pageok
pageok
pageok
A New Academic Stereotype?

In this essay in the American Scholar (hat tip Daniel Drezner), Yale Professor William Deresiewicz claims that there is a new negative stereotype of academics in films and other pop culture media:

The alcoholic, embittered, writer-manqué English professor who neglects his family and seduces his students is a figure of creative sterility, and he is creatively sterile because he loves only himself. Hence his vanity, pomposity, and selfishness; his self-pity, passivity, and resentment. Hence his ambition and failure. And thence his lechery, for sleeping with his students is a sign not of virility but of impotence: he can only hit the easy targets; he feeds on his students’ vitality; he can’t succeed in growing up.

Deresiewecz considers a number of movies and novels about academics that he claims support his thesis. Strangely, however, he ignores what is by far the most popular modern movie series with an academic as the central character, one who teaches at the ultra-scholarly University of Chicago, no less. I refer, of course, to the Indiana Jones series, which has a new installment in the works. Now THAT'S a stereotype that might yet improve the image of our profession.

UPDATE: Some commenters claim that Indiana Jones didn't really teach at the University of Chicago. However, I appeal to the authority of this very scholarly article on the portrayal of the U of C in the movies, as proof that he did.

Zathras (mail):
There's nothing new about this stereotype. For example, John Mahoney's character in "Moonstruck" fits this stereotype quite precisely about 20 years ago.

The problem with Indiana Jones being an academic stereotype is that he is nostalgically set many decades ago, so he's probably no help for academics now.
7.11.2007 5:18pm
Happyshooter:
The sterotypes in the movie PCU ran pretty true to reality in the mid 90s.
7.11.2007 5:21pm
Dave Griffith (mail):
To be precise, Indiana Jones didn't teach at Chicago, he studied at Chicago under Ravenswood. Go Maroons. Where he is teaching is left unstated, other than that it is by implication not Chicago. The next film is shooting on location at Yale.
7.11.2007 5:23pm
Ilya Somin:
The sterotypes in the movie PCU ran pretty true to reality in the mid 90s.

I was a college student in the mid-90s, and have a very different view of PCU's accuracy (or rather lack thereof).
7.11.2007 5:24pm
scote (mail):
I'm going to guess that the lecherous professor character goes back a lot further than 20 years. Granted, Dr. Pangloss wasn't an English professor...

However, conflict is the core of any drama so an unambitious, unconflicted, faithful English professor doesn't sound like a real magnet for dramatists--kind of the same reason that the 10-O-clock news doesn't lead with cute puppy stories...
7.11.2007 5:24pm
Dave Griffith (mail):
For example, John Mahoney's character in "Moonstruck" fits this stereotype quite precisely about 20 years ago.

As did Donald Sutherland in "Animal House".
7.11.2007 5:25pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
Wait, you social sciences/humanities academics are complaining about your image now? After decades of mad scientists and insane/introverted/pathologically nebbishy mathematicians? Oh, this is rich.

I'm all for supporting the image of academics as a whole, but where were you when the popular image of mathematicians was being set in stone decades ago?
7.11.2007 5:26pm
rarango (mail):
Well said, John Armstrong! A pox on all social "scientists" and liberal arts types. Let them choke on the chain rule. :)
7.11.2007 5:30pm
JB:
And yet Indy too shacks up with a young easy target, the daughter of his advisor.
7.11.2007 5:32pm
loki13 (mail):

The sterotypes in the movie PCU ran pretty true to reality in the mid 90s.

I was a college student in the mid-90s, and have a very different view of PCU's accuracy (or rather lack thereof).


Prof. Somin,

You must not have been invited to the right parties. [snark]

I guess it depends on where you went to school. Considering the writers of PCU, and based on what I know, it was based partly on Wesleyan (specifically, the Asylum) and it was a satirical (of course) but not inaccurate portrait of a NESCAC college in the 90s. Your mileage at other schools that were not small, New England, liberal arts colleges may vary.
7.11.2007 5:33pm
Ilya Somin:
You must not have been invited to the right parties. [snark]

I guess it depends on where you went to school. Considering the writers of PCU, and based on what I know, it was based partly on Wesleyan (specifically, the Asylum) and it was a satirical (of course) but not inaccurate portrait of a NESCAC college in the 90s. Your mileage at other schools that were not small, New England, liberal arts colleges may vary.


Perhaps, but I also went to a NESCAC school (Amherst), and was familiar with Wesleyan (which fits PCU better than Amherst, but far from well). But it may be true that I wasn't invited to the right parties, which is probably why I became a professor, and now suffer from unfair stereotyping in Hollywood movies!
7.11.2007 5:58pm
Ilya Somin:
You must not have been invited to the right parties. [snark]

I guess it depends on where you went to school. Considering the writers of PCU, and based on what I know, it was based partly on Wesleyan (specifically, the Asylum) and it was a satirical (of course) but not inaccurate portrait of a NESCAC college in the 90s. Your mileage at other schools that were not small, New England, liberal arts colleges may vary.


Perhaps, but I also went to a NESCAC school (Amherst), and was familiar with Wesleyan (which fits PCU better than Amherst, but far from well). But it may be true that I wasn't invited to the right parties, which is probably why I became a professor, and now suffer from unfair stereotyping in Hollywood movies.
7.11.2007 5:59pm
PEG (mail) (www):
Like all stereotypes it exists because it is grounded in reality.

A French university has one such professor of economics. Who is apparently going to be the next managing director of the IMF.
7.11.2007 6:36pm
KeithK (mail):
Indy apparently taught at Marshall College in Connecticut during the mid 30's and then at Barnett College in New York during the late 30's. (The above based on indianajones.com)
7.11.2007 6:52pm
AppSocRes (mail):
When I was at ******** University in the early 1960s a visiting professor of high academic repute in one of the established liberal arts regularly lectured holding on to the podium because he was too drunk to stand unassisted. In a fit of pique he flunked most of the students in the senior course he was teaching after his undergraduate mistress broke off her affair with him. Mutatis Mutandis
7.11.2007 7:04pm
Shelby (mail):
And yet Indy too shacks up with a young easy target

I'm guessing JB hasn't seen the movie. "Young," maybe.

Ilya, why rope an anthropologist/whatever-Indy-is in with English professors? And there's no sign of him abandoning his (non-existent but for absent Dad) family, or of involvement with his students. He doesn't exactly leap on the girl who comes on to him in class.
7.11.2007 7:19pm
anonVCfan:
If even a significant minority of academics looked or acted anything like Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones might become something of a stereotype.
7.11.2007 7:33pm
Eliza (mail):
Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul.

Oh how true this is! I had only vague stirrings of such feelings in college. Deep admiration, veneration even, but physical attraction? No. I remember being shocked by the frankly sexual terms in which my girlfriends would discuss professors in their fifties. Yuck.

But law school was a revelation. All my friends had crushes. Well, all the girls anyway. We'd spend hours mooning over our paunchy, sagging, aged, brilliant professors: I'm just so in love with his mind! I hear his wife is awful. We talked forever at office hours yesterday--he knows Justice Scalia! And so on.

And there was a nontrivial success rate. The policy was that teachers could date students not in their class at the time. When I graduated the dean of students was on his fourth student wife, and several other professors had married students as well. A few couples dated in secret. But no one was "exploiting" students and casting them aside. On the contrary, when it ends it's usually the professor who ends up being "outgrown". He's left with a broken heart and a marriage in tatters. She's had an exquisite experience, but she's done and she's got her whole life ahead of her. He's still brilliant, but suddenly he seems very old.
7.11.2007 8:22pm
PersonFromPorlock:
Doubtless, the stereotypical whiny, conficted liberal-arts professor is a dramatist's attempt to make the breed interesting, they having failed to do so on their own. Had they but had the moral courage to wear The Fedora....
7.11.2007 8:31pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
Remember in the first Indy film, there's a student who paints "I love you" on her eyelids, which really disconcerts Dr. Jones -- is he thrown off by her flirting, or was she a one-night stand who can't take a hint? Given his treatment of Marion, whom he apparently seduced while she was underage, I'm guessing the latter. And this is a great American hero?
7.11.2007 8:32pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
I realize this is off the topic, but if I'm not mistaken, Deresiewicz is a homonym of Dershowitz.
7.12.2007 1:25am
Colin (mail):
The next film is shooting on location at Yale.

Does "on location" mean that the scene is set at Yale, or only that the shooting is taking place at a real location, and not on a stage set?
7.12.2007 12:04pm
Toby:
If the film is shot on location on the Yale Campus, how do they get around the no weapons rule, even theatrical, or has that been abondoned...
7.12.2007 1:06pm
Colin (mail):
Indy tends to fight on trains, or blimps, or in foreign countries. If they're filming on campus, it's probably one of the bookend scenes establishing his 9 to 5 life as an academic.
7.12.2007 3:32pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):
... vanity, pomposity, and selfishness; his self-pity, passivity, and resentment.

Strikes me as realism, especially in some of the humanities areas.
7.12.2007 4:57pm