Further further adventures in myth-busting

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.Furnivall “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


  1. Before addressing the myth of the English professor, there are some real differences I experienced in grad school here and at the University of Leicester. While abroad: 1. Faculty went on strike one day in protest for higher wages, which closed down the entire university 2. Graduates prepare tea-time for the seminar break, rather than everyone rushing out (to smoke?). 3. One professor adds Saturday classes to be held in her office if not enough material is covered 4. The U of L has a Paternoster, an “elevator” in constant motion without doors in which people hop in and out.

    My favorite book on the myths of English professors is David Lodge’s Trading Places. For a scholar exchange program, Morris Zapp from Euphoric State University (US)and Philip Swallow from the University of Rummidge (UK) experience the 1960s on the other side of the Atlantic. (At one point, Swallow entertains at a faculty dinner: he has everyone play a game in which they state what they have not read. A Shakespeare scholar fesses up to not having read what turns out to be the faculty’s highest esteemed text for that field. He later does not get tenure because of this gap in his reading).

    I teach TP in Transatlantic Literature. The novels in this course express myths between the US and UK when characters encounter the other side of the pond.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. You get at something very amusing and rather benign in English literary studies in the U.S., at least in comparison to what occurs with the study of literatures in Spanish in the U.S., especially in environments where there are many Latinos. The issue of native authority is racialized in Spanish, and students commonly expect their professors to be “natives” of Mexico or South America or Spain. It is natural, to a certain degree, that students should feel alienated or at least confused when confronted with an outsider who claims to speak to their identity and culture. One way of dealing, as a faculty member, is obsessing over one’s command of Spanish, since that linguistic ability becomes an index of one’s ability to gain acceptance.

  3. See Dennis Quaid in film “Smart People.” Bearded, pontificating and depressed, but rescued by love of former student Sarah Jessica Parker:)

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