Negative portrayals of academics and higher education in popular culture are increasingly debated by researchers. But how damaging are they to universities and their mission in reality?
This is the question posed by Pauline Reynolds, associate professor of higher education at the University of Redlands and the co-editor of a new book titled Anti-intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities: Fictional Higher Education. Her own recent research focuses on how universities are portrayed in comic books. Co-editor Barbara Tobolowsky, an associate professor in the educational leadership and policy studies department at the University of Texas at Arlington, has written about professors in prime-time television series. Other contributors look at the image of universities that emerge from comic novels and video games, and stereotypes about faculty, and about black and female students, in the cinema.
Examples of the material they bring together include a game where “history professor Lee Everett seeks to survive a zombie outbreak and protect Clementine, a young girl who he rescued”; a novel where “an underachieving professor of English” finds his “nose fish-hooked by a colleague’s spiral notebook”; a horror film where “a killer dressed as the mascot stalks college cheerleaders”; and even a film where “two low-income black students…perform extremely well on their college entrance exams after smoking marijuana fertilised with the ashes of their dead friend, Ivory, who as a ghost gives them all of the correct answers to the test questions”.
The book claims to be the first “comprehensive, detailed analysis of the higher education depiction across media and over time”. But despite the range and variety of colourful material, Dr Reynolds believes its core messages are sufficiently unified to help explain “public scepticism about higher education and faculty. The public seems to see [American] academics as freeloaders, thanks to the protection of tenure, and not teaching anything worthwhile to young people.”
The representations surveyed in the book, she continued, also “send messages about who can be a student, where they can be a student and how to be a student – if most of the students are white, and middle class or wealthy, that sends a message to people who don’t fall into those groups…If there are hardly any representations of students engaged intellectually, that has implications for how people perform being a student.
"In films or TV shows meant to be set in a college, you never even see a book. Particularly if nobody in their family has been to college, students get a misperception of what it means to be a student. You do actually have to work a lot.”
It may even be, Dr Reynolds reflected, that images of universities in popular culture have a deeper impact on some of the problems in American society today.
“If we have persistent cross-media anti-intellectual portrayals of higher education and the people in it,” she suggested, “that leads to the public at large not valuing scholarly activities, research, science and evidence – and that leaves us with climate change sceptics and ‘alternative facts’.”
Anti-intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities: Fictional Higher Education, edited by Barbara Tobolowsky and Pauline Reynolds, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.