Are professors grossly stereotyped in pop culture?
June 24th, 2011

Do the media pay enough attention to post secondary education matters? Not according to most of us. When they do they usually focus on the bad stuff. The freshest example is all the focus on the Dean of Medicine at the University of Alberta who admitted to plagiarizing a big chunk of a commencement speech. A student did a quick search of one of the uncommon phrases in the speech and before you could say “velluvial matrix,” the tellingly invented phrase the dean had pulled from his source, the cat was out of the bag. The story deserves attention, sure, but you could practically hear the reporters salivating all week as they covered the offense in creepy detail.

Ironically, if you read the mainstream coverage of the offense, you notice that the reporters are pretty much openly copying each other in their urge to make their deadlines. Is that a form of plagiarism, or is it just common practice? To satisfy their editors they take the official press release issued by the university and cough out a few paragraphs around it. And so with few exceptions every column or radio/tv story on the subject sounds like every other story. It’s not plagiarism exactly, but it is heavy borrowing, to be sure.

Do scholars pay enough attention to how they sound in the media? Not according to most of us. We often complain about how poorly we are represented by the press on the one hand but also acknowledge how difficult it is to say what we mean in the short time and small space demanded by today’s journalism on the other. This uneasy relationship between us and them—academics and journalists—was the major theme of a terrific conference I attended in Toronto last week. The First International Worldviews Conference on the Media and Higher Education (http://worldviewsconference.com/media/) brought together about 300 or so journalists and academics to share experiences and present analysis of the current divide. Needless to say, a 21st century conference on this theme necessarily dedicated a lot of sessions to the functions and potential of social media.

I loved this conference.  I learned something at almost every session, and I don’t say that very often. I even learned a lot at my own panel on the “research wars,” or the Brain Drain/Brain Gain trends. My fellow panelists were challenging and insightful and the audience interaction that followed our presentations was really high grade. To their credit, the conference organizers insisted that all panelists speak for no longer than 7 minutes each. At first I shuddered to think how I could condense everything I wanted to say in 7 minutes, but the exercise was instructive. Anyone should be able to say what they mean in that amount of time. The rest is simply exposition. Of course, many academics think that 20 minutes –the conference norm—is way too short, and so I am sure some speakers were offended by the directive. But, man, it really moved the conference along and it guaranteed a lot more audience participation because there was always time for conversation. I feel like a convert to a whole new conference order. Twenty minutes is so twentieth century.

Among many other highlights and bon mots, we started with the axiom that the public holds little trust in journalists and a lot of trust in academics, but the latter cannot seem to respond to the rhythms, news cycle rituals, or language demands of the former. If we can’t explain or “translate” what our research is in intelligible, coherent ways then we need to be trained or taught or at least snapped into having to do so. Many of us in the room self-identified as “cross dressers” –that is, scholars who have worked in and for the media over the years, and therefore are more comfortable moving from one sector the other. After all, as someone noted at Worldviews, we are all about the business of serving the public good, of telling the ‘truth.”

Speaking to this, keynote speaker and general impish wit and provocateur Adam Habib, who is deputy vice president at the University of Johannesburg, very lefty (labeled “terrorist” in the USA) and a lot of fun to listen to, proposed that the goals of both sectors were the same. They each

  • Rely on hi-level experts
  • Produce informed citizenship
  • Enrich public discourse
  • Produce social values of society
  • Harbour intellectual dissidence (ask tough questions)

Habib certainly kept challenging us all to question our assumptions. For a time, he was even identified as a “terrorist” by the US and couldn’t enter that country. Likewise, invited guest and educator Bill Ayres was not allowed to enter ours (blogpost @ http://billayers.org/). That’s another story. Habib’s mantra to both journalism and academic sectors was to “trouble the comfortable.” I think it’s fair to say that these days neither sector does a good enough job at such troubling, and it was great hearing his exhortations to be more radical, to question how we ignore the state of education in developing nations, often working with all the assumptions of our own privileged positions.

I also heard more than one academic express feeling ‘troubled” by the positive emphasis on social media, and I almost felt sorry for their defensive and ill-informed opinions. It was inspiring hearing from so many younger scholars and journalists about just how much further communications have gone, and how inventive they have been with their own quests to build online communities. Worldviews had wisely hired a tweet jockey for the event, and so those of us with a twitter handle could follow the ongoing conversation and comment on what we were seeing and hearing over the three days.

By the end of it all I think we had all learned something from each other, perhaps–if nothing else–a deeper appreciation for how we do what we do, and mural respect of the others’ professional expectations—certainly worth the price of roundtrip airfare to Toronto.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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