Academic Crushes / Intellectual Idols

Two people sitting on a bench, each with shy body language, one offering to give the other a balloon

The academic crushes mentioned in the Femme Musings post each directly worked with the author to give her feedback, encouragement, and direction; each appeared to be aware of their intentional influence on her. By contrast, my intellectual idols work indirectly, unintentionally, and without their awareness. Instead of getting direction from my academic crushes, I get inspiration. I see in them characteristics of thinkers and writers that I want to emulate in my own career. Here is my short list of academic crushes. Unlike the Femme Musings post, I’ll identify the first few of mine by name because they’re so prominent.

Sherry Turkle

Her Life on the Screen was one of the first readings in my PhD program, and I admired her ability to clearly and thoughtfully present her research in an endearing narrative format that explained the implications of her findings in terms that nonacademics can easily follow and get value from. As I worked through my graduate seminars, wrote workshop papers, and continued reading, I saw that I’m more comfortable operating in a straightforward, pragmatic vocabulary, rather than intentionally obfuscating my meaning by using the complex language common in academia. Sherry Turkle’s writing motivates me to better present my ideas in ways that are clear and relevant. Her books include fascinating information and realistic anecdotes that make her points vividly clear and effective. While my research isn’t as broad in its implications as hers, I hope to keep my focus on applying my research to how teachers do their work.

Jonah Lehrer

A frequent contributor to early episodes of Radiolab from WNYC, he has a fun way of presenting complex scientific research. Lehrer’s career is interesting (even before the denouement) because he writes about other people’s work. The majority of his work, including his book How We Decide, recount the findings of other researchers. Rather than stealing results from others, he made a name for himself clarifying and applying the work of neuroscience labs, finding a niche in popular journals, websites, and radio spots. This, after he had been a Rhodes Scholar, working in a research lab himself. I confess: I’ve occasionally thought about the draw of leaving academia and writing about it from the outside. But the real lesson I’ve learned from my academic crush on Mr. Lehrer came through a failure, rather than a success. He recently made headlines, not for what he wrote, but for how he got paid for it. Similarities between articles he published in two magazines landed him in trouble for self-plagiarism. I’ve not heard or seen from him since.

My Twitter Feed

I follow a number of people on Twitter specifically because they are active, productive people. I like reading about their activities and successes, from publishing another article to flying to another conference. I follow some folks in the tech corridor to get inspiration from their active, upwardly mobile, project-oriented goals. While a couple specific folks on Twitter give me the personal push to write, produce, and discuss, the connections on my Twitter feed help me feel like I’m surrounding myself with “the right kind of people” who motivate and inspire me to write more, think better, and do stuff.

From other sources and this short list of academic crushes, I get the motivation to work on my research and teaching.

Where do you get your inspiration? Who helps you put pen to paper and get work done?