Pinsker, Sanford Focuses on the popular perception, in film and in print, of academic life inspired by an episode on the television program `Northern Exposure.' Novels and literary works having the academe as subject; Characterization of school life in several motion pictures.
A recent episode of "Northern Exposure," CBS's quirky account of life in Cicely, Alaska (pop. 150), caught my fancy. In it, Chris Stevens, the local disk jockey and resident metaphysician, is on the edge of receiving an M.A. in comparative literature from the University of Alaska. All he need do is defend his thesis--a squirrely, deconstructive reading of "Casey at the Bat" in which Casey is cast as a Nietzschean Ubermensch--and he can, at long last, join the ranks of certified thinkers.
The rub is that the two professors who fly into backwater Cicely have read Chris's elaborate argument about Casey and Cold War politics and come to very different conclusions: the younger professor (slim, hip, altogether with-it) was blown away by the sheer audacity of Chris's project, while the senior professor (pot-bellied and balding) is not amused. What begins as an academic disagreement soon escalates into a shouting match: "Ah . . . the last gasp of the Dead White European Male . . or, as I like to call it, the pale penis people" versus "Anything that smacks of reverence for tradition, or even the support of objective standards, falls prostrate before the almighty god of political correctness." Sound familiar?
What is odd about all this is that the resulting culture war plays itself out on a major network, and during prime time. I kept wondering if PBS, for all the brouhaha about its elitism, would dare run the same episode, with its tough questioning about the "objective correlative" and generous references to the likes of Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. I suspect PBS would not, but CBS, in fact, did. What does this tell us about the ways the popular imagination sees the professoriate?
My hunch is most academics cringe when their foibles get aired in public, and for good reason. What I'm calling "academic exposure" is not particularly good from a public relations perspective. At the same time, academics who do not confuse the serious with the solemn watch such displays knowing full well that the absent-minded professor is as necessary a stereotype as, say, the nutty Viennese psychiatrist or the crazed scientist. In each case, what the popular imagination means to do is pull down vanity, prick the balloon of pretentiousness, and, most of all, demystify the powers such professionals pack.
Thus was it ever. Pedants are always good for a laugh, as Shakespeare knew
full well when he poked fun at Holofernes, the schoolmaster who is the butt
of jokes in Love's Labor's Lost. Closer to home and our own age, one can point
to countless novels that take the groves of academe as their ostensible subject.
John O. Lyon's 1962 study, The College Novel in America, includes a bibliography
in excess of 250 items, ranging from Nathaniel Hawthorne's Fanshawe (1828) to
Riverside Drive (1962); and one could add works such as J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey (1961), Alan Lelchuk's American Mischief (1973), and Brett Easton Ellis's Rules of Attraction (1987). In short, we can give the sub genre its due, but the plain truth is that academic life is nearly incidental to our most memorable American "academic novels": Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe (1952), Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution (1954), Bernard Malamud's A New Life (1961), and Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962). Provide too much realism, too many accounts of themes assigned and graded, of faculty meetings and office
conferences, and the result is a species of sociology--interesting to academics (who relax with yet another chronicle of Eyesore U, in the way that a mass audience gobbles up spy novels or bodice-rippers), but hardly fiction of the first rank. Only British novelists such as Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim, 1978), C.P. Snow (The Masters, 1960), David Lodge (Changing Places, 1975) or Malcolm Bradbury (Rates of Exchange, 1983) seem able to write about academe with the wit and wisdom that the
form requires. And for Lodge, possibly the best of the lot, American academics have proven to be an inexhaustible source of tailor-made material. Indeed, as long as there is a theatrical Stanley Fish, I suspect there will also be a David Lodge novel out to give his persona a much-needed scouring.
For Americans, however, film--rather than the printed page--is the medium of choice when it comes to giving professors the raspberry. Horse Feathers (1932) springs to mind immediately, partly because the loopy president of Huxley College has become an icon, and partly because Groucho Marx is, well, Groucho. I am told that most undergraduates plead ignorance where Horse Feathers is concerned (more's the pity), but which of them has not seen Animal House (1978) and identified, at least vicariously, with the antics of John Belushi? Chalk it up to "generational difference" or what you will, but my own favorite is Back to School (1986), a film that offered Rodney Dangerfield the chance to give academic know-it-alls some very funny reality checks.
How, then, does the popular culture imagine us? Certainly not in ways that flatter and certainly in a manner that could rightly generate cries of "Unfair!" But what if the situation were reversed and the question put this way: How do academics, especially those prone to slip into clotted rhetoric about the "social construction of reality," imagine the world pulsing outside the university's walls? Are their portraits, finally, more insightful, more representative, "fairer"?
In the episode of "Northern Exposure" that generated these ruminations, the climax moves from the stuffy questioning of the seminar room to a ball field, where Chris recites sections of "Casey at the Bat" as he literally strikes out his postmodernist mentor. What Chris learns--and teaches the younger professor--is that "Casey at the Bat" is about "that feeling, that . . . in your gut thing." My sense of vindication was delicious (after all, I identified with the older, more traditional chap), but I soon recovered. What if, say, my dentist had seen the show and put the question to me between fillings: "Are university types really that silly?"
I'm told that "Northern Exposure" is on the skids, yet another example of a television show that began as cute and then quickly became predictable, which is to say, boring. What, then, did its writer (Sam Egan) or the producers have to lose? They clearly had fun poking academic feet into the fire and probably extracted a small measure of revenge in the bargain. After all, insider talk of the sort "Northern Exposure" provided does not come easily from the library alone; one has to have endured any number of pretentious seminars in contemporary literature theory to get the essential rhythms right. And if a little old lady in Dubuque just didn't get it, no matter. Education of a sort was going on, and what we in the academy got was an object lesson in how being exposed publicly can be as funny as it is painful.
By Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is the executive editor of Academic Questions and Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College. Please address correspondence to Academic Questions, 575 Ewing Street, Princeton, NJ 08540-2741.
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