The 7 Worst Academics in Popular Culture

Screenshot 2017-03-01 22.43.47A recent article on the Times Higher Education website marked the release of Barbara Tobolowsky’s new edited collection, Anti-intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities: Fictional Higher Education, by doing a short piece on how popular culture portrayals ‘devalue academia’, and the real work students and academics are actually doing.

Since I’m deep in piles of academic work at the moment (teaching, articles, conference planning, thesis deadlines, you name it), I thought I would gift myself a lighter week and give you some of my top picks for the absolute worst depictions of academics and academic life in contemporary popular culture.

7. Victor Frankenstein (every Frankenstein adaptation ever since 1818)

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Why he’s the worst: Ok, so technically Frankenstein isn’t actually a doctor. Nowhere in Shelley’s novel is he awarded a PhD or MD—technically he’s just a ‘natural philosopher’. Still, this mad, Romantic genius is one of the classic bad academics, he’s been giving scientists a bad name for nearly 200 years. Trying to monopolise the entire experiment, not listening to the advice of colleagues, robbing graves. That’s just bad scientific practice.

6. Edward Alcott (Loser, 2000)

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Why he’s the worst: This literature professor knows everything better, and puts down curious students at virtually every opportunity. Plus, he’s sleeping with (and emotionally abusing) one of his young students. While he may sadly not be completely fictional, he’s definitely not someone who belongs in academia, or who will have a place there for much longer.

5. Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984)

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Why he’s the worst: This guy launched 1,000 PhDs in archaeology, but when they finally got there they discovered that no, as an academic you don’t generally get to explore booby-trapped temples, fight natives, or casually destroy priceless artefacts. When you do get to the fun part out in the field, it’s mainly brushing, measuring, and meticulously cataloguing. And unlike Indiana, you certainly don’t get endless months of teaching leave and funding with which to do it.

4. Ted Mosby (How I Met Your Mother, 2005)

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Why he’s the worst: Does ‘Professor Mosby’ actually have a PhD in archeology? Does he even have an MA? Does he…does he even actually know what he’s talking about? The show doesn’t really care, since his teaching is just a funny thing he sometimes does to break up the monotony of drinking at MacLaren’s, having an awesome time with his friends, and getting into and out of terrible relationships.

Also, no way he could pay for that Manhattan apartment on an adjunct’s salary.

3. Daniel Jackson (Stargate SG-1, 1997)

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Why he’s the worst: Egyptologist Daniel Jackson is the ultimate Gary Stu. He’s not taken seriously by any of his academic colleagues, because he’s basically a crazy conspiracy theorist. Then, all his theories are validated because it turns out aliens actually did build the pyramids, so he becomes a chief advisor to the U.S. Air Force. He speaks a bajillion languages and knows everything about science, mythology, and whatever the show needs him to know. Because that’s apparently part of what egyptologists learn in grad school. Also, hot women are constantly and unexpectedly attracted to him.

2. Robert Langdon (The Da Vinci Code, 2003)

Image © djinn-world on Deviantart
Image © djinn-world on Deviantart

Why he’s the worst: I take it back—Robert Langdon, ‘Harvard University professor of religious iconology and symbology’, is the real Gary Stu. All Dan Brown’s books have an awesome hero who looks vaguely like Harrison Ford, and this guy is ‘Harrison Ford in Harris tweed’. He is a genius and brilliant and has an eidetic memory, but doesn’t speak Italian or know anything useful outside of what he needs to solve all the mysteries in the story. From the novels we can deduce that what he does all day at work is talk cryptically about things and try to look smart.

Also, fake academic discipline is fake.

1. Clayton Danvers (Bitten, 2014)

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Why he’s the worst: This guy, man. I know technically that asking him to be realistic in any way is missing the point, since his real role in this show is to be eye candy, and also to mope around and tell us how awesome Elena is. It wasn’t enough for him to be sexy and loyal, though. Clay is the Man Who Has it All. Seriously, this is the end of his character biography on SyFy.com: ‘Now a Professor of Anthropology, Clay divides his time between his scholastic research and enforcing the pack code while keeping errant Mutts in line.’

From his melodramatic anthropology lectures about ‘deep desires’, ‘the beasts within us’, and ‘the mask behind which we hide’, his students must think he’s Batman or something—and they wouldn’t be too far off. Clay is supported in ridiculous luxury by his pack family, has a fabulous office filled with a treasure trove of ancient artefacts, and a prestigious job that isn’t so demanding he can’t constantly drop everything to romp around the forest with his wolf bros. He can’t even be bothered to type up his own research notes, which is how he actually meets Elena in the first place. There is this, though:

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Who do you think is the worst academic in pop culture? Did I miss someone great (i.e. awful) from Victorian popular culture? Who are your favourite on-screen academics? Let me know! I would love to make a follow-up list or two in the future.

Why ‘Nineteenth Century Matters’ Mattered to Me

victorian-supperThe PhD is a strange thing. You spend three years (or four, or seven, depending on where and how you’re working) fixated on a single topic. You read lots of things you don’t need to read, and explore many avenues that will turn out to be dead ends. Your time is largely yours to spend how you choose, although there are more than enough obligations to choose from. In many ways, it represents a kind of academic freedom that you’re unlikely to ever see again.

After your PhD, potential employers seem interested in everything but your thesis. They want to know what you have published, what you have taught, and what additional impact and engagement skills you can bring to the table. The interstitial space between the PhD and the mythical academic job is feared, densely populated, and vigorously prepared for. Speaking to those who are there already, it can also be incredibly soul-crushing. Applications require a great deal of time and effort, but you are competing against hundreds of other highly qualified people, often your friends, and your chances of success are slim. The sea of tick-boxes, online forms, and buzzwords can be depressingly dehumanising.

Th graves of Jane Austen's mother and sister at Chawton House
Th gravestones of Jane Austen’s mother and sister at Chawton House

This is why I was especially glad to be able to attend the Nineteenth Century Matters training day at Chawton House Library, a public engagement event organised by Catherine Han and sponsored by BARS and BAVS on 28 January, 2017. I’m not going to give a content summary of the day—that’s already been done by a number of different reviewers. You can also check out the live tweets using the #c19Matters hashtag. I do want to comment on a couple of things I particularly enjoyed about the event, though.

Most people at the training day were what we call ECRs (Early Career Researchers), and many were in that uncertain space between the PhD and full-time employment. The first thing that became immediately clear was how much everyone cared about their research. Yes, we exchanged the usual banter about the dire state of the job market, the gruelling commutes between part-time teaching jobs, and our lack of future prospects, but the subject always turned back around to the work. Most had a clear idea of why the research they were conducting into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was still important and relevant. If the world couldn’t see that, we would find a way to show them.

Chawton House
Chawton House, in Alton

This was one important difference Mark Llewellyn, research director at the AHRC and one of the speakers, identified between scholars of his generation and ours. Where some established academics don’t see the need to make their research directly relevant to the public, ECRs tend to immediately see the benefits of getting their research out there. This willingness to get out there and do the work is partly born out of necessity, of course, but Llewellyn sees this as vital to the future of the humanities.

Llewellyn and the other speakers (full programme here) also did a great job of breaking down the meaningless buzzwords that circulate around funding and public events. What does ‘engagement’ actually mean, for instance? Addressing the neo-Victorianists in the room, Llewellyn asked whether the Victorians even mean the same thing to us as they do to the people we’re trying to engage. In the mad dash for employment we often feel it’s our job to somehow make people care about our work, but the process is much more organic than that. It requires connecting with specific people and communities, learning about their needs, and building up a relationship that is fulfilling for both parties. We need the public to engage, but they also need us to be engaged.

Sound a bit saccharine? Fortunately the tone of the day wasn’t at all patronising or abstract. Claire Wood had a few useful tips about identifying who this mystical ‘public’ actually is, and who we should really be talking to. Gillian Dow, Mary Guyatt, and Holly Furneaux all shared direct examples of the strengths and pitfalls of public engagement. The presenters also did a brilliant job of dispelling the Romantic myth of the scholar, who dispenses knowledge from an irony tower to the ignorant masses. For each speaker, engagement had impacted their own research in profound and resoundingly practical ways. It was precisely the act of doing something for and with the public, without worrying about the immediate relevance to the research, that yielded new and unexpected results.

Four of the speakers at the training day
Four of the speakers at the training day

The training day also did a remarkable job of making us, the participants, feel like human beings again—no mean feat for an event with so many big names attached. Each speaker was very approachable, and was not only excited to talk about our ideas, but also keen to offer help and advice. The staff at Chawton House were kind and very professional, and the day was organised without a hitch. Because there weren’t too many of us—several dozen in total—there was just enough opportunity to chat without making the networking feel like a chore. The location itself was also quiet and intimate, and made the whole thing feel like a relaxing retreat rather than an ideas mill.

Image © Vic Jane Clark
Image © Vic Jane Clarke

The only thing I would have liked more of were the workshops, for which we split into small groups based on our research and expertise. I’m still in the early stages of my public engagement plan, and so was matched with a group designed to generate some ideas for how to bring your research to specific groups of people. Our research was randomly paired with two categories: a target group and a type of project. Target groups included easier audiences (retired adults) and more challenging ones (youth not in education or employment), and it was interesting to think about which groups fit best with which topics. The projects also ranged the gamut from exhibitions to podcasts to board games. Everyone in my group was encouraging and full of ideas, and though we had to move quickly from project to project, many of us exchanged contact information so we could take these ideas further after the event.

Despite the renewed confidence in both academia and in public engagement this training day has given me, I remain convinced that the current state of affairs is not a good one. As Furneaux pointed out during her talk, the ability to build bridges outside of academia and engage in impact research still requires a fair amount of privilege. It is often done out of pocket or in a volunteer capacity, and not everyone has the luxury of that kind of free time or disposable income. Researchers are still required to be jacks of all trades—extroverts, scholars, teachers, self-publishers—which ignores the realities of twenty-first-century academia and the value of individuals who don’t fit this mould. Until we figure out how to build a fairer system, however, it’s good to know that people on both sides of the job divide are committed to being there for each other, and ensuring that this important research has a future.

Selfie at the training day
Selfie at the training day

The 5 Stages of Revision

Image taken from page 44 of 'Life's Roses: a volume of selected poems'

About two months ago I had what will likely be the first of many experiences with negative feedback, something that is part and parcel of working in academia (or anywhere, really). I submitted an article to a book collection over the summer of 2014, and after giving it very little thought for the following nine months, it returned to me in May 2015 with a request for major revisions, of the type where you may honestly just as well re-write the entire article. This week, after a very long revision process, I finally (re)submitted the chapter for consideration in a book collection. Maybe those of you who have had children can let me know just how melodramatic I’m being in comparing the revision process to childbirth. Whatever the analogy, a year down the road I’ve developed a whole new relationship with the revision process. While I’m 100% sure I’ll change my mind about this once the experience is no longer fresh in my mind, at this exact moment I’m inclined to say that I’ll never write another article again.

In case I’m not the only one struggling with these emotions at the moment, I thought I would use another melodramatic metaphor and share my five-step journey through the revision process. Writer Jenna Black has described her own five stages of revision upon submitting a manuscript, which include dread, panic, denial, acceptance, and relief. I’ve got my own set of five to add to this list, and they all take place during the re-writing process, crammed in between ‘acceptance’ and ‘relief’. Because the British Library recently shared a massive library of more than a million, copyright-free images on Flickr, I took the opportunity use a few by way of illustration:

Image taken from page 111 of 'Woodland Romances; or, Fables and Fancies'1. Destructive Shock

All work can be improved, and often with just a little reflection it can be improved drastically. You’ve given the comments a few days or weeks to sink in, and now you go back to them only to find that they’re still as upsetting and demotivating as they were the first time. What were you thinking? Everything is pretty much wrong. You’ve clearly got a lot of work ahead of you, and not nearly enough time to do it. You spend a lot of time contemplating backing out, or just starting again from scratch.

Image taken from page 147 of 'The Tragedy of Ida Noble, etc. [A novel.]'2. Bottomless Ennui

You’ve now got a very rough second draft that you can almost live with, but you’ve still got a long way to go. Is it even worth it? Is anything worth it? You put so much effort into the first version, and look how that turned out.

This is the phase where you spend a lot of time staring blankly at the screen, re-reading texts you already know by heart, and writing a lot of sentences that you immediately delete again. Who knows — maybe you’ll never be able to write anything good ever again.

Image taken from page 10 of 'Mount Despair, and other stories, etc'3. Grudging Acceptance

You’ve put too much work into this to  quit now. You spend long, grueling days in a darkened room, muttering to yourself and updating footnotes. It doesn’t matter how awful the end product will be — you’re going to get it finished if it kills you.

You start to develop headaches from the glow of the computer screen, and so switch back and forth between computer and paper editing. You make copious amounts of notes and numerous outlines, most of which you end up discarding.

Image taken from page 63 of 'Thrilling Life Stories for the Masses'4. Tentative Enthusiasm

This stage sneaks up on you slowly and gradually as you struggle to emerge from your revision-induced stupor. Maybe this isn’t so bad after all. You’ve actually responded to most of the comments, the main argument is surprisingly coherent, and now the piece just needs some polishing. Unfortunately you’ve now read through it so many times your brain is actually incapable of seeing the typos that still remain. You pass the draft on to a friend or family member and try to forget about it for a little while before you move on to the final read-through.

It will probably all turn out alright in the end.

Image taken from page 80 of 'Nasby in Exile: or, six months of travel in England, ... France, Germany ... Illustrated'5. Submission Panic

As the deadline (official or self-imposed) looms closer, you start to revert back to stage one of the revision cycle. What if your changes haven’t been as good as you thought after all? What if you’ve just created a whole new set of problems? Maybe you should have taken a safer route, and not changed quite so much. You upload a draft of the article to the e-mail you’ve pre-written, then delete it and do just one more last check for typos and formatting glitches. Finally you hit ‘send’, and spend the next two hours agonising over whether you did the right thing. Eventually you get a submission receipt and are left with the paltry consolation that, if you did forget something, it’s too late to change it now.

Does anyone else have memories of a terrible revision process? If so I’d love to hear about them in the comments. I’ll bring the metaphorical tissues.