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The stereotypes of what a professor looks like are ridiculous, but actual professors can do their part to change the image.

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Burden of ‘Prof.’

Last week, I was reading my son a collection of Berenstain Bears stories before bed. I remember adoring these stories in my youth, though I feel like they’ve changed. It’s as if the authors ran out of plots 20 years ago but were determined to not let that stop them. (The bears visit an aquarium! They enjoy it! The end!)

While reading The Berenstain Bears’ Dinosaur Dig (plot summary: The bears go to a dinosaur dig! They enjoy it! The end!), I encountered an unfamiliar character. His name is Professor Actual Factual, and something about him rubbed me the wrong way.

Professor Actual Factual is a museum curator and possibly a paleontologist; he wears glasses and a beret. It’s not clear where he teaches or whether he has the ursine equivalent of tenure and its associated hibernation sabbaticals, but one thing is for sure: Like many similar characters in popular media, he perpetuates the outdated, stodgy stereotypes of a professor.

I mean, seriously? His name is Professor Actual Factual? Did his parents, presumably the Factuals, give him the first name Actual as a joke? Were they aware that they had essentially chosen his profession for him at birth? You’ll never encounter a professional soccer player named Actual Factual. Had someone already taken the names Pedantic Joykill and Technical McSnottery?

Many of us scientists are professors. It’s a job title scientists sweat for decades to achieve. But despite it being twenty-freaking-seventeen, the term is still fraught with ridiculous connotations.

I remember dressing up as a professor when I was a kid. I owned Groucho Marx glasses with a pointed black plastic beard hanging from the bottom. I affected what must have been a horrible German accent and went around proclaiming things like, “Zat is fask-i-nating!” That’s what I thought a professor was.

And the general view of professors hasn’t changed much since then. A few years ago, I emceed a comedy show in which one of the performers—a ventriloquist—put on a lab coat and a pair of thick spectacles and then introduced himself as “Professor Feedlefarts from the University of Science and Stuff.” It was ... not hilarious. As he bantered with a caveman puppet, speaking blustery jargon in a high nasal whine, I thought, “Is that what people still think of when they hear the word ‘professor’?”

You know you’re in an easily typecast position when the representation most strongly breaking that stereotype is Gilligan’s Island. Yes, the island’s Professor used “big” words and rarely smiled, but at least he was young. Maybe an early draft of the script called him “The Associate Professor.”

Scientists have always had problems with our public image, and “professor” in particular is due for a rebranding. The word sounds so dusty. It’s chalkboards and elbow patches and unkempt beards and Latin animal names; it’s wacky contraptions and zany pratfalls and that unnecessarily ubiquitous quasi-German accent. It’s the nutty Professor Sherman Klump, Professor Cuthbert Calculus from The Adventures of Tintin, Professor Frink from The Simpsons, and that giant-mustached Professor who always tries to steal the magic bag from Felix the Cat. They shuffle papers, scribble equations for fun, and drop their thick glasses in bowls of soup (“Oops! Zat vas not suppozed to happen!”). They’re neither charming, nor casual, nor female.

And what sort of mindedness do professors have? Absent! Just once I’d like to see a cartoon with a present-minded professor.

I think it’s the “or” in “professor” that dooms the term. What does an actor do? Act. What does a sailor do? Sail. An auditor audits, a governor governs, a mediator mediates, an elector elects, and a Velociraptor velocirapts.

A professor, then, professes. To profess is to declare something with expertise. Eww. How old-fashioned and condescending.

The word itself is unlikely to change. But professors can do their part to show the world that they are, you know, humans. A professor is not a wizard. A professor can be young and enjoy sports and television. A professor may drink beer. Many professors are women. Professors sometimes have pets. Professors usually buy their groceries at the grocery store. Sometimes professors fall in love. None of these statements should be surprising.

If you’re a professor and you’re reading this—first of all, get back to applying for grants. I have a feeling you’ll need them soon. Second, please consider it a small part of your public duty to show the world your normalcy. Children reading about Professor Actual Factual need that image preemptively countered, and there’s no one better to do that than you, Professor Actual Actual. Otherwise “professor” becomes—rather than a legitimate career possibility—another nonexistent madcap fantasy character, like leprechauns, unicorns, and political moderates.

Adults, too, can benefit from anything that keeps scientists relatable. When you hear someone say, “I don’t need to hear what some professor thinks,” reveal that you are, in fact, a professor. And that—just like everyone else—you don your taffeta regalia one golden aiguillette at a time.

I know some may object; humanization can be a slippery slope to edutainment. Some professors bristle at the suggestion that they prioritize anything nonacademic. But blowing the cobwebs off of the word “professor” doesn’t mean that you have to shred a wicked electric bass riff in the middle of your next lecture. It can be as simple as pausing for a moment, sharing a genuine laugh, and encouraging your colleagues to do the same.

And that, Brother Bear and Sister Bear, is today’s heavy-handed moral. The end!

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