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.
You might say that this media image doesn’t matter, because people know what profs are really like. This ought to be true, given that more and more people are educated beyond high school, and those who produce the media images of professors have probably attended university.
But I’m not convinced. 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.
They know that we teach. But they don’t know what we teach, how many students we have or what teaching involves. They know nothing about the supervision of graduate students. They may hear about the low number of academic “contact hours” and believe we are being paid enormous salaries for six or nine hours of work a week. If they judge by Hollywood films, they’re likely to think profs go into a classroom and just talk about whatever’s on their mind.
The public also has little or no concept of research. Scholars are sought out by the media and quoted on a daily basis for their expert opinions on everything from schoolyard bullying to climate change. Yet the stereotype of the absent-minded, navel-gazing professor still prevails within the popular imagination. I doubt that the public knows much, if anything, about the work done by political scientists, economists or sociologists. And legal theorists, philosophers, religion specialists and language scholars are completely unknown.
So academics are not well understood by the general public. And it’s not surprising. Even our students know little about our work. From their point of view we cease to exist outside the classroom, the laboratory and the office.
This general lack of knowledge was perhaps of small import in the past. But today it’s a mistake not to care what those beyond the campus think about professors. The public ignorance about academics and our work is not in our interests. In particular, it fails to encourage public support for the funding of higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences.
It may also affect our students’ futures. Many students come to university saying they want to be physicians or lawyers, but they don’t say they want to be academics. Maybe that’s good – we know there aren’t going to be jobs for a lot of professorial wannabes. But most of our students won’t become physicians or lawyers either. At least medicine and law are fields to which they aspire; it’s telling that so few have any ambition to be academics.
I conclude that we have a responsibility to inform people about our work and clarify what professors do. This means making our professional lives more visible to our students and to non-academics. We can demystify our research by discussing it in our classes, publicizing our results through the popular media, and bringing our expertise to bear upon current debates in newspapers, magazines and blogs. We can talk with non-academic friends, family, neighbours and our own students about our teaching methods and goals, as well as about the support we need for enhancing what universities fondly call “the learning environment.” We can also inform students and the public about core values in the academy, such as shared governance, peer review and academic freedom, and how those values benefit the broader community.
If we think our work is valuable, productive and worth doing, then we ought to be telling people about it, rather than thinking our work is so profound as to be inaccessible to non-academics. And certainly not acquiescing in the cringe-worthy media image of professors.
Christine Overall teaches in the department of philosophy at Queen’s University and is our regular columnist on philosophical issues in the academy.