On Campus

What I do when I'm not on vacation

In spring, a professor's fancy turns to thoughts of who-knows-what.

Christine Overall, over at University Affairs, laments the stereotype of the professor that lingers in popular culture:

In popular media, especially films and television, professors are almost always male. They’re absent-minded and out of touch with the “real world.” They usually teach English or creative writing. They do very little work, except to exchange quips with a class that is seldom larger than about 25 students. The professors, all middle-aged, often try to “hook up” with their young students. We never see them preparing classes, serving on committees, writing papers, or marking students’ work.

Unlike my colleague, I cannot get too riled over this stereotype. For one thing, I can’t fault the media for not showing professors grading papers. Who wants to watch that? The other reason it fails to outrage me is that it is a fairly accurate description of the actual me. Male? Check. English? Check. Middle-aged? Check. I do a fair amount of work, that’s true, but my classes have less than 25 students, and I can quip with the best of them. I do not chase after my students, but my lovely fiancee is twelve years my junior and we met while she was a student here (though we “hooked up” later). Oh, and I almost forgot absent-minded; my fiancee calls my memory “fascinating.”

There is one aspect of the Overall Stereotype, though, that does bother me:

Consider what, in fact, the public “knows” about university professors. They think we have four or five months of vacation each year. They think that every six years we get a whole year off, without work but with full pay. They think we’re unconnected to the real world and, at best, are engaged only with abstract, angels-dancing-on-a-pin type of questions.

What Overall is getting at is, that in the popular imagination, professors are just high-school teachers with an attitude. Around this time, people frequently ask me if I’m “done for the year,” apparently imagining that I put my feet up between April and September. I try to gently explain that I remain busy with administrative service and research, but in the humanities, at least, I think most people are murky at best regarding what research really is.

Why does this stereotype persist? To some extent, professors bring this on themselves, by not always taking their research obligations seriously, and heading off to the cottage for the summer, but there are slackers and clock-watchers in any field. The bigger reason, I think, is that humanities research, though perhaps not always angel-on-a-pinhead esoteric, is often highly specialized or abstract. Moreover, its importance is often predicated on a whole series of assumptions about the value of understanding our social world and its complex cultural history.

In this respect, I have a deep jealousy for anyone doing cancer research. If someone asks you what your research is, and you reply, “I’m looking for a cure for cancer,” you don’t get any cock-eyed looks. And you certainly don’t get any snide remarks about why the public should be paying for such things; you probably get handed a twenty right there on the street. But if you are a researcher like me and you have to answer, “I’m the lead editor of a modern edition of the works of a seventeenth-century physician,” well, now you’re into a whole different conversation. Don’t get me wrong: I can explain why it’s worth doing, but I have to employ some grand sounding phrases to do it.

And then I just look like a high school teacher with an attitude.

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