Daily Archives: March 16, 2014

Academics in Picture Books: Mad Scientist Stereotype

Yiola’s post yesterday commented on the positive impact of a children’s book. Today I Mad scientist(Clare) want to talk about negative images in children’s books. I came across Melissa Terras’ fabulous research on how academics are illustrated in pictures books. Oh goodness! Academics are typically presented in a very unflattering light (old, male, a bit mad). These stereotypes do damage to our reputation with the general public and are definitely not a positive image we want to present to children. Below are some of the findings from her extensive research which I found to be frightening and discouraging. Check out Melissa’s blog for the entire article: http://melissaterras.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/male-mad-and-muddleheaded-academics-in.html

What are academics in children’s books like?

The 108 academics found consist of 76 Professors, 21 Academic Doctors, 2 Students, 2 Lecturers, 1 Assistant Professor, 1 Child, 1 Astronomer, 1 Geographer, 1 Medical Doctor who undertakes research, 1 researcher, and 1 lab assistant. In general, the Academic Doctors tend to be crazy mad evil egotists (“It’s Dr Frankensteiner – the maddest mad scientist on mercury!”), whilst the Professors tend to be kindly, but baffled, obsessive egg-heads who dont quite function normally.
The academics are mostly (old, white) males. Out of the 108 found, only 9 are female: 90% of the identified academics are male, 8% are female, and 2% have no identifiable gender (there are therefore much fewer women in this cohort than in reality, where it is estimated that one third of senior research posts are occupied by women).  They are also nearly all caucasian: only two of those identified are people of colour: one Professor, and one child who is so smart he is called The Prof: both are male: this is scarily close to the recent statistic that only 0.4% of the UK professoriat are black. 43% of those found in this corpus are are elderly men, 33% are middle aged (comprising of 27% male and 6% female, there are no elderly female professors, as they are all middle age or younger). The women are so lacking that the denoument of one whodunnit/ solve the mystery/ choose your own adventure book for slightly older children is that the professor they have been talking about was actually a woman, and you didn’t see that coming, did you? Ha!
Most of the identified academics work in science, engineering and technology subjects. 31% work in some area of generic “science”, 10% work in biology, a few in maths, paleontology, geography, and zoology, and lone academics in rocket science, veterinary science, astronomy, computing, medical research and oceanography.
The names given to the academics are telling, with the majority being less than complimentary: Professor Dinglebat, Professor P. Brain, Professor Blabbermouth, Professor Bumblebrain, Professor Muddlehead, Professor Hogwash, Professor Bumble, Professor Dumkopf, Professor Nutter, and two different Professor Potts. There is the odd professor with a name that alludes to intelligence: Professor I.Q, Professor Inkling, Professor Wiseman, but those are in the minority.
Academics are routinely shown as individuals obsessed with one topic who are either baffled Mad scientistand harmless and ineffectual, or malicious, vindictive and psychotic, and although these can be affectionate sketches (“bless! look at the clueless/psychopathic genius!”) academics routinely come across as out of touch wierdos – and what is that teaching kids about universities?  In this age of proving academic “impact”, it might be not so bad for us to be able to show we were relevant to society? That there is more to academia than science? Or for the kids books I show my kids to have more positive and integrated representations of professors and academics? Perhaps this is not the role of kids books though, and I should just be telling my kids my own tales of academic derring-do. 

I think these images of professors can undermine our identity as academics. I certainly do not see myself as the mad professor!