Love, relationships and academia

No, this is not going to be a gossipy blog and it’s certainly not going to be some sort of embarrassing exposé of anything or anybody. In fact I’m going to do a David McWilliams and draw some comparisons between academia and romantic relationships.

Romance is a complicated thing. You can meet someone, fall in love and live happily (more or less) ever after. You can meet, fall in love and pursue a relationship that seems perfect, lasts for years, but somehow fizzles out, leaving two people puzzled as to what went wrong. And then there are the crushes, the infatuations, the beliefs that the focus of your obsession represents the path to true happiness. If only you’d met earlier, life would have been perfect.

For me, my academic “happy ever after” has been teaching. Of course there have been days when I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than walk into that lecture room. Too much teaching, poor timetabling and the modern day requirement to be “accountable” can cause a certain amount of teaching fatigue. But by and large, I relish the challenge and love the idea that I am doing something important, something that has a real effect on students’ lives. I don’t think there will ever come a time when September comes around and I’m not psyched up to start anew, determined to do it better this time.

My perfect relationship that inexplicably fizzled out was research. A colleague of mine, the great Christine Loscher, once said that doing science was not just her job, it was her hobby as well. For me, doing research became a passion. Being a theoretician, I saw my work as a search for beauty. I knew I wasn’t in the same league as theoretical physicists who are genuinely probing the mysteries of the universe, but I was guided by the same principles: the aesthetics of equations. And so I would wake up early on a Sunday morning (this was before Leo was born) and immediately start maneuvering symbols around the page, seeking … something. When I look back on that time now, I wonder what drove me. The problems I was passionate about leave me cold now. Why was I so driven? I don’t understand that person anymore.

Then there are the infatuations, those crushes that are most likely to happen when a relationship is fizzling out. For me, my infatuation was artificial neural networks. They were a 2005 fad, a sledge hammer employed to crack a nut, a pretense at sophistication, a perfect example of a solution looking for a problem. In hindsight, my work on neural networks was my last throw of the die, a final attempt to extract something novel from my field. An act of desperation. In my heart I had known that the game was up but endings are hard and I was reluctant to let it all go.

But I did and while I knew I had achieved very little of real consequence, I took heart from the realisation that what I had done was ‘good’. Just not very important.

2 thoughts on “Love, relationships and academia

  1. I think it’s quite usual for researchers to tire of a particular area, suspects it happens a lot more then academics admit. I was dead lucky; around the same time that I realised I had little real interest left in solid-state physics, a whole new area opened up. I had always been interested in the history of physics, but I had no idea that it was such a satisfying area of research. Great mix of theory, experiment and teaching material!


    1. I’m always amazed at academics who keep going into their sixties basically doing the same thing they’ve always done. I think when I wrote my book in 2013 I felt I had contributed all I could. Then I became associate dean and became wrapped up in pedagogy and policy etc. Chatting to colleagues, I think the feeling of waiting to change direction is quite common.
      I’m going to have a stab at writing a book about education – I just need to get my arse in gear.
      PS Good chat with your cousin last night!


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