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Academics: ‘pretentious fox terriers’ or ‘bad dinner guests’?

Written by: John Morgan
Published on: 4 Mar 2021

Research on opinions of academics produces metaphors such as ‘fox terrier’, similar to the dog sitting under an umbrella in a red jacket

Source: Getty

As an academic, would you liken yourself to “the left lane of an Istanbul highway”? Or a “pretentious fox terrier”? Or, on a bad day, “Satan”?

new paper set out to see whether perceptions of academics in Turkey and the UK are “shifting from the well-known ‘ivory tower’ reputation” – using metaphors.

The authors, from Süleyman Demirel University in Isparta, Turkey, and SOAS University of London, asked scholars themselves, students and non-university educated members of the public to fill in the blanks in the statement “An academic is like…because…”

The total sample size across the three groups was 642. Then the authors “eliminated” 341 answers because some respondents really did not grasp the concept of the exercise – or of metaphor in general.

“An academic is like a man sitting at a desk because that is how I imagine them,” answered one excluded UK “layperson”.

Once this chaff had been sorted, metaphors from academics themselves ranged from the broadly sensible (“Swiss Army knife: It does everything from science to bureaucracy, from housework to research”); to the satirical (“A beggar: They are constantly trying to get funding”); to the very geographically specific (“Left lane of Istanbul highways: you want to move forward, but those who do not deserve block your way”).

One Turkish student saw academics as being like “Satan”. But that turned out to be surprisingly flattering: “He likes to push and provoke.”

UK students displayed intense grudges (“Pretentious fox terrier: they avidly hunt down others’ opinions while spouting their own as factual”) as well as impressively acid derision (“Email: hardly anyone reads them”).

Metaphors from the non-university educated public in the UK covered the melancholy (“Four-leaf clover: they were lucky enough to find a job in academia”) and the enraged (“Entitled martyr: they constantly put in a lot of hours for little pay (comparatively), but boy do they make sure everyone knows how hard they’re working and how time poor they are!”). Did some partners of academics take part in the questionnaire?

Melih Sever, lead author of the paper published in Higher Education Research and Development, and lecturer in the social work department at Süleyman Demirel, stressed that the survey was “not representative, merely exploratory”. But he said students in both countries “ascribed mostly negative metaphors to academics, perhaps due to hierarchical relations between them”, and in the UK “often associated academics with privilege”.

“Academics viewed themselves as enquirers in both [countries], but within the UK there was more of an emphasis on the various barriers to funding, promotion and…perceived funding pressure,” Dr Sever added.

The final, chastening words go to the member of the public in the UK who described an academic as like “a bad dinner guest: they are not good at talking about normal things”.