Thursday, July 12, 2007


Brother Jerry Carroll sent the link to Daniel Drezner, and to celebrate my 20,000th visitor, I will borrow from DD, who, in fact, is borrowing from someone else.

It's all fair use, isn't it?

Why there will never be a reality show about academia

Four years ago (?!!), I blogged the following:

[T]he caricature of academia in popular culture is a collection of lecherous white male who inevitably bed one or more of their students.
In The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz uses many more paragraphs to make a similar point:
Look at recent movies about academics, and a remarkably consistent pattern emerges. In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Jeff Daniels plays an English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, neglects his wife, and bullies his children. In One True Thing (1998), William Hurt plays an English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, neglects his wife, and bullies his children. In Wonder Boys (2000), Michael Douglas plays an English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, has just been left by his third wife, and can’t commit to the child he’s conceived in an adulterous affair with his chancellor. Daniels’s character is vain, selfish, resentful, and immature. Hurt’s is vain, selfish, pompous, and self-pitying. Douglas’s is vain, selfish, resentful, and self-pitying. Hurt’s character drinks. Douglas’s drinks, smokes pot, and takes pills. All three men measure themselves against successful writers (two of them, in Douglas’s case; his own wife, in Daniels’s) whose presence diminishes them further. In We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause divide the central role: both are English professors, and both neglect and cheat on their wives, but Krause plays the arrogant, priapic writer who seduces his students, Ruffalo the passive, self-pitying failure. A Love Song For Bobby Long (2004) divides the stereotype a different way, with John Travolta as the washed-up, alcoholic English professor, Gabriel Macht as the blocked, alcoholic writer.

Not that these figures always teach English. Kevin Spacey plays a philosophy professor — broken, bitter, dissolute — in The Life of David Gale (2003). Steve Carell plays a self-loathing, suicidal Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Both characters fall for graduate students, with disastrous results. And while the stereotype has gained a new prominence of late, its roots go back at least a few decades. Many of its elements are in place in Oleanna (1994), in Surviving Desire (1991), and, with John Mahoney’s burnt-out communications professor, in Moonstruck (1987). In fact, all of its elements are in place in Terms of Endearment (1983), where Jeff Daniels took his first turn playing a feckless, philandering English professor. And of course, almost two decades before that, there was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

What’s going on here? If the image of the absent-minded professor stood for benevolent unworldliness, what is the meaning of the new academic stereotype? Why are so many of these failed professors also failed writers? Why is professional futility so often connected with sexual impropriety? (In both Terms of Endearment and We Don’t Live Here Anymore, “going to the library” becomes a euphemism for “going to sleep with a student.”) Why are these professors all men, and why are all the ones who are married such miserable husbands?

Deresiewicz answers his own question with a Jungian flourish ( "they are a way of articulating the superiority of female values to male ones: of love, community, and self-sacrifice to ambition, success, and fame").

Drezner says the real reason is the hideous boring and inbred nature of academic life, which -- if you insist on writing about it -- must be lied about if anyone is to pay attention. Hence the bonking and its attendant misery, all of it pure fiction.

This is not exactly true. My first job several of the faculty were bonking one another and seemed to be having a hell of a time, though as far as I knew they left the students alone. Anyway, it was down South, and I blame the drink, which saturated the culture.

Here at USF, cross my heart if there's anything going on, predatory or otherwise, either intramural or extracurricular, I know nothing about it.

So well yes: Drezner is right. Of course, I suppose all us profs could revel in the caricature as it builds our myth. Except how much business did any of these art house follies actually do?

Whoops, I forgot the Nutty Professors, both that of Lewis and that of Murphy. They did business, though their point would seem to be that the only way a professor could get lucky would be through molecular reinvention right down to the bare bones of his watery DNA.

P.S. I also worked for 15 years in journalism. Was there bonking? Yes, there was. I think it was all done in support of the First Amendment. That was the music for the dance, I'm pretty sure.


Anonymous said...

Nice try, Professor. The hot, steamy sex that goes in faculty circles on is well-known if not yet well-documented.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Your fantasies are showing, Anonymous. Most college professors of my generation -- the male ones, anyway -- looked like a eugenics experiment gone terribly wrong. They couldn't have seduced a hot fudge sundae.

Julianna Acken Walters said...

Could it be that the screenwriter's desire to feel creatively, ethically and intellectually superior to his own mentor is what pours the drink, flings the girl and lights the smoke?

Anonymous said...

Much as they have tried, no screenwriter yet has had the craft to even approximate the priapic atmosphere of the academy.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

I used to know a Juliana Acken. A good student, very good.

Julianna Acken Walters said...

Love your blog.

Julianna Acken Walters said...

And Joe says, "hi".

Anonymous said...

You might be surprised, or not, how many of us hot fudge sundaes were seduced by just such fellows.

Anonymous said...

Reading the above, it's clear the professors are trying to keep a good thing to themselves, standard behavior in Naure. The dominant males use various strategies to keep potential rivals away, including deception. In this case, it involves professions of unattractiveness and uneventfulness in their lives. In reality, the professiorate is studded with alpha males who are mesomorphic and have heavy body hair, particularly on the back and shoulders. They run with the bulls at Pamplona well into their 40s and would be fighting door-to-door in Bukuba if their politics were otherwise. So don't be fooled, folks.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Oh my. I seem to have missed a lot, probably because I got lost in the card catalog, though I concede I've always waxed my shoulders.

Now about Ms. Acken: I do seem to recall she fell victim to a fast-talking fellow student, quite a rogue. I believe Joe was one of the names he went under.

Anonymous said...

You waxed the shoulders the better to flaunt the hickeys.