What I learned about academics from novels

According to a recent poll the most desirable jobs in Britain are: author, librarian and academic. This might come as a surprise to those actually exercising the professions (the grass is always greenerai??i??). It also raises the question of what outsiders find so fascinating about these three professions.

The one obvious aspect the three have in common is that they all involve engaging with the written word. Citizens of the neo-liberal academia will probably burst out with bitter laughter at this point ai??i?? between teaching, admin and various meetings one hardly finds time to write, let alone read! Where does this idealised vision of academic activity ai??i?? the life of the mind, etc., etc. ai??i?? come from anyway? Given the pollai??i??s respondents fascination with books, the answer is quite obvious: it comes from novels!

Who knows what else those writers (lucky buggers!) are saying about us academics? I decided to do an ad-hoc ai???literature reviewai??i?? and this is what I found outai??i??

1. Academics are socially awkward (if not sociopaths!)

Forget about the hyper-networked, student-friendly, social-media-savvy academic. In literature scientists are mainly introverted weirdos. Take for example Don ai??i?? protagonist of Simsionai??i??s ai???Rosie Projectai??i?? ai??i?? who is able to deliver a lecture on autism without noticing he himself is on the spectrum. This results in his awkward behaviour and unusual vocabulary choices such as ai???correctai??i?? and ai???affirmativeai??i?? as synonyms of ai???yesai??i??. All of this might have something to do with his difficulties in finding a partner ai??i?? an issue which Don labels ai???The Wife Problemai??i?? and attempts to solve it scientifically.

Carkeetai??i??s ai???Double negativeai??i?? is set in a crA?che which doubles as a laboratory for linguistic research on toddlers, offering the reader a whole gallery of strange academics who spend most of their time napping on their desks, going around seducing teachers (see also point 2), and occasionally dispose of their academic colleagues in the least delicate of ways.

But researchers ai??i?? including linguists for that matter ai??i?? can also be involved in genuinely life-saving activities. Take Dr Voss from Littellai??i??s ai???Kindly onesai??i?? who vehemently (and successfully) argues against the Nazi extermination of a tribe known as ai???Mountain Jewsai??i??. No, morals have nothing to do with it, he just finds the idea of ai???Jewish raceai??i?? unscientific and thus unacceptable. In Zadie Smithai??i??s ai???White Teethai??i??, when the son of a geneticist is held hostage in order to stop the scientistai??i??s experiment on Future MouseAi??, the boy seriously doubts whether his father will halt the procedure to save his own offspringai??i??s life. Conclusion: Scientists care about humanity. Not about humans.

Reading for pleasure?

2. Male professors are sex-crazed & females are hard-core feminists

A researcher in the field of French theory once confided in me that he dreads getting books for Christmas. Due to his interests, everyone thinks a French novel set in academia will hit the jackpot. Unfortunately ai??i?? and very uncomfortably for the researcher in question ai??i?? in almost every French novel he is offered, the main character ai??i?? a male professor ai??i?? is in a relationship with a student. After reading the same story yet another time, my friend started wondering what exactly did those offering the presents want to get across? I comforted him that it was not at all about him. The womaniser-professor is just such a ubiquitous theme in French literature, that thereai??i??s no getting away from it. After all ai??i?? if you will allow me to cite a recent French campus novel ai???Un homme effacAi??ai??i?? ai??i?? ai???la relation pAi??dagogique est une relation de nature Ai??rotiqueai???. For a recent example of the creepy professor figure check out Houellebecqai??i??s (in)famous ai???Submissionai??i??. But this leitmotiv is not limited to just French literature ai??i?? think of J.M. Coetzeeai??i??s ai???Disgraceai??i?? ai??i?? the title of which refers to the protagonistai??i??s abuse of a student.

But even if student-professor relationships remain decent and professional, research institutions seem cradles of lust. Gene, one of the protagonists of the ai???Rosie Projectai??i?? is on a mission to sleep with a woman of each and every nationality ai??i?? a quest facilitated by the international academic environment of his campus and serving a supposed ai???scientific purposeai??i??.

Similarly, dr. Cook, the main character of ai???Double negativeai??i?? seems to have two passions: research andai??i?? well, you know. He perceives reality through these two prisms, thus describing one of his colleagues: ai???excellent linguist and formidable sexual rivalai???.

Given this conduct of male academics, it is hardly surprising that female researchers have in turn developed strong feminist views. This is the case for Rosie, who will be entangled in Donai??i??s ai???Wife projectai??i??, and Robyn, the protagonist of David Lodgeai??i??s classic ai???Nice workai???, as well as Paula ai??i?? the main object of dr. Cookai??i??s (ai???Double Negativeai??i??) interest. But this is no all ai??i?? there are at least two detective series in which the sleuth is a feminist professor ai??i?? Joanne Dobsonai??i??s Karen Peletier series (with great titles like ai???Death Without Tenureai??i??) and Joan Smithai??i??s Loretta Lawson series (see ai???A Masculine Endingai??i??).

3. Research: a bumpy path fraught with difficulties.

ai??zItai??i??s nice work. Itai??i??s meaningful. Itai??i??s rewardingai??? says Robyn about her own profession, having observed the daily toil of factory workers. And yet academic work, more often than not, is portrayed as an extremely challenging path ai??i?? in terms of job security (ai???Nice Workai??i??, ai???Death Without Tenureai??i??), managing social and class relations (ai???Struggles of Albert Woodsai??i?? by William Cooper) and perhaps most worryingly ai??i?? mental health.

The way in which conducting research affects oneai??i??s private life and overall mental stability seems to be an object of novelistai??i??s fascination. In ai???The Story of Your Lifeai??i?? by Ted Chiang deciphering the language of extra-terrestrials has serious consequences for how a linguist perceives the decisions in her own life. In another alien-centric work, Lemai??i??s ai???Solarisai??i??, conducting research leads a group of scientists to madness. Finally, one of the characters of ai???Euphoriaai??i?? is driven to mad rage after losing an object which would have changed his entire discipline (allowing him to finally publish that monograph) ai??i??

The discreet charm of academia

The image of an academic which emerges out of this quick and dirty lit review is not at all heartening ai??i?? an individual who is weird, obsessive, given to fits of lust and madness. In fact, it can make you wonder why anyone familiar with campus literature would actually consider an academic career ai??i?? maybe apart from being a tough feminist professor detective ai??i?? that one does sound pretty cool.

And yet, in moments of academic exhaustion, I turn to literature for motivation and to remind me of what is so wondrous about academic life. For though research ai???is a big invisible knot to untangleai??? it also brings along moments of ai???briefest, purest euphoriaai??? (ai???Euphoriaai??i??).

Author: Marta Natalia WrA?blewska (@martawrob).

References (aka reading list)Ai??

  • Simsion Graeme (2013), The Rosie Project: A novel, Simon & Schuster
  • Carkeet David (1980), Double Negative, Doubleday Books
  • Littell Jonathan (2009), Kindly Ones, Harper
  • Smith Zadie (2001), White Teeth, Vintage
  • Postel Alexandre (2013), Un homme effacAi??, Gallimard
  • Houellebecq Michel (2015), Submission, William Heinemann
  • Coetzee J.M (2000), Disgrace, Penguin Books
  • King Lily (2014), Euphoria, Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Lodge David (1980), Nice Work, Penguin
  • Joanne Dobson (2010), Death without tenure, Poisoned Pen Press
  • Smith Joan (1989), A Masculine Ending, Fawcett
  • Cooper William (1966), Struggles of Albert Woods, Penguin
  • Chiang Ted (2010), The Story of Your Life and Others, Vintage
  • Lem Stanislaw, (1987) Solaris, Mariner Books

Text first published in Warwick PhD Life blog

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