The most famous of us all are not real. True, scholars such as Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer were once recognized by almost any sector of the American public. In fact, they were so well-recognized that Einstein’s hair and Oppenheimer’s pork pie hat were alone representative of their celebrity.
A theoretical physicist, an astrophysicist, an applied physicist, and an engineer are now arguably as well recognized as the Einsteins and Oppenheimers of days past. The problem is that these men, Sheldon Cooper, Rajesh Koothrappali, Leonard Hofstadter, and Howard Walowitz, are not real. They are, in fact, the stars of CBS’s "The Big Bang Theory. "
Just how popular are the show and its stars? "The Big Bang Theory" begins its seventh season tonight and frequently rode atop Nielsen’s weekly ratings for sitcoms in past years. Beyond sheer volume of viewers, "The Big Bang Theory" has also garnered a wide variety of awards. This year alone, for example, the show was nominated for eight Emmys and took home top honors for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series (Jim Parsons, a.k.a. Sheldon Cooper) and Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series (Bob Newhart, a.k.a. Arthur Jeffries/Professor Proton).
Like a number of current sitcoms, the male protagonists are portrayed as being afflicted by variant strands of perpetual adolescence. If they are not working, they are playing online role games, hanging out at a comic book store, or ingesting successive waves of takeout. Of course, a sitcom must include a subplot of ongoing sexual frustration, and "The Big Bang Theory" does not disappoint. The lone exception is the theoretical physicist who views "coitus" – as he calls it – as a mere distraction from his work.
Given the show’s appeal, what, if anything, does it tell us about the American public’s views of the academic vocation? Speaking on behalf of what the American public thinks is risky, but I fear we all may already know the answer — they find the show humorous because it, in part, correlates to opinions they already hold.
For example, in one of the final episodes from last season, entitled "Tenure Turbulence," a tenured slot comes open in the physics department when a colleague dies. When discussing the possibility, the theoretical physicist with coitus avoidus, Sheldon, claims "a guaranteed job for life only encourages the faculty to become complacent." The astrophysicist, Rajesh, argues "people do their best work when they feel safe and secure." Regardless, they all initially agree whoever among them receives tenure should do so because of his ability to do the work, not because of faculty politics.
Events then spin out of control as each one of them seeks to one-up the other in an arms race of university politics. The target for their outlandish behavior is Mrs. Davies, a member of the human resources office serving on the tenure committee. Leonard risks being placed on a stalker watchlist by making his way into the previously unexplored territory of the wellness center simply to “schmooze” Mrs. Davies while she exercises. Raj sends her a self-made video touting his academic abilities dating back to his early childhood. Not to be outdone, Sheldon provides Mrs. Davies, an African-American, with the DVD box set of "Roots."
Just when you think you have seen it all, the most outlandish behavior comes just prior to the deceased colleague’s funeral. Standing in the hallway, each one of them becomes aware of the depraved lengths the others will go in this political game. Sheldon asks his girlfriend, Amy, to remind him that an appropriate emotional response to a funeral is sadness. Perennially incapable of speaking to women, Raj is left to rely on alcohol to help him be more assertive.
Despite their antics, Mrs. Davies recommends all three candidates for further review as a result of their considerable credentials. In a mere half-hour, however, a number of possible cultural stereotypes of the life of university faculty members are brought to light. One possible stereotype held by the larger public has to do with skepticism over the possibility of someone having access to a job for life. The second has to do with how such a job is earned.
Unfortunately, the best available data confirms the existence of both forms of skepticism. Although somewhat dated but arguably still the most authoritative of its kind, Neil Gross and Solon Simmons conducted a survey of "Americans’ Views of Political Bias in the Academy and Academic Freedom" back in 2006 for the AAUP. A more recent iteration of this line of work is now found in Neil Gross’s Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? (Harvard University Press, 2013).
In general, Gross and Simmons found "Americans are generally supportive of the tenure system.... At the same time, about 80.7 percent think that tenure sometimes protects incompetent faculty, while 57.9 percent believe that giving professors tenure takes away their incentive to work hard." As a result, "only about 17.9 percent of respondents say the tenure system should remain as it is.”
In six-going-on-seven seasons, tenure is but one of the important issues portrayed in episodes of "The Big Bang Theory." Part of the reason why we laugh, though, is the way it mirrors views held by the American public and possibly by even some of us. Tenure and other practices like it are too critical to the work we do to be unquestioningly portrayed in such a manner.
The challenge facing us, those of us who are real, is how our efforts persistently challenge such perceptions. Perhaps one day a sitcom will climb the Nielsen ratings portraying tenure as a practice so revered that it inspires nothing but the highest devotion to teaching, research, and service.