Earlier this week I found myself in my natural habitat – a Starbucks. Say what you will about their coffee (mediocre at best), they have free wi-fi and comfy chairs. I wrote much of my MA thesis at the North Burnaby Starbucks in Kensington Square, and I am on track to repeat with my doctoral dissertation.

I add a hint of variety to my weekly routine by working at hipster-infested indie coffee shops too, where the coffee is better, the music louder, and the chairs far less suited to prolonged sitting. It was in the pretentious little coffee shops in Toronto that I began to recognize a particular kind of behaviour (apologies to my good friend who helped crystallize these thoughts… you know who you are…). In certain types of coffee shops, I am now on the lookout for grad students performing the role of The Suffering Grad Student. It’s a brilliant bit of acting, and I encourage you to observe it when you can.

At my usual Starbucks this week, I sat next to two of the finest specimens of The Suffering Grad Student I have ever seen. Their performances were breathtaking. And infuriating. And deeply worrying.
… shit… do I REALLY look like that to other people?
… and if so… how have I NOT been punched in the throat by a complete stranger?

The Suffering Grad Student may have a laptop, or a stack of carefully arranged books (Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, etc.) at their table. If there are books, you are MEANT to notice them.
The dead giveaway is the printed-off journal article, with the pen or marker twirling in the student’s hand, ready to annotate or underline.
And if you watch closely, the pages of said article will turn at a rate of approximately one an hour.

The two fellow students – hell, Colleagues! – accomplished as much ‘work’ in 90 minutes as a well-trained chimp could finish in 5.
What you CAN’T train a chimp to do, of course, is sigh every 30 seconds, complain about the ‘stupid’ classmates in their seminar course, rant about historicism and the postmodern turn, and generally make everyone else within earshot hate them. For that you clearly need to spend a semester or two in grad school…

 

All of this got me to thinking about some work I did a couple of years back on representations of the university in popular culture. I had read several articles on the representation of schools and teachers in film, and wondered why my own world, that of the social sciences and humanities, was mostly absent from the screen.
(All of this was also an excuse to talk about HBO’s The Wire at a conference, which is pretty well the pinnacle of bougie whiteness… but I digress…)

And YOU'RE going to be Bubbles, and YOU'RE going to be....

In a 2006 article on schools and cinema, Barone and Lash discuss what they call the educational imaginary, “a set of broadly disseminated images about what schools and school people within a nation are supposedly like”; they argue that this imaginary exists “inter-psychically throughout the culture” and is reinforced via a complex array of public pedagogies centered on schools and schooling (p. 22).

There is, for comparison, a Legal Imaginary circulating in Canadian and American culture. Experts have warned that the so-called ‘CSI Effect’ among jurors (the demand for physical, rather than circumstantial evidence in trials) can compromise legal proceedings. Likewise, Malcolm Gladwell (everyone’s favourite essayist!) wrote a brilliant piece on the values and opinions of law students in America, which he links to the lasting impact of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Can't we set aside our racial intolerance and chastise this cheap white trash?

A Medical Imaginary impacts both current medical students (and their idea of what makes a GOOD doctor) and the general public (the discourse of patients as customers; the House model wherein an entire team of doctors works ONLY on your case).

 

In the case of an Educational Imaginary, the beliefs held by pre-service teachers are particularly telling. Ask teacher candidates at a Faculty of Education what a good teacher looks like, and you are as likely to hear ‘Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society’ as you are to hear mention of actual educators from candidates’ own past.

 

One of you will kill yourself, and I get fired. CARPE DIEM!

The trope of the ‘good teacher’ has featured prominently in TV and film for decades. Benevolent white teachers helping ‘inner-city youth’ discover the joys of poetry, or math, or dance, or whatever. Tough-love administrators refusing to give up on these poor kids! Or… that one where Mark Harmon from NCIS teaches summer school, skeeves on his own student, and ends up in bed with Kirstie Alley…
When we think of schools, we draw upon a wide range of images and ideas, generated in part by cultural texts around us.

 

When we think of post-secondary education, the imaginary is less coherent.
English profs are eccentric (sometimes degenerate) loners. Think Wonder Boys, or Sutherland’s character in Animal House.

Any of you kids smoke reefer?

 

All scientists work in labs, with beakers and tubes. Their lab assistants wear white coats, and occasionally have feelings for their brilliant bosses.

And those of us in the social sciences and humanities?
Uhh… Well, the researcher in Season 4 of The Wire was excited that he had data, even though the project itself had been terminated.

And every few years some asshole at The National Post ‘discovers’ SSHRC for the first time, and gets outraged that TAX DOLLARS are spent to research things this journalist deems TRIVIAL! (or, in my department’s case, RACIST!)

And in any town with a university, there are obnoxious grad students in coffee shops, not working but insisting that they are very, very busy.

 

If this is all we have to form our particular subset of a public imaginary… then we are DOOMED.
If we don’t find another way to make our work known in a public imaginary (not to ‘justify’ or ‘validate’ our work, but to circulate ideas that matter), we’re going to have a hard time doing what we do in the future.