What’s a Prof?Posted: May 1, 2012
Have a look at this picture – it’s a grab of one of the Google Image search pages for Professors:
If you look at the cartoons on the page, page 3 of the search, you’ll see lab coats and blackboards. While there are a lot of (obviously) portrait shots, searching across the images for yourself will reveal a lot of ‘action shots’ – talking, teaching and, in some cases, just plain thinking. However, what really sticks out on the first images you find, which I haven’t shown here, is the number of Professor Frink (Simpsons) and Professor Farnsworth (Futurama) images – characters who are ubernerds, with strange speaking patterns, a cavalier disregard for the human condition and a fundamental disconnect from the people around them.
Looking at Google Image Search, you’ll see pictures of young professors and old professors. Women and men. The range of races. Nary a white coat in sight unless they are actively involved in research that requires a white coat and are undertaking said research at the point of photography! (I should note that I subscribe to John Birmingham’s fundamental model of suitability of ethnic dress: one should only wear a Greek fisherman’s cap if one is Greek, and a fisherman. I extend it to scientific or trade garb, including military or paramilitary uniform, in that one should then only wear the dress while engaged in the activity. I wore a lab coat when I was studying wine making and in the lab. I think it’s become cleaning cloths now.)
This is all rather light-hearted, except for the slight problem that a number of people’s only interaction with the notion of a professor will be from widely available media sources – and, even though Futurama in particular is heavily ironic in its use, ironic use has a subtle aspect that can easily be lost in communication. It’s already obvious that the scientific community has an uphill battle sometimes and add to this an assumption that we are all bizarre anti-social, uselessly pontificating grey beards who have no understanding of real people and we start any discussion on the back foot.
I like the new image of science that is coming through the media – scientists and professors can be active, have relationships, do cool things, basically being just like everyone else except that they have a title of some sort that reflects what they are good at doing. We do, of course, have a sizeable chunk of the community who did come in during a time when a very different professorial model was encouraged and probably feel at least slightly under assault from the changes in role, respect and expectation that are now spreading across our Universities. But we’re still all just people, whether we look like professors or not.
We don’t have to define what a professor is but it’s always worth reminding people that we are people first, always, before you start trying to photoshop us into white coats, sticking-up white hair and Coke-bottle glasses.