The Third Gender

They are men. I am academic man.

Posted Mar 04, 2010

I suspect that seeing a title like this makes you think that I must be about to talk about transsexuals, but I'm not. I don't know anything about transsexuals, and, therefore, I'd worry that anything I might say about them would be politically incorrect.

No, here are the three genders I'm talking about: Men, women, and academic men.

Lest any academic men take umbrage and prepare to pounce on me (not that academic men are likely to pounce), let me assure you that I am one of you. Yes, years ago I got a PhD and then went on to teach at a college for over 25 years. I retired, but the academic title stays with you for life. I am an associate professor emeritus. I am forever marked as Academic Man.

But I don't even have to tell you this. All you have to do is read my first paragraph with its care in talking about transsexuals to know that I am one of those "men" for whom fear of offending anyone ever has become a way of life.

Since retiring from full-time teaching some 15 years ago, I have tried very hard to get more fully into my creative work. This has included writing two novels. However, most successful novelists write with passion and grit, two qualities which are carefully ironed out of nearly everyone who completes a PhD. I have had more than one agent tell me that they've found very few academics who can successfully make the transition to fiction.

And it goes beyond that. I remember watching a TV segment on Kinky Friedman, a well-known songwriter, musician and novelist, who, in 2006, ran for the governorship of Texas. I found myself feeling envious, but consoled myself -- as I often do when I see a TV segment on some highly successful and famous man -- with the thought, "Yes, but he doesn't have a PhD!" I'm starting to think, though, that the truth is these guys are famous and high achieving because they don't have a PhD.

I have come to believe that just as having a PhD is a prerequisite for most college teaching and high level college administrative jobs, not having one is a prerequisite for staking out your own road, being your own person and not worrying about offending people. That sure sounds like Kinky. For example, as many of you may know, his band was called "Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys," and some of his songs were far from politically correct.

Now I don't know Kinky's life story, but I doubt strongly that he has a PhD. Not that he doesn't sound highly intelligent; he does. But tell me, when was the last time you met a PhD named Kinky? (Not to be confused with a PhD who is kinky, of which there are many.)

If I had successfully fought my father's desire for me to get some kind of doctoral degree, picked up my guitar and called myself Kinky Sherman, my whole life would have been different. Of course "Kinky Sherman and the Brooklyn Jewboys" doesn't have the same paradoxical appeal as the name of Friedman's band. But I could have called my band "Kinky Sherman and the Brooklyn Aristocrats" and probably gone on to fame and fortune.

Kinky Friedman smokes cigars, doesn't care if he's politically incorrect and hangs out with the likes of Willie Nelson. They are men. I am academic man.
Nowhere do academic men show their difference from other men then in what they say when women are around, especially academic women. I once heard a male professor at my college, commenting on female infanticide in China, say, "If the baby is a woman, they may kill it."

If the baby is a woman? Infanticide is horrible, but this was linguicide. Only on a college campus will you hear someone refer to a female baby as a "woman," so fearful are academic men of using the dreaded "g" word inappropriately.

I remember when I first met the man who would ultimately become my son's father-in-law. He's a businessman and a good deal bigger than me; and though he's about eight years younger than I am, from the moment I met him I felt like he was a man and I was a little boy. I feel a little more equal now, some 12 years later, but I still feel that difference.

He is a man and I am academic man.

It's not a matter of better or worse; it's just different. And it is definitely not a matter of intelligence. I am sure that Kinky Friedman could have gone on to get a PhD and teach college, and I suspect that my son's father-in-law could have done so as well. But getting a PhD and going on to an academic career takes a special ability that has little to do with intelligence -- though a substantial amount is necessary. It takes the ability to separate yourself from the real world for at least three years, usually more like five or six, and then continue that separation by teaching in monastery-like places we call colleges (monastic only for the faculty, of course; definitely not for the students).

Tenure is wonderful, but it means that unless you have the you-know-whats to give it up early on, you will continue in that strange territory of academic man. I broke loose fairly early, compared to most; but it was already too late. As soon as an agent reads the first page of one of my novels, he or she knows that this is by an academic man.

I know I haven't said anything about academic women, but to not worry about gender balance here is my little act of defiance. It's a step, although a small one, to joining the Kinkies and Willies of the world. I look like them, and maybe with a cigar and guitar, I can be like them too.

And then, when I've had that experience for a while, I can write a paper on it!