A close friend tells me that the recent three-day conference on Modernism that he has co-organised worked very nicely. It was not, he tells me, necessary to divide the participants in simultaneous panels and this greatly contributed to raising the level of discussion. I can very well imagine! The whole event was in the end, he explains, âan orgasmâ ânot âlike an orgasmâ, please note, but âan orgasmâ.
This, naturally, sets me laughing hard. Yes, I tell him, everyone is talking about being sex-starved, love-starved or starved for affection but nobody is really paying attention to the needs of the effervescent academic brain. Weâre really starved for conversation, I tell him, but since this is not that catchy, Iâll claim that weâre âtalk-starvedâ.
This very same week, I have had further proof of this: oral sex need not refer to genital activity at all, Iâll argue, but to the pleasure we, academics, get from good conversation (well, donât call it âsexâ, call it âjoyâ if you wish, though I think this sounds a bit corny). Let me explain.
On Monday, I attended a seminar that the research group I belong to, âBuilding New Masculinitiesâ, organised. Our guest was Prof. Robert Reid-Pharr, from CUNY (see http://reid-pharr.com/), who turned out to be a wonderful, brilliant conversationalist. He stringed together lunch, a three-hour long seminar and dinner, about 10 hours talking non-stop!! His seminar was particularly enjoyable because he did care very much for keeping the conversation going with each one of the twelve participants, no mean feat that. I myself, who attended the seminar out of duty as I was really having a very hectic week, staid on until midnightâŠ and then had a hard time bringing down before sleep the excess oxytocin.
Yes, the same hormone we segregate during orgasm (and childbirth!!). So, you see, my friend does have a point. On Thursday I took out for dinner the members of the examining board of a doctoral dissertation submitted by one of my students. I booked a table for the absurdly early hour of 8 in the evening for dinner, thinking this way weâd be done by 10. Well, Cinderella got home just by midnight and her sleeplessness was only overcome close to 2 in the morning. Blame the oxytocin again (beautifully understood, incidentally, by the Spanish habit of âsobremesaâ or after-meal talk).
Keeping in touch with oneâs friends in the academic world is complicated. I think it is generally complicated in any situation, despite Skype and all the social networking. The phone helps but I also have the bitter experience of ending a very long friendship with another academic when I realised that a long call very week could not replace actual direct contact. Itâs either that situation in which you report down to the last detail activities done with other people, or just claim to be âfineâ (and then no real conversation ensues).
Many of the (academic) friends I have were made many years ago mostly in national conferences. I think that our yearly AEDEAN meeting helps very much to maintain alive this kind of absolutely necessary socialising, though it is not always possible to attend it. The experience of meeting people in conferences is, in the early stages of oneâs career, exhilarating, but then, in the long run, it becomes something more complicated. After experiencing first hand the difficulties of keeping in touch with friends I love but who live hundreds of kilometres away (so that we do use AEDEAN to meet at least once a year) I am becoming more and more reluctant to invest much energy in making new friends. Donât misunderstand me: the energy of friendship flows with its own logic and is quite capable of diminishing distance. What I mean is that, well, perhaps, in the end, it is better to enjoy conversation while it lasts in random meetings at conferences or seminars, than try to keep it alive once this is over. Yes, I know the same rule applies to casual sex at conferences (not that I have any experience of this at all âjust in case!).
Conversation of the oxytocin-releasing kind, as you can see, is more likely to happen only under particular conditions which actually constitute a break from daily academic life. It seldom happens as part of a daily routine. In my Department we talk mainly about problems (or about problem-solving): bureaucracyâs demands, a lecture that does not go well, poor exam results, etc. We have, like everyone else, little time to spare, which is why we often practice the genre known as âcorridor conversationâ, typically when youâre rushing elsewhere. We have a tiny room, used for lunch and now furnished with a coffee machine. This is not, however, by any stretch of the imagination, close to the common room or lounge we fantasise that most Anglo-American university departments have. We tend, instead, to drop in whenever we catch a colleague in his/her office and see if they can spare 10 minutes of their hectic schedule for chit-chat.
When I decided 30 years ago that I would try to be a university teacher, the main enticement was my impression that academics spent most of their life engaged in deep conversation. This utterly wrong impression was based on a) reading too many English novels about Oxford and Cambridge, b) reading too many American campus novels, c) the generous use of their time that my own teachers offered me. I understand c) best now because my office conversations with my students tend to be absolutely gratifying. I donât mean the problem-solving visits but the ones in which we do manage to discuss books and raise thrilling issues. If lectures and seminars were not so one-sided, they would be another oxytocin sourceâŠ
Fine, then, now that I have released a little of the adrenaline that our crazy academic life generates I feel betterâŠ How I wish it were oxytocin, thoughâŠ
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