A Week in the Life of a “Genius”
What’s it like to be a “genius”? In search of an answer, we tapped Nancy Folbre (economics), the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award a few years ago, and tracked her activities for a week. But before we begin our inside look, Folbre comments, “I’m actually an ‘expired’ genius, since the term of my grant is now over. I was lucky to get a MacArthur Fellowship. No one knows how individuals are selected, but I wish more could experience the delight that such a surprise confirmation can offer.”
The fact of the matter is that Folbre probably got the award because of the way she lives her life—fully engaged—though she downplays the development of her career to being “a mysterious process. I just keep talking and writing about things I’m interested in.”
Folbre divides her work time between research, teaching and service. “I’m currently engaged in two book projects. One is an intellectual history that explores the impact of gender on concepts of self-interest in economics under contract to Oxford University Press. Twelve chapters are close to final—four more to go. The other is about the ‘care sector’ of the US economy, started last year when I was at the Russell Sage Foundation.”
Asked what a typical week looks like, Folbre chuckles and recounts her past seven days. “Today, Monday, is a holiday but apart from sleeping a bit later than usual, I’m on routine. I spent an hour answering email, an hour writing a recommendation for one of my graduate students, an hour planning lectures for classes on Tuesday and Thursday. After dropping off a weekend guest at the bus, I came to my campus office and tried to clear off my desk, a somewhat hopeless effort. I took care of two articles in my role as associate editor for Feminist Economics, and wrote a promotional ‘blurb’ for a former student’s book.”
And this was all before lunch. Folbre typically eats at her desk out of an “I Love Lucy” lunchbox filled with “disgustingly healthy things.” A timeout on this particular Monday took her over to the Mullins Center for a few rounds on the ice, “hopefully without breaking anything,” and then Folbre headed over to the library for a while. “At 6:00 pm I’m meeting a job candidate and taking her out to dinner. She’ll give a formal seminar tomorrow.”
On Sunday, Folbre wrote responses to reviewers of her manuscript, plus a preface to the Korean edition of her 2001 book, The Invisible Heart. “I have a terrific Korean graduate student who made the task easy by outlining some recent relevant changes in Korean family policy.” Folbre also spent several hours grading first drafts of major papers by students in her junior-year writing course, The History of Economic Thought. “The assignment is to discuss Adam Smith’s concept of self-interest in the context of a contemporary film, such as Wall Street or The Devil Wears Prada. They can choose any film, as long as it touches on issues of self-interest carried to the level of greed or lust.”
Saturday, Folbre recalled, was a beautiful early spring day. “I went for a nice walk with my husband, our houseguest, our dog and our horse, who at 28 is fully retired but likes to stretch his legs. I visited the Montague Book Mill, which was chock full of lounging students plugged into strange combinations of Ipods and laptop computers.” More paper-grading and then some time out for cross-country skiing.
Most of Friday was consumed by a job candidate: reading his paper, meeting with him in the morning, attending his seminar, and taking him out to dinner. Folbre also squeezed in meetings with a graduate student, who is doing an independent study with her, and a research assistant. Plus, she took a prospective PhD applicant from China to lunch.
On Thursday Folbre taught two classes and attended a two-hour faculty meeting. “The only drama of the day,” she says, “was a misbehaving computer projector. I often use PowerPoint presentations for my lectures, but since so few classrooms are set up with projectors, I borrow one from my department. I ended up with an unfamiliar machine with no instruction manual. I might have thrown it out the window had not our fabulous technical support person intervened.”
Wednesday was a snow day, but Folbre spent most of it providing detailed comments on papers handed in the day before by students in her Family Policy class in the master’s program in Public Policy and Administration. “It was cold,” she recalls. “I rode my stationary bike for an hour while reading feminist science fiction. Sherri Tepper’s The Fresco is hilarious and thought provoking. My rule is that I can only read it (and others in the genre) while on my bike…it gets me down there!”
Tuesday was much like Thursday…two classes, job candidate, seminar and out to dinner…though Folbre fit in some work on her care sector project. “My research on the time and money that individuals devote to the care of others lends economic support to policies like paid family leave.“ So that’s a week in the life of a genius.
“I love my work,” Folbre is quick to point out, “and I have great colleagues. I came here in 1984 because it was the place I most wanted to be. I had done graduate work here in the 70s, so I knew what it was like. What I value most about our economics department is its commitment to larger ideals. We sometimes get caricatured or stigmatized for being ‘left wing’ but we are incredibly diverse and committed to open debate. Thankfully, many students still care more about their ideals than about the slope of their career trajectory. Those are the ones most likely to seek us out. And it is gratifying to see that many are able to find meaningful as well as successful careers.”
March 22, 2007