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Professorial stereotypes: We need to create a more realistic image of ourselves

University professors have an odd public image.


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.

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  1. Rohan Maitzen / April 6, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    “This means making our professional lives more visible to our students and to non-academics.”

    I completely agree. One way I decided to respond to a particularly hostile comment thread at the Chronicle of Higher Ed a couple of years ago was to begin a series on my own blog on the simple theme “This Week in My Classes.” Like most academic bloggers, I also write about my research and about general academic issues. It’s a challenge to reach non-academic readers, but in general I think we should make our work more transparent–and have our efforts to do so recognized as professionally valuable.

  2. Dr.Doinglittle / April 10, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    There is more to this issue than stereotypes of absent-minded professors in tacky clothing. There is considerable public suspicion of and hostility towards professors, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences. It is something I didn�t really experience until I worked outside academe. Many people (including professionals and the well-educated) view academics as an inward-looking interest group with little to contribute to society.

    I don’t think the solution it is a simple matter of making academics and their work more visible. This presupposes that people care or have the interest. Most don�t. Gaining public recognition is a more fundamental task that involves reconceptualizing what role academics and their research should play in society. Too much research is carried out in the name of academic freedom and nothing else. Is it any wonder no-one cares?

  3. sebastian toombs / May 10, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    i smell a new reality TV show in the making… strictly as a matter of public outreach, of course.

  4. Wilhelmina Balyagati / May 12, 2010 at 3:22 am

    Thank you for a wonderful article.

    May I use it in our newsletter? of the Inter-University Council for EAst Africa (IUCEA)

    I thank you

    Wilhelmina Balyagati

  5. N. C. Evans / July 2, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    I know this is an editorial, but your article lacks enough support to convince me that there are individuals who have certain views of professors and that professors need to find avenues that can help shed academicia of certain stereotypes.

    First of all, who are you referring to when you mean “the general public” or “they”? To condense the entire world and match them with views or possibilities of views of what a professor is without examples from outside sources makes this portion of your editorial seem like your opinion of what everyone thinks about what a professor is. In fact, most of your editorial seems to be like this, including one instance where you say that the media asks for scholars’ opinions on various topics, and then saying that the public has retained the image of the “absent minded, nazel-gazing professor”. This seems to be confusing, for if the spectrum of Hollywood movies gives us the impression of the out-of-touch professor, then what impression is being made on the average person through the exposure of other media, like news programming or “edutainment”? None? Second of all, a couple of the types of scholars that you mention not being well known do have some decent exposure to the public. Economists are asked to come on programs concerning the stock market, and political scientists are asked on their opinion on how elections will tend to go from time to time. As for language scholars? Well, at least there’s Noam Chomsky.

    Also, one of your points seem to contradict the notion of the general public. For instance, you make the point of arguing that the “general public” has no knowledge of what research is. If you acknowledge that an increased amount of people are getting some sort of higher education, or college degree, then you have to acknowledge that an increased portion of the “general public” are getting degrees, and that a portion of them have to write thesis papers in the field that they are getting a degree in before they graduate. Wouldn’t this give a person enough of an idea of what is involved in doing research for a given topic, or a general idea, at the very least? Either the general public is populated with people with college degrees or it isn’t.

    I know this comment is a critical statement on your article, but it’s only because I thought this was an interesting topic that could’ve been supported better, or at least made a convincing argument.

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