The pleasures (and surprises) of interviewing academics

Matthew Reisz celebrates the joys of profiling scholars

September 16, 2015
Source: iStock
Academics often make the best interviewees

Tomorrow’s issue of Times Higher Education includes my extended interview with the fascinating American cultural critic Mark Edmundson, university professor of English at the University of Virginia.

I much enjoyed our conversation over lunch about the great ideals of courage, contemplation and compassion that people have lived by in the past, and why he sees it as his role to expose his students both to such ideals and to the thinkers who distrust such ideals as dangerous delusions.

This has led me to reflect on just why I have so much enjoyed doing dozens of in-depth interviews with leading academics about their books or research. It is great to be able to flag up exciting books which are unlikely to get much coverage in the national press (see “related articles”, right, for some examples) . And, far more than many of the actors, novelists and visual artists I’ve also profiled over the course of my journalistic career, academics are generally a great pleasure to interview.

Some are occasionally reluctant to discuss the personal “agendas” which presumably underlie their research interests, but none have proved precious or prima donna-ish and the vast majority have been eloquent and enthusiastic in responding to my (hopefully) intelligent and genuinely interested (but non-expert) questions about their work.

There is something strangely intimate about interviewing someone about a topic they really care about. I think Freud says somewhere (and if he didn’t, he should have) that if you put two people alone in a room for long enough they end up either killing each other or having sex. I have done a few long interviews where I ended up feeling murderously irritated, rather more when I felt like I was falling in love. But I’d better draw a veil over any further revelations and describe the single most memorable interview I ever conducted with an academic.

This was some years ago with the famously combative and controversial Camille Paglia, a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. We met reasonable early in the morning, in the breakfast room of a posh Kensington hotel, to discuss her book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.

Somehow or other, we got into a discussion about the links between sex and food. This led her to a characteristically flamboyant theory that men who have phobias about sleeping with menstruating women also eat their steak well-done, while those who find the blood fascinating or evocative prefer their meat rare.

It struck me as intriguingly wacky. Yet all around us, the Middle Eastern businessmen shifted uncomfortably in their seats or made for the door.

Read the interview with Professor Edmundson in our features section from 17 September 2015.

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