Things I've learned: Prof. Mark Blyth

By Brooke Nevils | October 12, 2006

Contrary to popular belief, political science Professor Mark Blyth is not and has never been a stand-up comedian.

"Not for more than 14 minutes, anyway," he said.

Well-known for his "generically Scottish" sense of humor, impeccable dress and thick Scottish accent, Blyth specializes in comparative political economy, institutional and ideational theory, and in his spare time, "surf-guitar meets the Munsters" rock (he plays the bass) and gourmet Indian cuisine.

"I worked in an Indian restaurant in New York for 18 months," he explained. "And I was a musician from age 14 to 28. I've released five or six albums, but all with independent labels that never went anywhere. If they had, I wouldn't be here. I'd be lying on a beach with Heidi Klum."

When he needed a break from the New York music scene, Blyth decided to take advantage of his Ph.D from Columbia University and become an academic. But he stresses that there "really isn't that much of a difference" between being a musician and a professor.

"Good lectures are scripted, organized performances," he explains. "If you're an academic at a place like Hopkins, then your research has to be first-class. The other part of it is teaching, and either it's a burden that gets in the way of your research or it's a way of communicating the things you're researching. If you're genuinely excited by your work, you should be able to convey that and make it interesting. In a sense, you're performing."

As a result, Blyth's classes are known for their difficulty -- both to get into and to survive in. He wants them to be a challenge, but laughs at his reputation as being "arrogant, scary and intimidating."

"Isn't it great?" Blyth, who thinks his teaching persona has something to do with previous experiences in music and acting said. "I used to be terrible at speaking in public. When I was a kid, I had both a lisp and a stammer. I was basically incomprehensible."

A native of Dundee, Scotland -- which he describes as "the Flint, Mich., of Scotland" --Blyth overcame his fear of public speaking thanks to the "absolute terror tactics" employed by one of the nuns at his Catholic grammar school.

"It actually scared it out of me," he said. "But you can get yourself into a good frame of mind whereby you become someone who's giving a lecture and you're not your nervous self. There's tricks you learn over time. Does it make you look arrogant and opinionated? Yeah, and if it makes people engage with what I'm saying, I don't care."

But there are quite a few things that Blyth does vehemently care about.

"Life's too short to dress badly. When I first came here there was a colleague of mine who wasn't much older, and what always struck me was how badly dressed he was. He was wearing flannel trousers. At what point in a man's life does he get up in the morning and say, `I'll go for the flannel today?' That's the day I drop dead. That, and the classic, badly-fitting suit. I just said, NO."

And that's not all. A connoisseur of fine cuisine -- Indian, Japanese, Thai and coming soon, "taking Malaysian street food to a whole new level" -- Blyth likes his ethnic food authentic.

"Chicken tikka masala is about as Indian as the Pope," he says. "Tamber's? Shifty Fifties? One of the strangest places in the world, a pretend diner with pretend diner food and with pretend Indian food. And now with a bar? With beds? Who wants to drink a bottle in a bed?"

You won't be seeing him there anytime soon. He recently completed a cooking workshop with New York Japanese chef Masuhara Morimoto and will be soon be returning for another with Zack Pallagio.

"The cooking is probably why my wife is with me," Blyth said. "It's clearly not the salary."

At the very least, she can't call him boring.

"Finding an interesting political science professor is like judging a tallest midget contest," he said. "The bar is pretty low."

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