‘Fictional Higher Education’

Editors discuss their new essay collection on the portrayal of colleges, students and academics -- across genres and eras.

February 10, 2017

Think about fictional portrayals of higher education, and the work of David Lodge or Jane Smiley or Randall Jarrell might come to mind.

But fiction about American higher education goes back quite a bit further. Fanshawe, an 1828 work by Nathaniel Hawthorne, may be the earliest example. The novel features the president of Harley College (a fictional institution likely based on Hawthorne’s alma mater, Bowdoin College). These days, fictional portrayals of higher education are not just in novels or films but in video games, comic books and more. Throughout, American higher education has frequently been mocked, and the images of academics have contributed to anti-intellectualism, according to a new book.

Anti-Intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities: Fictional Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan) includes essays on a range of genres, issues and periods. The editors are Barbara F. Tobolowsky, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Pauline J. Reynolds, associate professor of higher education in the Graduate Department of Leadership and Counseling at the University of Redlands. They responded via email to questions, sometimes answering together and sometimes offering individual reflections (indicated in the answers that follow by their initials).

Q: Much previous analysis of fictional portrayals of higher education has been about novels or films. Your collection includes comic books and video games. Why did you cast a wider net?

BT: Our impetus for the scope of this book is based on two assumptions. First, that society, in general, seems to hold anti-intellectual beliefs. And, second, that media reflects and informs the public’s worldview. We thought it was important to test these assumptions, so we invited authors to investigate the representation of higher education in a wide range of media. If each medium portrayed higher education in similar terms, it might help explain why these beliefs are so pervasive.

PR: Also, representations of higher education do occur across media more broadly so we wanted to make sure that the book itself represented the multiplicity and breadth of this messaging. Comic books and video games, as older and newer media respectively, may reach differing audiences, and we think it’s important to examine the ubiquity of higher education depictions across forms.

Q: As you look at various genres, are there some that are more accurate and others less accurate when it comes to portraying higher education?

BT: I wouldn’t say that any genre is more “truthful.” The more two-dimensional the portrayal, the less accurate it becomes regardless of the medium. In fact, there are elements of truth in all of them. Stereotypes always contain a bit of truth, which is why they persist.

PR: Naturally, though, intended audience and the experience/identity of creators influence the portrayal of academia or college life. So a novel written by a faculty member will probably differ in narrative focus from a comic book written by a college graduate.

Q: Much of American society (outside of the genres you discuss) is arguably anti-intellectual. Do you think the fictional portrayals reflect that anti-intellectualism or are part of the reason for it?

BT/PR: Both.

BT: Gabriel Weimann in Communicating Unreality (2000) explored the concept of “cultivation,” which argues that repeated and consistent depictions over time both reflect and inform public views. The thinking is that people pay attention to (watch/read) what they like and agree with. So, it is likely that popular entertainments reflect the views of the audience to some extent. When these views are expressed over time and in a range of media, they become impossible for all viewers/players/readers to avoid even if some members of the audience have yet to form an opinion. This makes the representations very powerful -- and instructive.

Q: The television show Community was originally a subject of concern for many community college leaders, but some of them came to embrace it. Can popular culture change attitudes about parts of higher education (such as community colleges) that are frequently ignored by the mainstream press?

BT: Cultivation theory is based on the idea that the more someone watches a police procedural television show, for instance, the more that viewer integrates the ideas conveyed in the series to their own understanding of the world. There has been a body of research that connects popular culture with attitudes and behaviors. Pauline and I and the other authors believe this is equally true about the higher education depiction. For instance, television has been credited with affecting students’ major choice. One recent example of this is how the success of the CSI franchise has led to an uptick in students majoring in criminology and criminal justice. However, it isn’t a new phenomenon. In the past, the applications to law school increased during the heyday of L.A. Law. We contend that if there are positive depictions of college life, students, institutional types, majors, Greek life and academics, this can affect not only individual behaviors, but the state support of our public institutions as well.

Q: In recent portrayals of higher education (and of faculty members in particular) are there one or two that were particularly damaging? One or two that may have been closer to the truth and helped people understand higher education?

BT: Our work did not look at the effects of these images. However, the prevalence of these negative views may contribute to recent challenges to higher education such as debates regarding the purpose of higher education (public good or private benefit), the cost of higher education, tenure and so forth. Specifically, Felicity did a good job in the first season dealing with real college issues such as the transition to college and financial aid. However, there are very few examples among all the media that promote positive images of intellectual work. A few of the video games and comic books did value scholarship, but this was not a consistent message in even these media.

Q: If you could pitch a television network or film producer on a fictional higher ed story that might do some good, what plot would you propose?

PR: I’d pitch a show or movie that depicted diverse representations of faculty and students. There are far, far too few representations of people of color and women as faculty. And as students, racially diverse cast members are more often relegated to the role of best friend or supporting cast member unless they are part of an ensemble cast such as Community. I’m really looking forward to seeing how new BET show The Quad represents an HBCU, its students, faculty, admin and staff.

BT: I think any film or television series that didn’t rely on stereotypes would go a long way to change the narrative. If faculty were focused not just on getting tenure at the expense of students; if students and faculty valued learning; if students would not be measured by their looks and social connections at the expense of their minds, then these depictions would benefit the public in terms of their view of higher education and society, in general. However, as cultivation theory states, it will take many stories over time to truly have an effect.


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