Following Laura and Desiree’s discussion of myths associated with creative writers and English majors, it falls to me to discuss fables about that mythical beast, the English professor. I suppose that it is fitting for me to tackle this topic, since one of these myths involves the spurious authority that simply being English gives you as an English professor. Although there are lots of people in England who aren’t remotely professorial (like soccer hooligans and gameshow hosts), the feeling persists in some circles that the ideal English professor is an English English professor. As a colleague reported to me, an American student in her class complained that it was “unfair” for a visiting British student to be able to take History of British Literature, when she was so clearly at an advantage in the subject because she was British and would thus have an innate understanding of the intricacies of medieval drama and seventeenth-century poetry (the same apparently did not apply to the American students in History of American literature).
It is true that when I think about English professors in the abstract, my first point of reference is Michael Caine in the film Educating Rita. Caine plays Dr Frank Bryant, an English professor who is definitely phoning it in. Having taken on an Open University student to finance his serious drink problem, Bryant is profoundly changed by his encounter with Susan, a hairdresser turned ardent English major (actually, this film is also a touchstone for me when it comes to encounters with hairdressers). Who could forget Susan’s inspired early answer to a set question about the staging difficulties associated with Ibsen’s Peer Gynt?–“Do it on the radio.” Bryant, after training Susan to react and to write as an ideal student of English literature, bemoans the loss of the vibrant, untutored ingénue that she used to be, despising himself and his profession for its particular brand of conventionality. It’s a lovely, Pygmalionesque film about class, gender, and the effect of institutionalization on the study of literature, and it certainly wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for the stereotype of the male, alcoholic, tweed-coat-with-leather-elbows-wearing, profoundly unhappy English professor.
The thinking behind such representations of the English professor seems to be that a lifetime spent largely on your own reading does not fit you for success in interpersonal communication. Years of contemplating love, death, the meaning of life, etc., will only buy you an addictive and self-destructive habit. Chain-smoking, or at least pipe-smoking, used to be a standard facet of the character set for an English-professor, but now not only is smoking banned in offices, but you can’t smoke within twenty feet of a building, and soon you will not be able to smoke on campus at all. In earlier times this would have decimated the intellectual ranks, but now it will barely make a dent in the sushi-eating, yoga-performing professorial phalanx. If the smoking hasn’t already done it, campus-wide smoking bans will finish off the stereotypical chain-smoking professor.
Another attribute of the mythical English professor is excessive facial hair. Within my particular discipline of Anglo-Saxon studies, a beard is so de rigeur that you still feel a little dressed down at conferences without one. Famous beards of the field include Frederick Furnivall’s. Furnivall was the, by all accounts not very good, second editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and founder of the venerable and still pivotal, Early English Text Society. In his spare time he coached a women’s sculling team, and I think you can tell a lot about Furnivall from this photograph of him among the ladies. “Boo-ya!” says his beard, “don’t question my knowledge of multiple dead languages.”
So much for the myth of the hard-drinking, smoking, tweedy, bearded male English professor. Perhaps you could share with us some of your favorite representations of professors, and whether, and in what ways, you find them to be true to life.
— Jackie Stodnik