, my reports were fine.  For some, this might have been a wake-up call, not a mantra....

8. I know I'm supposed to like and watch the TED talks - and I have nothing against them... but I seem to always end up watching a Cee-Lo Green video instead.

9. When I was in the 5th grade, I saw my (beloved) teacher get upset because another student didn't have an assignment complete. My teacher then opened up and examined this student's English notebook in great detail. She noted that the student didn't have all of her (graded) homework papers in the notebook. It was disorganized and didn't include all of the handouts. Meanwhile, I didn't have an English notebook. I did my reading (and extra reading), but I promptly lost or threw out anything handed back to me. I lived in terror for the rest of the year of having my teacher ask to look at this fictional English notebook. Indeed, I still harbor this slight fear. I coast by with book contracts misfiled or discarded, deadlines unmarked on my calendar, and budgets and year-end summaries hastily recreated.

10. I know less about the brain than my wife's Biological Psychology students know after one week of classes. I took a course as an undergraduate on the brain (a biology class) and I the only way I think I pulled off a C was that the professor must have simply doubled my grade because he liked me. I ended up taking "Physics for the Non-Scientist" to fulfill my other requirement and barely got a C.

11.   I once (purely accidentally) stumbled on the twitter feed of one of my students. All I will do is take a Chaucer quote and expand:

"One shouldn't be too inquisitive in life
Either about God's secrets or one's wife
...Or that kid who apparently feels duty-bound
to tweet every dumb thing you do in class."

12.   When I was a kid, I would see my father hard at work on his latest book or paper. His intense concentration was a marvel to me - he could for 6 or 7 straight hours and remain completely focused. If a paper was writing itself in his head, he would dream about it. He'd have to finish it to keep the words from distracting him from real life. I assumed (and he reassured me) that I would find that "zone" when I found my calling. To this day, I can't write for more than five minutes without checking ESPN or Facebook.

13.   There are many, many people I think are brilliant, but only a few who seem to be on different intellectual planes from me. One such person was Jim Grossman. Jim was in my grad school cohort. He understood deep, abstract ideas and made bright and impressive comments in every class I had with him (regardless of the area). His area was autism (he explained his thesis to me as being about whether children with autism could understand sarcasm, but I could easily have misunderstood). He was witty (much funnier than me) and genuinely kind (he gave me a "sorry I forgot your birthday card" card when I mentioned that no non-family member knew it was my birthday) and he liked art by Hal Hartley and John Zorn and other people I didn't really get. I had the good fortune to write a chapter with him on evolutionary psychology - or, really, watch him write the chapter. We lost Jim when he was in his early 30's (I'd thought that when he said he was too ill to come to my wedding - even though it was nearby - that he was kind of blowing us off). I am completely confident that if he had stayed healthy, he would have eclipsed us all.

14.   I don't actually enjoy reading layperson books about psychology, particularly if they are by journalists, even if they are good. It is much more of a jealousy factor than anything else. I will happily read layperson books about economics or sociology (or, at least, I will buy them and occasionally look at their covers). One rare exception, previously noted, was Christopher Chablis and Daniel Simons' The Invisible Gorilla.

15.   The nicer the e-mail that someone sends to me, the more paralyzed I am about not knowing what to write back. One of the nicest e-mails I've received was sent a year ago and sits in my inbox. 

16.   Whenever I do something stupid that could easily kill me (usually along the lines of "What does this button do?"), I always fear I'll make News of the Weird and the headlines will read "Intelligence Researcher Dies by Sticking Fork in Electric Outlet" or "Academic Killed Opening Mail with Knife."

17.   When I was an undergrad, I was taking a psychology class with a prominent (and incredibly nice) professor. He showed us a video that featured extensive interviews with an old guy who was really boring. When the professor asked us if we had any comments, I raised my hand and said, "That old guy was really boring." The professor said, "He was my mentor." (pause). "He passed away last week." I am sure I have said stupider things, but none immediately come to mind.

18. Don't do a Safe Search-Off Google Image Search of "Secret Confessions" from your work computer.

 

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My next blog can be found here.

James C. Kaufman is a creativity researcher and Associate Professor of Psychology at California State University of San Bernardino.

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