TV shows for teenagers show professors as “old, boring, white, and mean”

Here is how college professors are portrayed on television shows for teenagers: “old, boring, white, and mean.”

They may be fictional characters, but their small-screen images may affect students in big ways, says one researcher. Barbara F. Tobolowsky, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, found that television’s image of the professor is intimidating, uninterested, and generally old, boring, and white. She is scheduled to present a working paper on her research, “The Primetime Professoriate: Representations of Faculty on Television,” this week at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education…

While previous studies of television have focused on how much time students spend watching TV and not studying, Ms. Tobolowsky looked at the content of those television shows. In her study, Ms. Tobolowsky, who has a master’s degree in film history and criticism and who previously worked in the film industry, analyzed 10 shows that aired from 1998 to 2010 and were geared toward the 12-to-18-year-old demographic group in the Nielsen ratings.

Scrutinizing professors in those shows, she examined characters’ clothing and ways of talking, camera angles and background music, and a variety of other film nuances to break down how enthusiastic the faculty were and how they interacted with students, along with other criteria.

On the whole, she says, professors on the television shows tended to be relatively old, white, and traditional, wearing sweater-vests and sporting graying hair. Young, female, and minority professors on the shows tended to teach only at arts-oriented institutions or community colleges. Most were intimidating or, at the very least, distant, throwing a scare into characters like Matt on 7th Heaven, who worried he’d seem weak if he asked a question in class.

This study seems to suggest that shows for teenagers depict professors as the enemy. While not all teenagers love school, I wonder if this is part of a larger message on television and in movies that the learning part of school isn’t that important while the social aspects, think of the message in Mean Girls, is what really matters. Of course, there is a genre of movies that depicts heroic teachers but these are formulaic in their own ways.

It would be interesting to compare these depictions to how professors are portrayed on shows aimed at adults. I’m reminded of the TNT show Perception that features Eric McCormarck playing a neuroscientist at a Chicago area university. (Disclosure: I know about this show because I tend to catch a few minutes of its opening after watching Major Crimes which I watch because of The Closer.) The show tends to open in this way: McCormack is at the front of the classroom that is full of eager students who are hanging on his every word. At the side of the room is his trusty graduate student TA who occasionally chimes in. McCormack has scribbled all sorts of profound things on the board and then he ends class with a deep question or a witty joke. When the class ends, he quickly leaves the classroom and gets wrapped up in some fascinating case. Sound like a typical college classroom? While the professor here is depicted as a cool young guy, it is not exactly realistic to most college classrooms.

I realize what takes place day in and day out in a college classroom likely does not make scintillating television. Indeed, have you watched DVDs of The Great Courses? Yet, this doesn’t mean there isn’t something worthwhile going on in that classroom that doesn’t require severely stereotyping professors one way or the other depending on the audience.

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