Professors Are Nerds. Or So Your iPhone Would Have You Believe.

September 16, 2016

Not sure which emoji to associate with "professor"? Apple has a hint for you: Try "nerd face."
IPhone-wielding academics who downloaded Apple’s latest software update, iOS 10, may have found the nerd stereotype to be alive and well — through text suggestions.

When a user is texting and types in "professor," the software suggests the "nerd face" emoji, a yellow smiley face with buck teeth and black wide-frame glasses.

The nerd stereotype is one that many academics are all too familiar with. And while some scholars interviewed by The Chronicle laughed off the association, others said the association is emblematic of some larger issues concerning how the professoriate is portrayed.

According to Brent J. Hecht, an assistant professor of communication studies and computer science at Northwestern University who has researched emoji, this is the first time Apple has introduced emoji suggestions in text. And he predicted that the change will last.

To match words with suggested emoji, Mr. Hecht said, Apple probably studies how often certain emoji appeared with different words, or calculates the semantic definition of an emoji’s name with potentially associated words. The emoji’s semantic definition — its name — is "nerd face."

Apple did not return a request for comment on Thursday.

Developing emoji suggestions for specific words is not a perfect practice, as research shows that an emoji’s meaning is in the eye of the beholder, Mr. Hecht said.

The character, with its buck teeth and glasses, "hooks into assumptions about the professoriate that are problematic," says Pauline J. Reynolds, an associate professor of leadership and counseling at the U. of Redlands.
Emoji are supposed to emote, or convey a type of feeling, and, to put it simply, the nerd-face emoji is either amusing or negative, said Pauline J. Reynolds, an associate professor of leadership and counseling who studies higher education in popular culture at the University of Redlands.

When she saw the nerd-face emoji, Ms. Reynolds said, she instantly thought of the Jerry Lewis character in the 1963 comedy The Nutty Professor.

"This being sort of the chosen iOS representation, what pops up," Ms. Reynolds said, "it hooks into assumptions about the professoriate that are problematic." The emoji reflects the overrepresentation of white men in TV and films, she said, and may send cues that only certain types of people belong in academe.

Mr. Hecht said more research still needs to be done about how people interpret gender or race on emoji, but the standard is that the yellow-faced emoji has no gender. It’s simply a face.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said that though he’s still a BlackBerry user, he’s not offended by the joke, but maintains the emoji isn’t what most professors look like. "When I saw that, my first reaction was, I don’t even have a jacket with elbow patches," Mr. Kelchen said. "Now, would many professors self-identify as nerdy? Absolutely. But are they going to have thick glasses and buck teeth? In many cases not."

He thinks the four-eyed emoji was an odd choice, and meant to poke fun at faculty members. "It just seems more like a nerd emoji than something specific to what professors actually do," Mr. Kelchen said. "On the bright side, at least it’s not the poo emoji."

“On the bright side, at least it's not the poo emoji.”
The American Association of University Professors said on Thursday it had no data on how many professors wear glasses, and no comment on how faculty members feel about the new emoji representation.

Michael Adams, a professor of English at Indiana University at Bloomington, said the nerd caricature is nothing new.

"I don’t think that the emoji represents some revolutionary change in some public images of professors," Mr. Adams said. Professors are often portrayed, he said, as "variably domineering, dictatorial characters, or nerd characters — never exactly what they really are, which are very kind, thoughtful people who are trying to help students learn, but some caricature on that."

While emoji are changing how people talk and communicate with one another, the association between professors and the nerd emoji is just shorthand for a stereotype, Mr. Adams said. And the stereotype can be twofold: the lone geek in the ivory tower or the older white men who dominate many fields of study.

Still, it’s not always an insult to be called a nerd, Mr. Hecht said, and he’s not too bothered by the stereotype. "It’s effectively someone who really loves a certain area of knowledge," he said. "In this day and age, having a professor be a leader and really loving knowledge is not a bad thing."

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.