- 'Pale, Male, Stale':The Professor in Children's Literature
In recent months and years, the universities of newspaper headlines have seemed fraught, embattled places. We hear about unequal opportunities for women and ethnic minorities, immigration laws in Britain which bar scholars from their workplaces, and about how new academics need to supply their own financial resources as much as their scholarly qualifications. There is also a clear anti-intellectual swing in political rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic, creating ever greater and more bitter slanging matches as various groups seek to establish the increasingly slippery 'truth' and discredit the 'information' provided by their opponents in the process. The coronavirus pandemic and its catastrophic economic consequences for universities around the world threaten to compound these problems.
Melissa M. Terras's Picture-Book Professors sets out to explore how academia is portrayed in children's literature through an examination of the figure of the professor in children's picture books. This engaging study of a neglected figure in children's fiction is a generous and invaluable introduction, inviting further enquiry. Terras approaches this task with a mixture of close reading and statistical analysis to examine the presentation of professors in a corpus of almost 300 children's picture books published between 1850 and 2014. In order to gather these materials, she undertook extensive database searches, but also made use of more innovative methods, consulting reader-generated reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads, and harnessing her own connections and interactions with readers on social media. A fifth of the works in the corpus were found through reader recommendations.
The result of this analysis is a profile of the typical picture-book professor. It is a predictably conservative and anti-intellectual caricature: the [End Page 396] 'white-haired, old, Caucasian male scientist' (p. 45). Further examination adds that the professor is able-bodied, affluent, and displays exclusively heteronormative behaviour. Half of the picture-book professors focus on STEM subjects, a quarter have no particular affiliation, and the remaining quarter represent all non-STEM professors. Academics are ultimately 'revealed as loners, and intellect as strange and other' (p. 45). Terras sorts the professors into three stereotypes. There is the 'kindly teacher' who often serves as a fictional framing device for educational material and textbooks, the 'baffled, blundering goon', and the 'dangerous, evil madman' (p. 147). Apart from the first group, the friendly framing professors who appear in the margins of textbooks and manuals, the most positive presentation of the academy is humorous and ridiculous, the most negative is suspicious and frightening. The fictional professor represents enduring anti-academic stereotypes, while reflecting some of the worst biases of the real-life academy.
In this respect, Terras finds a corpus of nineteenth-to twenty-first-century children's fiction which follows the path trodden by ridiculous and suspicious professors in fiction and theatre from the early modern period to the present. The 'baffled, blundering goon' is Shakespeare's rambling, verbally incontinent Holofernes; the 'dangerous, evil madman' is Marlowe's overreaching, devil-summoning Doctor Faustus. Suspicion and derision of the academy, and the stereotypical professors who crop up in literature, is sticky. It endures throughout literary history, in works dramatic and fictional, aimed at children and adults alike. It is easy to spot these views in public life, too, as Terras makes clear with the inevitable inclusion of Michael Gove's crystalline soundbite: we've 'had enough of experts' (p. 4). The negative portrayal of the professor in children's fiction is neither a historical nor a contemporary surprise. He is a stereotypical figure of derision and fear.
Terras's comparisons between the corpus's literary academy and the real one in terms of their demographics yield yet more sobering reading. We might try to excuse the picture-book professors as mere mirrors: if the picture they reflect is unpleasant, it is because the real academy...