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The professor as a pretender

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 12 December 2014


The perceptions of what a professor is thought to be tends to be wrapped up in the narratives of public images around certain 'pop' individuals who have developed through history and fiction.

Take for example when someone uses the term "Einstein". The term "Einstein" is now a persona meaning someone who is brilliant, a brilliance almost untouchable for the 'average man in the street'. It also allures to that person having a sense of pragmatism in solving 'unsolvable' problems.

The "professor" played by Russell Johnson in the long running TV series Gilligan's Island, showed a professor as a technically competent man, although socially awkward around others. In the series, the professor could invent all sorts of marvelous inventions that made life on the island easier, However, he could not build the one thing all the castaways wanted. Weird Al Yankovic in his parody song Isle Thing pointed out that "he (The professor) couldn't even build a lousy raft". One of the ironies about the professor in Gilligan's Island, is that he wasn't a university professor as most thought, but a high school science teacher and scoutmaster.

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There have been numerous other fictional professors over the years portraying traits that people associate with the 'professorial institution'. Some examples of these are absent-mindedness (Professor Ned Brainard - The Absent Minded Professor), vigilant (Professor Michael Faraday - Arlington Road), Nerdy, unkept, introverted, and accident prone (Professor Julius Kelp - The Nutty Professor), imperious, respected, and even feared (Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr - The Paper Chase), and cowardlyvillain (Dr. Zachery Smith - Lost in Space) .

Through the above personic metaphors, professors are seen in society as both a good and bad influence.

So what does the institution of 'professorial' position constitute today? Do the professors fulfill public perceptions, or are they pretenders?

Professors preach to both their students and the world from sheltered 'ivory towers' that in many cases are bastions of 'old school tie' cliques. This environment, it could be argued, disconnects them from the rest of the world.

Statistics show that very little university research ever becomes commercialized, and thus new innovative intellectual property generated has little social or enterprise value. Many pieces of research end up being solutions that seek a problem. The comfort zone many university professors exist within blind them to potential opportunities.

Some of the most compelling evidence is the failure of so many complacent academics to see the gravity of the 2008 financial crisis. This led Queen Elizabeth to ask the question of economists on her visit to the London School of Economics. Professor Tim Besley replied on behalf of LSE and admitted that the economic fraternity "lacked any collective imagination" to see the extent of what was coming.

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Nouvelle persona of academics see the entrée of celebrity academics or 'super professors' as coined by Richard miles, who are media savvy and public personalities in areas adjunct or even totally unrelated to their discipline. One recent article in the Australian websiteThe Conversation suggests that professors are poor communicators in their disciplines, and the advent of these celebrity super professors are a very positive trend in changing academia.

So let's make a few observations about this crisis in professorial leadership of the academic world.

1. Professors appear to become tenured more through who they know rather than what they know. Academia is closed and cliquey, protecting itself from outsiders who are not of similar background. University boards and Senates make rules about who can become one of the professorial clergy, and it won't be anybody who doesn't fit the script.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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