Literatura ficción sobre congresos académicos y sus participantes
Agosto 17, 2022

Academic conferences receive a bad rap in fiction – Study

Professors, especially male professors, are represented as decadent, conniving, prone to infighting and sexist, according to ‘The Symbolic Power of Academic Conferences in Fictional Texts’, a new project that studies how academics are portrayed in popular culture.

“Our study found that fictional conferences are full of power-hungry men academics – and when women are present at the conferences, they are often placed in subservient positions and portrayed as objects of desire,” according to the researchers.

Indeed, in A Whistling Woman, published in 2003, the seduction attempt begins even before the conference starts, when a senior male professor creepily wraps his arms around a junior woman researcher and invites her to join him at the conference.

Fictional conferences are used to show the worst of academics, men, in particular, says Emily F Henderson, reader in gender and international higher education in the department of education studies at the University of Warwick and one of the lead researchers on the project.

Elitist, useless and boring

According to Henderson and her co-author Professor Pauline J Reynolds from the department of leadership and higher education, University of Redlands (Redlands, California), academic conferences are used in fiction as a trope that corresponds to and, therefore, ends up supporting the popular perception that conferences and their participants are elitist, useless and boring.

Further, in the 23 texts they read for specific excerpts about conferences – the oldest being Mary McCarthy’s classic campus novel The Groves of Academe published in 1952 and the newest being Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom published last year – academic conferences are depicted as a special time or place where ‘bad boy behaviour’, including sexual misconduct by white male professors, is to be expected.

“Fictional conferences are used to show men academics absconding from family and workplace duties, trailing their women partners behind them or having a string of affairs. They are shown to drunkenly bore their women colleagues with egotistical chatter or, at a more extreme end, to pursue women academics aggressively and competitively,” says Henderson.

The absence of transgender or non-binary characters from even the most recent novels where they might be expected to appear and the very few gay or lesbian characters are some of the most striking findings. Especially in North America, where most of the novels and short stories Henderson and Reynolds studied are set, academe is one of the sectors of Western society that is most open to individuals who are not white, cisgender heterosexuals.

Yet, even in recent novels, straight males are the default model for the characters. Moreover, though identifying race and ethnicity of fictional academics attending conferences is tricky due to the telling lack of marking of these attributes in texts, the vast majority of characters also appear to be white, says Henderson.

Protecting privilege

No novel or story features a character as beloved as Jerry Lewis’ Julius Kelp in the 1963 film, The Nutty Professor or of a professor doggedly searching for truth.

Rather, Henderson and Reynolds write in “Mobile, hierarchical, normative decadent and conflict prone: understanding academe through fictional conferences”, published online last June by, professors protect their privilege by “behav[ing] as they wish and engaging in professional gatekeeping and hierarchy maintenance”.

Methods vary. In The Groves of Academe, organisers rigged the conference: “A certain elderly poet is going to be asked here to be attacked by his juniors and by certain members of our faculty.”

In 2011, Deborah Harkness more or less flipped the script in which attending a conference is a mark of prestige in A Discovery of Witches, Henderson and Reynolds note, with reference to one scientist whose absence from an academic conference is taken by attendees as a sign “he’s discovered something big”.

Yearly gatherings like the United States-based Modern Language Association’s (MLA) conference in December are attended by thousands of professors and graduate students.

For those professors with term appointments coming to an end and graduate students looking for first jobs, networking and handing out CVs are as important as the concurrent sessions on Melville, Shakespeare or the poetry of Bob Dylan. And, to be honest, like any industry convention, the MLA conference is a time of prestige when academics let their hair down, so to speak.

What Henderson and Reynolds dub “bad boy behaviour” dominates the fictional portrayals of conferences, which, they note, stand in for negative attributes of academics – such as absenteeism from mundane academic duties.

In one novel they discuss, a professor visiting a department asks about another professor only to be told he is in Hungary, which prompts the rhetorical question, “At a conference?” In another novel they study, On Beauty (2005), the professor’s wife knows all about how professors turn what Henderson and Reynolds term the “privileged mobility” of their profession to their own desires.

When he cannot find a phone number, his wife tells him to look “in the diary, the diary that was left in Michigan, during the famous conference when you had more important things on your mind than your wife and family”. Ironically, Henderson and Reynolds tell us, the story of his assignation in Michigan was, actually, a lie – told to cover up a three-week affair he’d actually had.

“Fictional representations of conferences tear back the curtain of the ivory tower and show academics in a decadent, power-hungry realm,” Henderson told University World News. “In doing so, ideas of who is welcome and not welcome within the academic profession are formed for the readers of these stories.”

Women’s imagined experiences

Despite the fact that, by 2014, the year Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members was published, in most fields women made up at least 50% of graduate students and a large percentage of new hires, in the world of academe Schumacher depicts, Henderson and Reynolds note that male professors use their privilege to further it in front of a small audience: the female academics who hear him ridiculing them for networking and handing out CVs.

Henderson and Reynolds also point to a novel Joyce Carol Oates published two years before Schumacher’s. Oates wrote of a woman vice-president of a university who so doubted her keynote address, she called her lover to ask him “Should I? Dare I? Or is it a mistake?” to deliver what she now thought was “too emotional” an address to an audience of female and male professors.

Tiphaine Rivière’s graphic novel Notes on a Thesis published in English in 2015 is, Henderson and Reynolds believe, to be admired for using “compelling full-page panels that represent her conference experience with a breathless, anxious swimming metaphor, complete with disjointed, bulging-eyed gasps for breath”.

But, as they make clear, even as this technique is one of the more successful examples of pulling readers into the emotional world of academic conference-goers, it is at the same time a paradigmatic manifestation of women’s imagined experiences at academic conferences.

In other words, Rivière is depicting a full-blown panic attack, one experienced by a female graduate student and, hence, one that is almost a cliché of her gender.

In contrast to such anxiety, Henderson and Reynolds write in “Gender and the symbolic power of academic conferences in fictional texts”, published in Higher Education Research and Development last May, male “academics boast about their attendance and performances at conferences with bravado”.

One, in a novel published in 1995, described, they add, “his triumphal progress” through summer conferences.

The charge made by right-wing commentators like Professor Jordan Peterson that universities have long been captured by what they derisively call “the woke” is, as Henderson and Reynolds show, hardly the case.

According to Henderson, “Even in the most recent works of fiction in our study, women academics are often portrayed as helpmates to senior men academics – writing their papers and preparing slides for them. This gives the impression that women in academia are there to serve men – again, not an inviting prospect.”

The challenge for authors

When I asked Henderson whether at least some of what she and Reynolds found about conflict, double dealing and back-stabbing was attributable to the fact that literature requires an antagonist who is adept at all of these, she said: “These were, of course, fictional representations of academics at conferences, and we were exploring how conferences are used as a shorthand to showcase academic inequalities,” she said.

“We were seeking to find how fictional conferences are used to teach readers about where the power in academia lies. The majority of the texts we examined would not encourage any young person, let alone a woman, to consider the academic profession.

“In this sense, they contribute to the reproduction of anti-intellectual ideas in the public domain. This is a challenge for authors – to represent reality, paint caricatures of academia that make it look worse than it is, or to write about an academia that envisions transformation?”


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