The Way the Cookie Crumbles

I am beginning to have serious doubts about my future mental health.

No, no, I don't mean to say that Enron shares are starting to look like a good investment – fortunately, I'm not that far gone yet.

However, in my other life, I run a business and that means I deal with a lot of customer service issues. This on its own would be enough to drive me around the bend, but lately I've noticed my most exasperating problems come from clients with higher degrees. It's as though at some point between receiving an undergraduate and a graduate degree, something in the brain goes: sproing! and several of the bits that govern common sense fall out. And that worries me because I'm about to complete a master's degree myself.

I have, naturally, developed a few theories as to the cause of the phenomenon:

a) Citation Management Dementia – When you write an academic paper, you have to use footnotes or endnotes to acknowledge ideas or quotes you've taken from other works. This would be fine except there currently no less than 738 ways to format a citation. If you watch a researcher carefully while he's typing out his 500 footnote citation list, he'll be heard to mutter: “Does the publisher have to be italicized in Turabian style or MLA style? Does the author last name go first, or does the publication name go first? Do I list the volume number or the issue number? I DON'T KNOW ANYMORE!!!” He will then proceed to whack his head against the keyboard several times, causing trauma leading to dementia.

b) Academic Argument Amnesia – When you invest several thousand dollars and many years of your life into getting a PhD in a particular field, you tend to be very, very attached to the theories that helped you get those degrees. This means that on any given academic chat list, you will see flame wars over the use of commas in 17th century Norwegian short stories, punch-ups over the evidence for proto-feathers in Jurassic era fossils, and pistols at dawn over sedimentary deposit factors in the Cretaceous period. Getting into major fights over tiny details must lead to high blood pressure, which in turn may mean that certain parts of the brain don't get proper nourishment.

c) Specialization – Spaced Out -Getting a higher degree means learning lots about a particular subject. It may be that our brains have only so much space and other important skills get crowded out.

Sproing! theory may also account for what some academics choose to study over the course of their career. For example, consider a researcher in Bristol, England, who studied – I swear – how to dunk biscuits in tea so they wouldn't fall apart. My husband, who is scientifically curious and ahem, just happens to be a confirmed cookie monster, has already declared he wants to do a follow-up study.

Then there is the fellow from Sydney who has apparently done an exhaustive survey on belly button lint – who gets it, how much, and what color. I would make fun of this except that I will probably get dozens of emails from indignant belly button lint sufferers, and honestly, I'm not sure I want to know that much about people's navels.

Meanwhile, a pair of Indian mathematicians has developed a new way of estimating the surface area of an elephant. Okay, actually I can see how this sort of research might be useful. For one thing, if you can calculate the area of an elephant, which is something highly irregular, you could calculate political campaign donations, which are also highly irregular. Also, it is probably much safer to calculate an elephant's area than, say, walk up and ask it.

So dear readers, if I start doing or saying strange things, it may be because I've just been awarded the degree. If I do, email me please. Who knows? I might snap out of it.

Oh and hey, anyone know a good broker? I've been looking at buying energy stocks and…

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