Academic charisma


I’ve been reading William Clark’s Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University. It’s an interesting if rather unwieldy book about how all the rituals of the university that we tend to take for granted – note-taking in lectures, seminar discussions, reading lists, graduation ceremonies, funny hats and gowns – have developed since the Middle Ages. There are some fascinating details: the Oxbridge tradition of disputatio developed, according to Clark, as a non-violent version of the medieval joust. In case you don’t want to read all of its 662 pages, the index, which I’m guessing Clark compiled himself, gives a pretty good idea of what a strange place academia is and has always been. Here are some edited highlights:

Academic persona:

babble as protean

cream puffs, handshakes, and the scholarly racket

lording over bookshelves

managed through envy

the miseries of scholars

pale versus paunchy

publication as virility


a “work of the night”


candidates swear to legitimate birth

power of handshakes at


minted by mutual citation


as academic babble

as indistinguishable from reviews

Göttingen, University of:

obsesses about reputation from writings

professors “all too busy the whole day”


living medievally


to fill the time and end on time


as composed of ‘monstrous’ materials

Newton, Isaac:

lectures at Cambridge to empty halls

Peer review:

as indistinguishable from gossip and rumor


chair does not embody expertise

fined for cancelling lectures

“personae most noble and precious”

salary and a big or inflated name

Not tied to merit (directly)

should have and acquire books and instruments

as slackers at Cambridge

worked to death young


making noise and inflating names


as note-takers

swear oaths about attendance in the Middle Ages


for applause

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