Tenure, the Movie

Hollywood films the ultimate academic story. Will Luke Wilson and David Koechner be credible academics? Will professors find the story believable? Will non-academics care?
March 18, 2008

Higher education has provided plenty of plots for film, with student oriented movies the most likely to pack in audiences. Campus hijinks have always been popular (think "Animal House"). Getting into college featured prominently in "Risky Business" and "Orange County." Faculty stories also get told of course, with many an academic novel having been dramatized. But tales of infidelity, failure, and visions of political correctness tend to dominate -- such as the stories in the films "Wonder Boys," "We Don't Live Here Anymore" or "The Human Stain."

But what about tenure? It's about to have its 15 minutes of Hollywood fame. Blowtorch Entertainment will next month begin filming on "Tenure," which is about a college professor coming up for tenure (Luke Wilson) and facing off against a female rival who recently arrived at (fictional) Grey College. (The part of the institution will be played by Bryn Mawr College, where the movie will be shot.) David Koechner will play the professorial sidekick to the Wilson character, and the production company is planning kickoff events next year to promote the film in college towns.

Brendan McDonald, the producer, said that he viewed academe as "one of the interesting worlds to explore" and said that he viewed the project as "lampooning the tenure process."

Some experts on tenure and/or the artistic portrayal of professors are dubious that the movie can be either true to the realities of academic life, popular with moviegoers, or both. And their analysis reflects thinking about why tenure -- a source of much drama for people in academe -- doesn't tend to be a top story line for the rest of the world.

Addy N., the blogger whose recent promotion made moot the blog title What an Untenured College Professor Shouldn't Be Doing, said via e-mail: "I guess the problem I'll have with the movie is that it will be what Hollywood thinks the process should be like, rather than what really happens. I guess if they told the real story it wouldn't be as entertaining, though. There would be lots of people sitting at computers writing papers and grant proposals." If the producers "make the movie in a way that the masses will enjoy," then "we academics will say 'that's not how it works.' "

Elaine Showalter, a professor emeritus of English at Princeton University, wrote about depictions of academic life in Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents (University of Pennsylvania Press). She said she had a tough time thinking of tenure as a major plot line in film. "Somehow the sturm and drang of university life has not appealed to the entertainment industry," she said. On television, she noted that the character Gary on "Thirtysomething" was denied tenure at the University of Pennsylvania (and was subsequently killed off on the series, itself soon to be killed off). In film, she noted that there is a side plot about tenure in a film by Michael Showalter, her son, called "Wet Hot American Summer."

The film is primarily about a dysfunctional summer camp, but the subplot involves an untenured professor played by David Hyde Pierce, who has a house across the lake from the camp and is worried simultaneously about his tenure bid (life and death to him) and the potential for a piece of falling Skylab to strike the camp (life and death for many). Showalter fils, an adjunct who teaches screenwriting at New York University, said he grew up seeing humor in academe because both of his parents are academics. (His father, English Showalter, teaches French at Rutgers University.)

"I just find the whole world of academia to be funny. It's what I know," said Showalter. "The terminology of things like 'junior faculty' for some reason is funny to me.... I guess I'm always drawn to characters who have a foot in that world because it's what I know and I find it funny because they take themselves so seriously but are of course only human. That's a good equation from humor."

At least one film scholar thinks that the forthcoming tenure film might just do well. Chuck Tryon, who is on the tenure track as an assistant professor of film and media studies at Fayetteville State University and who blogs about film at The Chutry Experiment, said he could see the film succeeding with the indie film crowd and "creative class audiences," whose members include many academics or people who know academics.

"Luke Wilson as a college professor seems believable enough -- he's about the right age and has the appropriate demeanor to pull off the beleaguered professor role," Tryon said. He added, however, that he's not sure about the idea that Wilson will be up against another individual for tenure (as opposed to being judged on his merits) and said he feared the "'anti-feminist backlash stuff" that could be present if the movie ends up being about the "ultra-competent female professor as villain." That's just speculation, he added, so he'll have to wait to see.

The biggest difficulty Tryon envisioned is the reality that for many professors, the intellectual action is in their minds, and not necessarily something that can be filmed in a way that would be "visually interesting." He added that "since my ongoing pursuit of tenure typically involves me sitting in front of my laptop until 1 a.m., I don't know how interesting that would be to watch." Perhaps, he suggested, "a service montage where Wilson is stuck in committee meetings all day. Or, better, a grading montage. Hopefully the film had a nice budget for red ink pens."

While an "honest, unfiltered" look at tenure and academic life (including reliance on the off-the-tenure-track adjunct labor force) would be great, Tryon suggested that academics might lower the bar a bit. "I'm not sure how much I'll expect accuracy out of a Luke Wilson comedy about my profession," he said. "As long as the film is a relatively sympathetic portrayal of the difficulties of going through the tenure process and has a decent indie rock soundtrack, I'll probably buy into it."


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