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Tragically, Teutonically Tedious

On question I occasionally ask myself is: 'Why are so many German professors so unnecessarily boring?' Of course, there are exceptions, many of whom I know personally, yadda-yadda. But the observation still holds.

I use the word "unnecessarily" advisedly. Of course, all professors have to be sort of 'boring'; they're experts after all, and tend not to express themselves in the black-and-white certainties beloved of the tabloids and the pub debate. But in Germany, there's a further joy-killer at work: the expected 'habitus' (roughly, code of conduct) of German professors. Take it away, Greg Nees:

In a Diskussion one is expected to be as impersonal, serious, and objective as possible. This, of course precludes any banter or attempts at humor, which are considered inappropriate. In the German education system similar behavior and attitudes are expected in class, resulting in a more intellectual atmosphere. A German friend, while training as a graduate teaching assistant at a major American university, told me how shocked he was upon being instructed to intentionally use jokes in order to loosen up the classroom atmosphere. Such behavior went against all he had learned as appropriate classroom protocol. (p. 78)

This is not unique to profs: it ties into notions of discretion and dignity deeply coded into German social life. Pick up any book for how to get along with Germans, and it will tell you to speak in as deep a voice as possible and not to smile or make jokes, lest you be considered "unserious" by your hosts / colleagues. That's right -- even one joke can brand you forever as a lightweight.

Note that this blot often cannot be dispelled by actual talent. Again and again, I've seen Germans give the job / position to a candidate of average abilities who has demonstrated mastery of unwritten behavior and dress expectations: who 'conducts himself properly,' uses the expected formal phrases, and 'fits in.' Candidates who display much more talent -- but who appear unconventional in dress, speech, or manner -- are quickly processed out of the system. Their intelligence may be grudgingly acknowledged, but a consensus quickly forms that they might 'rock the boat,' or otherwise prove themselves 'uncomfortable' (unangenehm). As soon as they're declared unangenehm, they're toast.

I'm not saying that Germans won't tolerate eccentricities in extremely gifted people -- they certainly will -- but once you exclude candidates at either extreme of the talent spectrum, Germans will definitely sacrifice some additional talent to obtain a higher level of conformity. Thus, many German professional and academic settings end up as the worst of all possible worlds: they're stuffed with mediocrities who aren't even funny.

Sure, once you get a few drinks into some of these people, they 'lighten up'. But it's important to understand exactly what that can mean. Many Germans have simply never developed a talent for inventing their own witty observations or discerning genuine wit in other people. These are skills they have never been called upon to develop, and which can be positively dangerous in many German professional settings. Once these people lower their inhibitions (invariably through massive alcohol consumption), their version of humor often turns out to be reciting boorish pre-fabricated jokes, often targeting women and minorities. And yes, I have encountered this among German professors as well. Oh boy, have I ever.

If you're getting the idea that I try to avoid socializing with Germans in stiff formal / professional settings, you're right on-target!

Now let us turn to the United States.

To keep myself apprised of the financial meltdown, I sometimes surf over to the blog written by Princeton economics professor Paul Krugman, where he offers analysis of the latest numbers and thoughts on Obama's new economic team. But right in the middle of all this high-flown analysis -- complete with charts and graphs -- I find that Krugman has linked to the following photo:


This is, of course, a Fedcat, which is a parody of a Lolcat, the captioned pictures of cats that are perhaps the Internet's most welcome innovation (Krugman himself captioned this photo "cats are cuter"). After reading Krugman for a while, I turn to Brad DeLong, tenured professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley. Among the graph-heavy, extremely high-level discussion of the financial crisis that I certainly don't understand, I find that he's linked to this Monty Python video:

Don't these professors realize that they are undermining their sacred honor and the dignity of their entire profession by linking to frivolous, superficial 'humorous' commentaries? Don't they see that they are pandering to the basest impulses of the complacent bourgeoisie, who crave the political pacifier of light entertainment? Don't they realize, as Adorno has over and over patiently explained to us, that laughter and jokes have immanent fascistic implications? And DeLong has compounded his sin by even linking to a 'humorous' video that openly mocks the very fundaments of the monotheistic tradition, which even the unchurched must take terribly seriously!

And yet, somehow, their occasional jokes or ironic comments haven't destroyed their reputations. Indeed, Krugman just won the Nobel Prize in Economics. There appears to be at least one country on the face of the earth in which you can be respected for your intellect without bolting yourself into an exoskeleton of stuffiness. Kind of makes me homesick, to tell you the truth...