From Indiana Jones to Minerva McGonagall, Professors See Themselves in Fiction

June 09, 2017

Murray Close, Getty Images
Professors surveyed about their favorite fictional faculty members mentioned various literary examples. But the most popular choice by far was Indiana Jones, the Nazi-punching archaeologist.

He wields a whip and hates Nazis. He’s scholarly, handsome, resourceful, charismatic, and courageous. He is dedicated to open knowledge and the truth. But most important, he runs the best field trips, he hates office hours, and he’s found a way to fund his research without writing grants.

These are the reasons some academics like Indiana Jones, according to an informal survey conducted by The Chronicle of readers’ favorite professors in fiction, movies, and TV shows.

Jones puts his love for family and friends and general love for humanity over cold intellect and ambition, says William Purdy, a lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles. "One of the hard knocks against academics is we’re in an ivory tower and not in touch with the world. He’s a straight response to that criticism."

The answers The Chronicle received run the gamut, including Lila Maclean in the mystery book The Semester of Our Discontent and Roy Hinkley, "the Professor" on the TV series Gilligan’s Island. But by far the most popular was Indiana Jones, followed closely by Charles Kingsfield from the novel (and subsequent film) The Paper Chase and Minerva McGonagall from the Harry Potter series.

One reader described Kingsfield, a Harvard Law professor, as a "demanding, but brilliant, curmudgeon" who employs an authoritarian style of teaching. Another reader wrote that Kingsfield is not a "mediocre grade-inflating hack." Rather, he is "principled with impeccable integrity" and "represents an older, more honest tradition of excellence in the profession."

But Ralph Keen, dean of the honors college at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Professor Kingsfield’s teaching style is not a personal ideal of his. "He’s very direct, very crisp, he’s authoritarian, and he expects the correct answer and doesn’t tolerate any stupidity."

Mr. Keen recalls a scene where Kingsfield lectures the class: "You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer." Mr. Keen said he admires that attitude, but has found that a discussion-based style of teaching has worked better for him, as a scholar of religious studies and history. "I give questions that get students thinking, and helps them work through their ideas and interpretations of the facts," he said. "It requires me to be a lot more tolerant of what Professor Kingsfield would have called ‘mush.’ In my field, it’s only by sorting through the mush that you get anything solid," he added.

Fostering ‘Autonomy and Agency’

Each character’s pedagogy has its appeal: The teaching style of John Keating (a prep-school teacher, not a professor), from the film Dead Poets Society, is decidedly nontraditional. He encourages his students "to think outside of the conventional box," wrote Janice Hamlet, an associate professor of rhetoric and public communication at Northern Illinois University.

Katherine Ann Watson, a graduate student who secures a low-level teaching position at Wellesley in the film Mona Lisa Smile, is encouraging and refuses to let her students sell themselves short, writes Alison Howard, chair of political science and international studies at the Dominican University of California. Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series "focuses on problem-based learning and experiential education," and his method fosters "autonomy and agency" in his students, another respondent writes.

To Mary Dockray-Miller, a professor of English at Lesley University, Minerva McGonagall, another Hogwarts professor, embodies what most educators aspire to be: "She’s very rigorous but also caring, and she manages to do both of those simultaneously."

"And she has an amazing plaid hat she wears to quidditch games that I’d love to have," Ms. Dockray-Miller added.

There’s a moment in the fifth Harry Potter book where Professor McGonagall consoles Sybill Trelawney, another teacher who’s just been unfairly fired. Ms. Dockray-Miller said this scene gives a sense of faculty solidarity in the face of sometimes "bad" administrators.

"She doesn’t stand for any of that malarkey," agreed Rachel Johnson, an editor at Boston University.

For some, what the fictional character represents stands out as much as his or her teaching style. One reader who directs an academic-advising office pointed to a scene when Professor McGonagall conducts a career-advising session with Ron and Harry, which he wrote is refreshing to see portrayed in a young-adult book.

Kathleen Staudt, a political-science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, has assigned The Handmaid’s Tale in her class "Women, Power and Politics," and she draws her students’ attention to a section at the end that depicts an academic conference where the main character’s diary is discussed as an archival document.

James Darcy Pieixoto, a professor who presents at that conference, is Ms. Staudt’s favorite fictional professor because he represents how important it is for people to document what’s happening around them for collective memory, she says. "I’m sort of near the end of my career, and there are moments when I feel a little bit sour about academic publishing and about how few people read articles buried in journals." Even so, the fact that Offred’s diary survives for a presentation at an academic conference many years later, she says, "illustrates why content like diaries and any primary documents are so important to keep."

‘Old White Men With Hair That Sticks Out’

Faculty members are overwhelmingly portrayed as white heterosexual males, said Christian Anderson, who teaches a class on popular culture in higher education at the University of South Carolina. While real-life academe is still skewed in that direction, he added, it is still much more diverse than popular media would suggest.

Melissa Terras, a professor of digital humanities at University College London, has been collecting representations of professors in illustrated children’s fiction for four years. It began as a hobby, but turned into a book contract. She too, notes that there’s a specific trope: "old white men with hair that sticks out like Einstein."

Of the 283 professor characters she’s collected, 26 are women, and only two are people of color. One of her favorites is Professor Blabbermouth, who, in the first page of the book Professor Blabbermouth on the Moon, is described as "bright as buttons" with "enough university degrees to paper her toilet walls."

For Mr. Anderson, Straight Man is the gold standard for humorous academic novels: It stars William Henry Devereaux Jr., a reluctant interim department chair. In older depictions of higher education, created when a much smaller percentage of the country attended college, there is less assumed knowledge about what college is like and the humor isn’t as fleshed out, Mr. Anderson says. But newer ones like Straight Man allow much more space for humor.

Professor Devereaux speaks truth to power and creatively defends needs of students and faculty, another reader wrote, "refusing to make a hit list for firing faculty and threatening to kill a duck a day until he gets his budget!"

But while Professor Devereaux might be a more complete representation of a real-life professor, saddled with duties like trimming budgets and administrative drudgery, Indiana Jones leads a much more adventurous life. As one reader put it: "How many professors really get to run around with a whip and save the world from Nazis?"

Editor’s note: The Chronicle is well aware that Minerva McGonagall is not really a professor, as her institution, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is not a college. But because Hogwarts confers the terminal degree in magic, Chronicle editors judged that she was eligible for inclusion.