Students often only know their professors as teachers — the intellectuals who espouse wisdom and administer midterms — but many do more than grade papers and conduct research when they step down from the lecture stand.
The Yale faculty has among them rock singers and magicians, pilots and fly fishermen. Some professors said their non-academic interests help them escape from the office, but many pursue passions that are unexpected extensions of their work in the labs and the classrooms.
In 1992, Richard Flavell, chair of the Department of Immunobiology, formed a band of science professors when he and his wife happened sit at a table with Len Kaczmarek, a pharmacology professor and fellow music lover, at a Yale fundraising event. The group, which they named “Cellmates,” now has six members and has produced two CDs of songs in the genre Flavell calls “Bio-rock.”
“Music is a totally different creative outlet,” he said. “Science is a creative business, but it’s a different kind of creative.”
Flavell said he has written most of the group’s songs, which include “Rejection,” about having academic papers rejected, and “Don’t want to go to another meeting.”
The group has played at an average of five events per year, he said, such as conferences, fundraisers and parties. He said his colleagues are always surprised that their songs are actually “pretty good.”
“That’s the great thing being a scientist — they don’t expect you to be very good,” he said.
Provost Peter Salovey also has a band of professors, but the “Professors of Bluegrass” has more of a southern twang than that Flavell’s “bio-rock.” And though his lyrics do not focus on psychology, Salovey’s field of research, he said performing is often a psychological experience.
“It’s kind of like what psychologists call flow,” he said.
STRATEGY AND DECEPTION
“Pick a card, any card,” said Dean of Academic Affairs Mark Schenker as he extended the deck.
Schenker has studied magic since he learned that the topic occupies its own section in the library’s Dewey Decimal system when he was 9 years old. He poured over books about magic and practiced on his own — a perfect activity for an only child, he said. When the next birthday party arrived, or when his relatives came to visit, he wowed the crowds with his tricks.
“I’m not a performer — never acted in play, and I’m not a singer or a dancer,” he said. “I like the notion that magic is something that is a spectacle, like a story.”
Schenker said children in particular enjoy the “spectacle,” so a dramatic wave of his hand can draw their attention. College students and adults often try harder to understand the trick, he said, so they have to be distracted by chatter.
Schenker said he incorporated his magic into his life at Yale more often when he served as the dean of Branford College in the early 1990s. He set up an elaborate tangle of ropes in the Branford dining hall and performed a Houdini escape for the college’s talent show, and he said students appreciated that their dean shared his talent. Still, he said, magic cannot intersect too much with his work at Yale.
“Magic is based on entertainment and deception, and I don’t think I use those in my deaning,” he said.
Schenker said he never performed magic professionally, but another professor — political science professor Donald Green — has turned his passion for designing strategy games into several commercial contracts.
His first game, called Octi, in which players continually decide between growing their pieces or moving them, won Games Magazine’s “strategy game of the year” title in 2000. He said students sometimes come to his office to play, adding that he keeps the games away from the classroom since he has a commercial interest in their success. But he said his academic interests contribute to the games he creates. “I’m interested in the kind of strategic problems that arise in politics, and professors use game theory to think about those problems,” he said.
Green said commissioning prototypes of his ideas started getting expensive as he invented more games, so he began to learn wood-working and eventually built a wood shop in his house. In addition to designing his strategy games, he said he likes to make cups and bowls out of fallen trees he finds. While he said there are advantages to having the wood shop so nearby, not everyone in his family is as enthusiastic about having the room right under the kitchen.
“There is the delicate diplomacy of having a wood shop in your own house,” he said. “When oak is first cut, it smells like wet socks.”
‘MUSCLES AND MIND’
Other professors leave their offices to exercise and explore nature, such as diplomat-in-residence Charles Hill, who rows on the Housatonic River. He said he appreciates that just one moment of distraction can send him toppling into the river.
“Certain things you do require you to use the muscles and mind in a rhythm that is never perfected,” he said. “Every pull of the blades is different, so it can never be boring.”
William Segraves, the associate dean of science education and a fly fisherman, is less concerned about getting wet in the Housatonic. He said he has loved fishing since his grandfather taught him the sport when he was young, and as a teenager, he earned money by assembling fly fishing ties, which resemble insects. As a biologist, Segraves researched insect development; as a fisherman, he enters the world of the creatures he has studied.
“When you’re in a stream and in a moment and focused on the insects and the fish, you’re immersing yourself in nature,” he said.
English professor Lawrence Manley said he also likes to explore nature, but he does so from a couple thousand feet higher than his colleagues. He got his piloting license 11 years ago after his kids left the house, he said, and since then he has flown about 20 hours per year. He said he gets a thrill from entering a different world in the sky, where details such as the atmospheric pressure mean so much.
“You’re much more conscious of the environment,” he said. “If you’ve got a page or a computer screen in front of your eyes for 10 or 12 hours per day, it’s nice to stretch your eyes.”