Picture-Book Professors: Academia and Children’s Literature
How is academia represented in children’s literature? This was a question that became important to me in the spring of 2012, whilst reading reams of picture-books with my three young boys, and wondering what they were understanding of their mother’s chosen profession from the media they were being exposed to. A chance encounter with a few academics in children’s books, at a time when I was preparing my own case for promotion to professor, led to a playful exploration of what aspects of university culture are shown to young children, and how this fits into a wider media ecology of depictions of expertise.
If I had known in 2012 that what I was doing was actually writing Picture-Book Professors: Academia and Children’s Literature, I would never have started, so far-fetched would that have sounded. The resulting text, available here for free download in open access (and its related edited compendium that shows off examples of earlier texts, The Professor in Children’s Literature: An Anthology) is the result of a concerted but gamesome approach to understanding a mature media environment where academics routinely appear as elderly, male scientists, called Professor SomethingDumb, who are either baffled and ineffectual, or evil and want to blow up the world. How can you best find representations of professors in kids’ books? What affect do these have on our children? How complicit are publishers, authors, and illustrators in perpetuating these negative stereotypes? And how do these depictions map onto the real-life academy itself – which hardly has a perfect reputation for promoting diversity and good behaviour? It turns out, if you keep sporadically going back to these questions, over six years of daydreaming in boring staff meetings, or while reading something outside your own academic area for fun at weekends and holidays, you eventually have enough to write up a book in a term’s teaching sabbatical (when you really were supposed to be writing up something else).
Picture-Book Professors surveys 328 illustrated academics in 289 different English language children’s books published between 1850 and 2014, allowing trends to be identified using both qualitative and quantitative analysis. Only 29 are women, and only 1 has an ambiguous gender identity (the women who appear in the books are subservient wives and house-keepers). Only 3 are adults of black or ethnic minority descent. There are no depictions of disability (apart from rampant mental-illness), or behaviour that can be described as being anything other than heteronormative. Professors tend to have large amounts of disposable income. Children’s literature simultaneously mirrors, mocks, and reinforces the biases that exist within universities. What does this say to children about academic achievement, or who gets to be an expert in our society? Given that university is now a major step for nearly half of young adults in the UK, shouldn’t we be paying attention to how the sector is depicted to a young audience?
Whilst writing Picture-Book Professors, I hope to have walked a line between humour and dedicated, detailed scholarship, in a way which makes the academic process transparent (including the privileges which allowed me to carry out unfunded research of this nature). The pace and pressures of academic life means it is becoming rarer to find the space and time to pursue an interesting idea down the research rabbit hole, which is what I have had the pleasure of doing – or rather, selfishly made the time to do – here. In lots of ways, it is my own personal scholarly response to this media moment, where the expertise of women and minorities is undermined and diminished, and everyone has apparently had enough of experts anyway. Picture-Book Professors: Academia and Children’s Literature attempts to question what we are teaching our children about expertise and intellectual achievement, and hopes, in some small, constructive way, to challenge it.
Picture-Book Professors: Academia and Children’s Literature is now available from Cambridge University Press