Monday, June 04, 2007

Affable But Deeply Flawed Professors

Even though it is almost too easy to make fun of academics in literature, somehow many authors continue to make this entertaining.

The most recent example I have encountered is in the short story 'Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera' by Ben Fountain, in his short story book, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. In the story, there are some great descriptions of the main character's life as a Ph.D. student in ornithology. For example, despite being prepared for problems while doing field work in Colombia ("In case of trouble, he had letters of introduction from Duke University.."), he is kidnapped by rebels and taken to their jungle camp.

He is unsuccessful at convincing the rebels to release him, despite compelling reasons for needing to be not-kidnapped: "If I'm not back at Duke in two weeks.. they're going to give my teaching assistant slot to someone else."

In one of the more heartwarming but less believable scenes in the book, the deprivations and stresses of captivity, including the possibility of being executed at any moment, make the grad student feel love for the people in his pre-kidnapped life, even "his affable though self-absorbed and deeply flawed professors."

It's just a story, but perhaps graduate school and the academic life in general do prepare you for some challenging and unexpected things, like dealing with strange and possibly unstable people in both academic and non-academic settings.


Anonymous said...

As a Biology Professor, I have also enjoyed reading portrayals of academics in fiction. A talented author can use exaggeration to point out the best and worst of the life of a professor. I would strongly recommend the work of David Lodge as well as the series beginning with "The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs" by Alexander McCall Smith.

Female Science Professor said...

I did a poll in this blog in October 2006 about favorite academic novels. There weren't a huge number of votes, but the favorite was Straight Man (Richard Russo), followed by Moo (Jane Smiley). One of Lodge's books was in there as well (Small World), and a few others. I should have added the Sausage Dogs book, which I really like as well.

Orhan Kahn said...

Sounds very passionate and well worth the read.