One of the reasons people get so angry at professors is the existence of genuine academic assholes. They do indeed exist, but they are not representative of the profession. I’ve said this before: If you are irritated about a slacker who has been coasting after tenure, you are in for a shock. Slackers exist in other jobs, too.
For some reason, people are considerably harsher toward academic slackers than they are toward hamster slackers. In the Hamster World, if a company is going off the rails, staff turnover is the result. The company still stands, and the masses seem okay with that. No one says, “Let’s shut down the whole company just to get rid of one dirtbag!” No one says, “I think I’ll undermine the whole company just so I can get revenge on this one person who annoys me!” As for the Ivory Tower, it could use some repairs and fresh blood, sure. But more people cry out that they want to cut tenure, cut funding and burn the whole thing down.
Here’s a truth about life that it took me way too long to figure out: There will always be slackers, and there will always be people who let you down, in any workplace. Just don’t slit everyone’s throat and your own while trying to get at a slacker because slackers are wilier and smarter than you. They’ll be the last ones standing after the whole department or even the whole office has been gutted. They are willing to work hard in order to avoid expending effort later on. Accept their imperfections, avoid helping them whenever possible, rely on the people who get the work done, and move on.
Slacking is not a crime. Image of a hammock by Chris McClave from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.
Okay, some misguided and soon-to-be disappointed soul ends up at Post Academic after typing “ass school” in a search engine. We apologize for not delivering what you were looking for, and you can stop reading now.
However, someone else has been landing here for “academics are assholes” as well, and I’d like to clarify that academics are not assholes. This statement seems important in light of the article by Thomas H. Benton/William Pannapacker called “Why Do They Hate Us?,” which I responded to a few days ago, with a tip of the hat to Rodney Dangerfield.
Comments like “academics are assholes” make me wonder why teachers in general get treated like dirt. There are assholes in every workplace, but teachers receive very little respect and very little pay in relation to their training and their workload. I can think of a few reasons why:
The Alcoholic Horndog Professor Stereotype on Film: Start reading here.
The Alcoholic Horndog Professor Stereotype in Fiction: Start reading here. Although the novels are more complex than, say, a Rodney Dangerfield flick, they make universities far more glamorous and dramatical than they actually are.
An Inability to Cope with Bad Grades: Many people cannot cope with getting bad grades. Who can blame them? But some people resent the power that teachers seem to have, all the way into adulthood. What they don’t seem to realize is that it is possible to get jobs without having a perfect GPA. So you got a bad grade? You’ll survive. You’ll probably be able to get a job, too, because GPAs aren’t necessarily a requirement on resumes.
A little amateur psychology after the jump! Caricature of Ward McAllister from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
The title for the latest by Thomas H. Benton/William Pannapacker is a little plaintive: “Why Do They Hate Us?” Of course, “Us” refers to academics.
Although I haven’t been a member of the academic flock for a while, the statements Benton/Pannapacker says he’s heard from non-academics piss me off. Frankly, I think professors and academics should stand up for themselves more often. Only lawyers catch more crap for their jobs, but they don’t put up with it, and they make more money. Here are some fantasy responses I have to a few of the statements Benton/Pannapacker provides, and you can feel free to swipe them in case you encounter someone who disrespects your work:
“Being a professor is good money for, like, six hours of work per week. What do you do with all that free time?”
It’s not just the classroom time. You try grading the papers of at least 20 or 30 students in a classroom. This gets real customer servicey and would have most hamsters running for the hills. Oh, and you can also try teaching students who are at wildly different ability levels. And then you have to stay on top of your research and write papers so you can get tenure. I’m just getting warmed up. Someone who knows a little more about the profession might say that at least the job isn’t a 9-to-5. That’s true, but as anyone on a flexible schedule knows, that can be a blessing and a curse.
No respect! Image of Rodney Dangerfield at the Shorehaven Beach Club in New York in 1978. By Jim Accordino from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.
Although “The Squid and the Whale” appears to be a wistful yet quirky look back at the breakup of a literary-powerhouse marriage, but I kept thinking that it was a modern take on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The main difference is that, instead of a young couple being stuck in the house with the drunken professor and his wife, two kids are stuck living with a couple who could rival George and Martha any day of the week. Professors should view this one as a cautionary tale.
Meet the Professors:
Bernard Berkman: A failed novelist working as a university professor who uses the word “dense” as a compliment.
Hot Pepper Rating: Zero, unless you’re into shaggy guys.
Likelihood of Having an Undergrad Piece on the Side: More likely than any other movie in the series. He offers a room to a student, and he moves in, too.
Boozing and Drugging Quotient: None on the part of the professor, although the divorce situation drives one of the kids to drink.
Mental Condition: Bernard’s narcissism disorder is even more prominent than that of the Lawrence Wetherhold character in Smart People. That is impressive.
Financial Fakery: Not too bad. Bernard’s scabby apartment shows that a single professor’s salary won’t go far in Brooklyn.
Teaching Talent: The audience never sees Berkman teach, and that might be a good thing.
Quotations: “What is it about high school? You read all the worst books by good writers.”
Conclusion: This is a good movie in that many people can probably identify with it and how their parents behaved during a divorce. It’s more of a “bad-divorce” movie than a “professor” movie, although it does perpetuate the stereotype that a professor will put a publication and a night in bed with an undergrad above all else.
For anyone who assumes that all professor-oriented films are twee affairs that feature pompous characters exploring their navels, Post Academic gives you “Doctor Detroit.” No other film rivals it. It is basically a comic book in which a comp-lit professor leads a multicultural hooker posse. Sorry to spoil the ending for you, but the professor gets the money and the girl (uh, make that girls). For that reason, it deserves far more love and attention than it currently receives.
Meet the Professor: Clifford Skridlow (Dan Aykroyd), comparative literature, Monroe College
Hot Pepper Rating: Depends on how you feel about Dan Aykroyd.
Likelihood of Having an Undergrad Piece on the Side: This movie is about sex and money. Yet there is no undergraduate fraternization to speak of.
Boozing and Drugging Quotient: The only way to transform Professor Skridlow is to get him higher than a kite, and he is more than appreciative.
Mental Condition: As this is such a broad ’80s comedy, the characters have very few nuances or concerns other than escaping the clutches of a nefarious crime queen.
Financial Fakery: In this field, “Doctor Detroit” is more subersive than any other film in the professor genre. Skridlow lives with his parents, and his father is the president of the college. The thought of a comp-lit prof having to camp with parents isn’t all that outlandish, and this flick was made in the 1983.
Plus, the college in question is broke, and Skridlow’s father is desperate to obtain an endowment check from a tycoon. This may be the only movie in the “horndog” series that foreshadows the current month-by-month condition of higher education. And it is definitely the only movie in the “horndog” series that equates college fundraising with pimping.
Teaching Talent: Skirdlow does indeed appear in the classroom and wax eloquent on King Arthur. He also makes frequent references to the greats, like Don Quixote, lest the audience forget that he is a professor of literature. The members of his multicultural hooker posse, however, are more conscientious about grading papers than he is.
Quotations: 1. “I’m a full assistant professor now!”
2. On free food at a faculty party: “These people are in academia! Free food is like honey to a bear to these people!”
3. Hooker 1: “What should I do about these papers?”
Hooker 2: “Give ’em all a B. That’s what they deserve, anyway.”
Conclusion: So it isn’t a drama. So it’s silly. So it is wildly offensive to modern sensibilities. But professor as pimp? Professor as metal-handed badass? Professors in lime-green pants instead of tweed? The writers of this movie thought big. And its soundtrack–which features Devo and James Brown–kicks the ass of any other film in this genre.
At first glance, “Smart People” seems like a knockoff of “Wonder Boys.” A dowdy professor finds love and has to deal with a precocious young adult along the way. Only in this case, “Smart People” swaps Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand and Tobey McGuire for Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker and Ellen Page. Alas, despite Ellen Page’s dazzling array of winter sweaters, “Smart People” takes the film law that “professor” is shorthand for “self-absorbed” and pushes it to the limit.
Meet the Professor: Lawrence Wetherhold, English Professor at Carnegie Mellon. (Is it a law that all movies about sad professors have to be set in Pittsburgh?)
Hot Pepper Rating: Low. They manage to make Dennis Quaid look like a schlep.
Likelihood of Having an Undergrad Piece on the Side: Pretty high if he’s willing to see former students as promising sexual partners.
Boozing and Drugging Quotient: Although Wetherhold is seen chugging from a bottle of wine, his chief vice is narcissism.
Mental Condition: Since this is a dramedy, his mental condition is fairly serious, and it is implied that much of his behavior stems from grief over the death of his wife. At least it doesn’t have as much to do with despair over his status or lack thereof on the job.
Financial Fakery: Finances aren’t a huge issue in this movie, but it does stick to the film rule that any character who is a professor must a) have a problem with driving and b) have an old, crappy car. What’s really fake is the idea that a literature professor could sell a book to Penguin, even if it has a combative title like “You can’t read!”
Teaching Talent: This movie should be a lesson to anyone who does not make the effort to learn the names of his or her students, even if the students are annoying snowflakes. Wetherhold and his students are equally disgusted by each other, and he has trouble tracking down a single positive teaching evaluation.
Quotations: 1. One of Wetherhold’s colleagues on the value of student evaluations: “It’s mostly just speculation on my sexuality.”
2. “You never tire of Bleak House!”
3. An editor on Wetherhold’s book: ” I got to the third section where I noticed a certain marketable tone, the surly smarter-than-thou asshole tone. ”
4. Wetherhold: “They’re publishing my book!”
Wetherhold’s poorer and infinitely more interesting brother: “Who the fuck’s gonna read that?”
Conclusion: This movie tries too hard to be quirky and true to the academic life, but the non-professor characters are infinitely more interesting than the professor ones. Nothing really happens. The characters say they’ve grown, but their change isn’t that convincing. Videogum sums up the movie best: “… it definitely helps to define what might be the Worst Genre of All Time, the Being an Upper Middle-Class White Is Hard genre.”
This movie is the Great White Whale in the Alcoholic Horndog Professor Stereotype series. It features a novelist-professor running around in a pink bathrobe fretting about how he can’t finish his novel, only to be redeemed by a quirky younger student whose last name is “Leer.” The description is enough to send my blood sugar into the stratosphere. Oddly enough, this one managed to be tolerable.
Meet the Professors:
Grady Tripp: A bathrobe-loving professor who wrote one good novel a long time ago and who is churning out a follow-up as large and as frightening as the opus from “The Shining.”
Walter Gaskell, Chair of the English Department: This dude is so dumb his blind dog knows he’s having an affair before he does.
Sara Gaskell, the Chancellor and Chair’s Spouse: Like many fantasy academics, she has a lot of spare time to maintain her marriage, her affair, her pregnancy and her greenhouse.
Hot Pepper Rating: There must be a pepper in there somewhere if these professors are fraternizing with each other.
Likelihood of Having an Undergrad Piece on the Side: Although Grady fends off the inexplicable affections of nubile Hannah (Katie Holmes), it’s implied that he’s enjoyed his fair share of the ladies and married one or two of them. The big change in Grady’s character is that he discovers his true love is a woman his own age.
Boozing and Drugging Quotient: Wine, pills, pot, self-pity.
Mental Condition: Grady has frequent “spells” that may be attributed to his lifestyle. Or maybe that bathrobe smells so bad that it makes him pass out.
Financial Fakery: Grady rents out a room to a student, so that seems logical. Yet the chair of the English department has the monetary wherewithal to purchase a jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe. As for the chancellor, being an administrator means you get a nice greenhouse.
Teaching Talent: Well, if you call acting as an accessory to a crime or two inspirational teaching, then I guess Grady is a good teacher.
Quotations: Grady in response to the fact that he’s trying to hide the murder of his lover’s dog: “I’ve got tenure.”
Grady to a student crashing at his pad: “I’m a teacher, not a Holiday Inn.”
Rip Torn: “I [weighty pretentious pause] am a WRITER!”
Conclusion: Michael Chabon wrote the book, so I thought it would at least be a well-written piece of syrupy professorial fluff. I was afraid that it would make professors look like useless skirt-chasing creeps, but it makes being a professor–or at least a creative-writing instructor–look like more fun than most other movies in the genre. Jury’s still out on naming a dog “Poe,” though.
Here’s the latest in the Post Academic series “The Alcoholic Horndog Tenured Professor Stereotype,” which reviews movies that have helped contribute to the bad reputation of professors. Each movie is analyzed in terms of Hot Pepper Rating, Fashion Sense, Likeliness of Having an Undergrad Piece on the Side, Boozing and Drugging Quotient, Financial Fakery, Teaching Talent (or Lack Thereof), and Quotations. Then the stereotypes are debunked, lest you mistake your professor for an Alcoholic Horndog. Today’s installment covers the movie version of Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in which Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor guzzle and gorge on every piece of scenery in sight.
Meet the Professors: George, a history professor saddled with a dull job and a lame home life full of brawls with his wife Martha.
Hot Pepper Rating: Low, low, low.
Fashion Sense: Perhaps one of the schleppiest professor characters caught on film.
Likeliness of Having an Undergrad Piece on the Side: Low. Few would get near him unless they had a serious Daddy Complex.
Boozing and Drugging Quotient: No dialogue beats this film when it comes to capturing sheer drunkenness. See the quotations below.
Mental Condition: Speaking of Daddy Complexes, Martha is the daughter of the president of George’s university, which is the kind of incestuous job situation that might drive anyone to booze. These two are so bonkers that they manage to infect a younger professor and his wife who unwittingly go to their house after a party.
Financial Fakery: Pretty authentic here. Usually the quotations appear last, but one line in particular says so much: “I hope that was an empty bottle, George! You can’t afford to waste good liquor, not on YOUR salary!”
Teaching Talent: It’s a good thing the audience doesn’t get the opportunity to see George at work in the classroom. To extrapolate from the script, he’d probably wind up passed out with his head stuck in a wastebasket.
Quotations: “You can take over a few classes from the older men, but until you start plowing pertinent wives, you really aren’t working. The broad, inviting avenue to man’s job is through his wife, and don’t you forget it.”
“George is bogged down in the history department. He’s an old bog in the history department! That’s what George is. A bog! A fen! A GD Swamp! Swamp! Hey, swamp! Hey, swampy!”
Conclusion: This movie will give aspiring professors and maybe even a few current ones nightmares. Many of those nightmares will involve swamps. If you’re considering going into the profession, and your family members bring it up, change the subject quickly or make them watch “Tenure” as an antidote.
Post Academic recently launched the series “The Alcoholic Horndog Tenured Professor Stereotype,” which reviews movies that have helped contribute to the bad reputation of professors. Each movie is analyzed in terms of Hot Pepper Rating, Fashion Sense, Likeliness of Having an Undergrad Piece on the Side, Boozing and Drugging Quotient, Financial Fakery, Teaching Talent (or Lack Thereof), and Quotations. Then the stereotypes are debunked, lest you mistake your professor for an Alcoholic Horndog. And now … a look at the low-key, low-budget Luke Wilson vehicle, “Tenure”:
Meet the Professors: 1. Luke Wilson, Professor Thurber, English, a decent guy just trying to get tenure
2. Gretchen Mol, Professor Grasso, English, a newly hired rival professor from Yale
3. David Koechner, Professor Hadley, aka Professor Bigfoot, anthropolgy, a hard-core Bigfoot enthusiast and peddler of male enhancement pills
Hot Pepper Rating: High. The production crew attempts to make him look as schleppy as possible, but it isn’t easy.
Fashion Sense: Low.
Likeliness of Having an Undergrad Piece on the Side: Low. Satires on academia almost always rely on the horndog stereotype, but Professor Thurber declines when a student offers herself to him.
Boozing and Drugging Quotient: High. Professor Bigfoot tries to take ecstasy, and is disappointed. He also turns to selling “Herb Erect” to make some extra cash.
Mental Condition: Poor. Professor Thurber suffers from Daddy Issues since his father was a more successful English professor, and Daddy tells Professor Thurber, “You should be farther along.”
Financial Fakery: Low. This movie nails the economic condition of academics, from the shabby apartments to the fact that Professor Bigfoot doesn’t have a car. The best touch is when Professor Thurber brings a $6.99 bottle of wine to a faculty dinner and forgets to take the tag off. Naturally, the department chair is appalled.
Teaching Talent: Difficult to rate, but it should sound familiar. Professor Thurber is a great teacher who won’t get tenure because he doesn’t have enough publications. Professor Grasso is a self-admitted bad teacher who will get tenure because she’s from Yale and is published in prestigious journals. Thurber and Grasso’s peers are backbiting technophobes who are more concerned with pissy politics than teaching, and you can take the “pissy” element literally.
Quotations: “Pack your bags for Turdville State!”
Conclusion: “Tenure” often strays into cutsey indie-flick territory, and the ending is an easy way out. That said, it is one of the few movies that finds a little dignity in the academic profession and doesn’t assume that professors are lazy, drunken louts.
Wow. That New Yorker cover by Daniel Clowes, which depicts a PhD moving back in with his parents and hanging his advanced diploma on the wall hit too close to home. Gina Barreca wrote over at Brainstorm, “We wonder whether the implication is that Ph.D.’s are worth as much as third-place ribbons—and are as easy to obtain.”
Eh. Somehow I don’t envision that New Yorker cover convincing a lot of readers that PhDs are deluded individuals who are doomed to return to Mom and Dad’s basement.
Yes, the portrait creates an unflattering picture of those with advanced degrees, but the reason it stings is that it makes New Yorker readers with PhDs feel like they’re being attacked by their own kind. That’s reason enough to dislike the cover, and I find it annoying because it perpetuates grad student/professor stereotypes. I don’t think, however, that the cover has a strong enough message to convince a person who is on the fence about the value of advanced degrees to dismiss such degrees entirely.
People move back in with their parents all the time because their grand life dreams didn’t work out, but it doesn’t mean there’s a reason to condemn the profession they chose. After all, people still go to the theater and go to rock shows, and for every successful actor or band, there’s probably about 10 people living in their Mom and Dad’s basements.
I posted the image of the New Yorker cover because I’m analyzing it for a semi-scholarly reason. I am fully aware that I’m pushing it with that rationale, so I kept the image small. If you want to see the image in detail, buy your own copy of the magazine.