Character Studies

Character Studies

Tim Goral

Everyone remembers the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones, with his iconic Fedora and bullwhip, narrowly escapes from a Peruvian temple with a stolen golden idol, avoiding the path of a rolling boulder and a band of arrow-wielding Hovitos tribesmen. In the next scene, we see Dr. Jones home again, teaching an archaeology class at “Marshall College.” He stands before the class in a bowtie and glasses (which, oddly, he doesn’t seem to need for the rest of the film). 

Just as the first scene represents a popular image of “the adventurer,” the second scene plays into what sociologists Mari Dagaz and Brent Harger say is a common perception of what a college professor “should look like.”

Dagaz of Depauw University (Ind.) and Harger of Albright College (Pa.) published a paper called “Race, Gender, and Research: Implication for Teaching from Depictions of Professors in Popular Films 1985-2005” in the journal Teaching Sociology.

“When students enter college for the first time, they inevitably have preconceived images of professors. According to research on student evaluations of teaching, these preconceptions have important implications in the classroom,” the authors write.

Beyond the stereotype of glasses, bowties, and tweed jackets, the authors also examined how faculty race and gender were portrayed in film, and how these depictions may influence student evaluations of professors.

When students come to college, they inevitably have preconceived images of professors.

Women are often shown teaching literature, art history, or journalism. “These characters tend to be sexualized, particularly female professors of literature,” the authors say. “It is not uncommon for these women to be shown reading poetry in a sensual and emotionally dramatic way, in some cases arousing the sexual interest of a male student or classroom observer.”

When it comes to the portrayal of African American professors, various “markers” such as beards, glasses, and bow ties are frequently incorporated to tab them as intellectuals. Moreover, African American characters often deal with issues of what it means to be “authentically black.”

Interestingly, when a film “diversifies” a scene with members of another ethnic group or a differently abled character, additional markers are used to set them apart. For example, a Mediterranean man had his shirt partly unbuttoned to expose his chest, while a man in a wheelchair wore a sweater vest.

“It appears as if filmmakers did not think audiences would believe that diverse characters, in fact, may dress in the same way as their ‘regular’ (i.e. able-bodied white male) colleagues,” the authors write.

These film and television stereotypes can condition students with preconceived notions of what professors should  look like and how they should behave when they get to school.

Failing to meet those expectations based on race and gender could result in career-affecting poor student evaluations. The authors say this is consistent with numerous studies that have examined student evaluations of teaching. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this topic. Write to me at tgoral@universitybusiness.com.


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