Is “male, mad and muddle-headed” a fair description of the modern-day academic?
Ask a child how they imagine scholars and there is a fair chance you will be greeted with a similar vision – particularly if that child has a penchant for picture books.
Melissa Terras, professor of digital humanities in the department of information studies, University College London, has been studying academics who appear as characters in picture books, and in a post on Melissa Terras’ Blog concludes that they “tend to be elderly, old men, who work in science, called Professor SomethingDumb”.
Professor Terras unearthed a cohort of 108 picture-book academics, comprising “76 professors, 21 Academic Doctors, 2 Students, 2 Lecturers, 1 Assistant Professor, 1 Child, 1 Astronomer, 1 Geographer, 1 Medical Doctor who undertakes research, 1 researcher, and 1 lab assistant”.
“In general, the Academic Doctors tend to be crazy mad evil egotists (“It’s Dr Frankensteiner – the maddest mad scientist on mercury!”), whilst the Professors tend to be kindly, but baffled, obsessive egg-heads who don’t quite function normally.”
They also work in a relatively small number of subject areas, the blog observes. “Most of the identified academics work in science, engineering and technology subjects. 31% work in some area of generic ‘science’, 10% work in biology, a few in maths, paleontology, geography, and zoology, and lone academics in rocket science, veterinary science, astronomy, computing, medical research and oceanography.”
Not all the academics featured are humans, Professor Terras points out. “74% are human, 19% are animals, 4% are aliens, 2% are unknown, and 1% are vegetable.” (In case you were wondering, the veggie scholar is Professor Peabody, a character from a 1979 picture book by Giles Reed and Angela Mitson. He is a pea.)
The characters are “mostly (old, white) males”, the blog continues. “They are also nearly all caucasian: only two of those identified are people of colour: one Professor, and one child who is so smart he is called The Prof: both are male.”
The women are “so lacking that the denouement of one whodunnit/solve the mystery/choose your own adventure book for slightly older children is that the professor they have been talking about was actually a woman, and you didn’t see that coming, did you? Ha!”
In addition to the main blog, which contains more detailed analysis of the research, Professor Terras has created a page on the micro-blogging platform Tumblr on which she posts pictures of the many cartoon academics, including Dr Roach, Professor Astro Cat and Professor Doppelganger.
The research elicited a string of comments and conversations on Twitter. Mark Carnall (@mark_carnall), curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London, tweeted that he had “one weird question” about Professor Terras’ work. “How did you sex Dr Xargle?” he asked, referring to the eponymous alien hero of Jeanne Willis’ series of children’s books.
“He is called a He at some point,” Professor Terras (@melissaterras) replied. “I was very…obsessive about all this.”
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