Accurate role models as hard to find as the Holy Grail itself

One professor has had enough of Hollywood's clichéd depictions of faculty, says Jon Marcus

January 26, 2012



Credit: Kobal
Raiders of the lost stereotypes: Hollywood's portrayal of Professor Indiana Jones has helped to compound false perceptions of what lecturers are really like


When Brent Harger watched Henry Walton "Indiana" Jones Jr, PhD, leave his archaeology class in the middle of a lecture and set out to find the Holy Grail, he did not react with excitement, recoil at the close calls and inevitable snake pits, or laugh at the one-liners.

Instead, he reflected that Professor Jones made a pretty bad lecturer.

"He never pays attention to his students, as in: 'Maybe I should have graded their papers before I left,'" said Dr Harger, who was a postgraduate student when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out in 1989. He now teaches sociology at Albright College, Pennsylvania.

"If that's the image students are getting, they might think professors don't care about them."

With this concern in mind, Dr Harger and a colleague set about looking in more depth at depictions of academic faculty in film, from Sherman Klump in The Nutty Professor to Jurassic Park palaeontologist Alan Grant.

The resulting study, published in the journal Teaching Sociology, concludes that portrayals of professors in popular films are typically rife with racial and gender stereotypes, and that many are shown emphasising research over teaching and ethics.

Female academics, for instance, are depicted by Hollywood studios as nurturing and often sexualised. Black professors often wear bow ties, beards and glasses - to mark them out, say the study's authors, as intellectuals.

Professors were primary or secondary characters in 48 films that grossed at least $10 million (£6.5 million) in the US since 1985, the study found, and their ranks have grown noticeably since 2000. Most are comedies and dramas, with a few action, horror and romance titles thrown in.

Many feature "the romanticised image of the academic who's really focused on his research", said Dr Harger.

"Academics also make for good foils, in horror movies for instance. Then there's the depiction of professors as being detached or socially awkward and unable to carry on a conversation."

All of these affect how university students come to see lecturers - preconceptions that faculty members must respond to.

"As a white male, I don't have to deal with a lot of things in the classroom that my female friends have to deal with," Dr Harger said. "But women and African Americans have to do a lot of work to overcome these preconceptions."

Beautiful minds, bad stereotyping

He was encouraged to investigate the subject by a previous study of racial stereotypes in children's books, and said that "popular films in particular are likely to have at least a small influence on the expectations of many students and a large influence on the expectations of a few".

In the films that were the subject of Dr Harger's study - including Spider-Man II, The Day after Tomorrow, A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting, Legally Blonde and Wonder Boys - 88 per cent of the academics are white, 9.6 per cent black, and most are male and middle-aged.

Male scholars are generally shown teaching business, law, mathematics and natural sciences, while their female counterparts tend to be depicted lecturing in humanities subjects.

The study also found that black faculty are usually shown as being different from their white colleagues even in the way they dress.

For example, nearly 90 per cent of black academics are shown with facial hair, compared with fewer than a third of white males, while two-thirds wear glasses, against less than half of their white counterparts.

Academia is also a hotbed of sexual liaisons between academics and students if Hollywood is to be believed, with one in four films featuring such relationships, almost always between a male tutor and a female student. Other common cliches include breaches of research ethics, including scholars impatiently experimenting on themselves, and faculty members complaining about having to teach.

Dr Harger said he planned to revisit the topic at a later date.

"Will professors be seen as the heroes [in the future], or will they continue to be seen as socially awkward?" he asked.

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