Academic stereotypes: where are the positive stories?

I watched The Chair and did not like it. Sure, there were some good moments and important themes, but overall, I found it cliched and frustrating to sit through. North American academic stereotypes and norms already dominate global discourse on academia, even though they don’t always reflect the reality in other parts of the world.  

I was excited when I heard about the show. Academia narratives are rarely portrayed on TV, which I think is a missed opportunity to familiarise general audiences with a sector that is so often misunderstood. But it was just another version of the same clichés – university faculties are backward and stagnant, most academics are nasty, stupid, out of touch, or inappropriate, and social and cultural progress is just not possible in academia.

Imagine a different show reflecting the positive lived experiences of academics around the world, stories showing university departments can be progressive and supportive workplaces. Places where inspiring academics like Professor Kim and Dr McKay succeed in throwing out old stagnant systems and galvanise the next generation of citizens, thinkers, and leaders.

Watching The Chair just compounded my frustration at the persistently negative narratives about universities and academic life that dominate popular culture and social media.

I’m not talking about genuine grievances. I’m talking about the stereotypes, memes, jokes, comics, opinions and anecdotes that get passed around as accurate representations of all academia.

Academics are out of touch and not worth listening to, PhDs are a torture that no one in their right mind would ever want to sign up for, undergraduate professors are heartless losers etc. Conservative governments and news media consistently tell us that universities are a waste of money, no one needs a degree to get a job anymore, scholarly research and expertise are unnecessary for society, and so on. It’s depressing and tiring.

There is no denying there are bad people and bad systems in parts of academia. Anyone who works in academia has experienced someone who treated them inappropriately, abused their trust, or caused them unreasonable mental anguish. I have, and I’m sure you have too. Toxic damaging people can appear at all levels in academia, from students to senior professors, despite the narrative focus being so strongly on the latter.

But this is not unique to academia. I’ve experienced mistreatment in every sector I worked in before academia, and I suffered far worse conditions and more traumatic experiences working in the agriculture, finance, engineering and hospitality sectors than I have in academia.

Of course it’s not okay to experience this in any workplace. I’m highlighting this for context, not to justify it. Academia is not the only sector you will find bad people and bad systems. Yet think about the popular stereotypes we commonly see for business people, farmers, teachers, nurses, baristas etc. There are very few other sectors that are consistently portrayed in such a negative way as academia.

This matters, because stereotypes and anecdotes may be the only exposure many people have to a particular sector.

Think about how consistently negative narratives of academia affect public perceptions of academics and the mental health of existing staff. And what about future staff and students? How many aspiring young researchers are turned off university because of the constant negativity surrounding popular narratives of academia?

It’s human nature that we often find it easier to criticise and point out flaws than to see opportunities for growth and positive change. But focusing constantly on negative stereotypes just debilitates and stagnates the capacity for change. We need to balance these discussions with the positive realities that are also common in academia. Not only because we just need more positivity in the world, but also as foundations to learn and grow from.

I’m not advocating for toxic positivity, which is just as damaging as toxic negativity. We absolutely must be transparent and honest about the problematic sides of academia. We can’t change the system for the better if we don’t know where the problems lie. But let’s try and inspire society to value academic institutions instead of shunning them.

Related: Academia isn’t all bad and a PhD is definitely worth it

© Manu Saunders 2021

5 thoughts on “Academic stereotypes: where are the positive stories?

  1. Kelly Papapavlou November 9, 2021 / 7:31 PM

    I totally agree with you. For those of us who are in touch with the academic world even if we do not belong there ourselves, there are so many inspiring and encouraging stories to draw attention to, from exciting scientific discoveries through international cooperation to failures which still provided knowledge and information. The fundamental link between the university world and our everyday life is hardly ever discussed in the media or the arts. Plus, the four (4) valuable traits of every scientist that are being cultivated in academia all around the globe (humility, error acceptance, ant-stereotype mentality and cooperation) are rarely given the publicity they deserve. Alas: instead of the four (4) traits of the scientist what we get in the TV are the four “Cs” of good story telling sensu Daniel Willingham in his 2009 book “΅Why students don’t like school?”: 1)Causality 2)Conflict 3)Complications 4)Characters ….with an emphasis on 2) and 3)!!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Finola November 15, 2021 / 5:59 PM

    I started off watching it but quickly got annoyed at all those tired old tropes of academic life strung together. Thanks for this corrective.

    Liked by 1 person

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