Turkey wraps and dead dogs: 10 higher-education malcontents in pop culture
Milo Burke, The Ask
Milo Burke failed to make it as a painter and ends up working as professional ass-kisser at an unnamed New York City college’s fundraising—er, “development”—office. Neither his mindset nor novelist Sam Lipsyte's lean, relentlessly funny prose try to dress up these facts. The Ask’s chief symbol is Burke’s usual lunchtime turkey wrap, a vanguard of give-up mediocrity if there ever was one. What's more, Burke’s not even good at his work, and gets himself fired by telling off a student whose father is a wealthy donor. The Ask goes deeper into academic satire through the preschool Burke’s son attends, which ends up being “closed indefinitely due to pedagogical conflicts” among its perversely high-minded staff. Because Burke doesn’t have the usual professor-character’s supply of ponderous literary and intellectual references through which to process his unhappiness, his contempt for the institution fuses viscerally with all his other miserably contemporary problems, from babysitting an angry veteran to unemployment to the onset of divorce.
Grady Tripp, Wonder Boys
Amid the pompous flurry of his university’s annual literary conference, WordFest, creative writing professor Grady Tripp plays hooky on a novel he desperately needs to finish, and brings out the reckless streak in a gloomy but talented student. At the beginning of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (and Curtis Hanson’s subsequent film adaptation), Tripp is already involved in a long affair with the school’s chancellor, whose husband chairs the English department. Before long, Tripp and budding young writer James Leer have managed to kill an innocent dog, steal Marilyn Monroe’s jacket, and blow through a regimen of pot, pills, and booze that’d be downright Hunter S. Thompson-worthy if not for the book’s subdued Pittsburgh setting and Tripp’s middle-aged moping. (Even worse, Tripp gets the relatively innocent Leer entangled with his skeezy, sexually omnivorous editor, a role that proved a no-brainer for Robert Downey Jr. in Hanson’s film). But at least they’re equipped for the ride: As Leer notes, Tripp's trunk “fits a tuba, three suitcases, a dead dog, and a garment bag almost perfectly.”
William Henry Devereaux Jr., Straight Man
Like Wonder Boys, Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man involves an aging professor whose literary promise is fading, the deaths of innocent creatures (including the campus goose), and plenty of excruciating academic politics made personal. The title comes from protagonist William Henry Devereaux Jr.’s quip that in his English department, “the most serious competition is for the role of straight man.” Really, though, the competition is for the title of biggest jackass. Professor Devereaux is himself a front-runner, showing blithe contempt for his colleagues at West Central Pennsylvania University even as he contemplates his own failures and mounting urination problems. Among his fellow scholars are the young, irritatingly postmodern professor who makes all his students do their homework on VHS tapes instead of writing; a colleague who spears Devereaux’s nose with the wire from a spiral notebook; a helpless drunk; and a fellow who once went through a delirious cross-dressing phase.
David Lurie, Disgrace
In the first chapter of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, professor David Lurie contemplates the decline of his sex drive and links it to an “emasculating” career in which he’s relegated to teaching a pair of complementary courses: “Communications Skills” and “Advanced Communications Skills.” After having a lukewarm sexual affair with a student, he’s ritually castigated by a board of his peers and more or less driven off campus. Ironically, all of this comes as Lurie idly contemplates writing an opera-type performance piece about prolific womanizer Lord Byron. South African novelist Coetzee, as usual, has something more brutal in store, and it happens when Lurie moves into his daughter’s relatively isolated farmhouse. Despite his passion for nature-gazing Romantic poets, Lurie realizes the countryside is the site of the real conflict—not only social or political, but life-or-death—he’d never had to face in the academy.
Larry Gopnik, A Serious Man (2009)
Teaching job aside, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has plenty of problems: a wife who’s leaving him for another man, a distracting neighbor who sunbathes topless, and harassing phone calls from the Columbia Record Club. But Gopnik wouldn’t be The Coen Brothers’ (relatively) modern-day Job if he were able to find refuge in his office. The physics professor is up for tenure, and the committee deciding his fate has begun receiving libelous letters from an anonymous sender. Gopnik also hasn’t published—a nightmare for any academic hoping for a long-term career. Despite all this, one of the film’s standout subplots involves a trial of seemingly lower stakes: a student who tries to get out of a failing grade with a bribe. The Coens love the moral quandary that comes with illicitly attained money (see: The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men), but since this is a story about uncertainty, even something as simple as an envelope full of cash comes with an added layer of miscommunication.
Chip Lambert, The Corrections
An affair with an irritating student (that old saw?) kicks off Chip Lambert’s downward spiral in Jonathan Franzen’s breakout novel, but the man clearly has bigger issues than his sex drive. After losing his tenure-track teaching position, Lambert spends his time working on an autobiographical screenplay that will explain his side of the story—and it’s as self-indulgent and cringe-worthy as can be. In the meantime, he allows his mother to believe he’s writing for the Wall Street Journal and borrows tens of thousands of dollars from his sister. Just when it seems he’s hit rock bottom (he watches his agent’s son use his script as a coloring book), he meets a Lithuanian diplomat who ropes him into a scam defrauding dimwitted American investors—something that, after years of criticizing capitalism as a cultural-studies professor, he turns out to be quite good at.
Silas P. Silas and Jamal King, How High (2001)
Surely the hallowed halls of Harvard University demand enough respect to make two stoners set down their bong for a second and do some actual studying. But given the paper-thin plot that lands Silas P. Silas and Jamal King (Method Man and Redman in the just-shy-of-autobiographical roles they were born to play) at the bastion of higher learning in How High, it’s no wonder they show contempt for everything besides buds and booty. After acing their college-entrance exams with some help from a dead, know-it-all friend who appears whenever they smoke the weed grown in soil infused with his ashes, Silas and King promptly get accepted to Harvard. Naturally, they turn it into a balls-out party school—while scoring straight A’s without ever cracking a book. But when the stash runs out, the duo resorts to digging up and smoking the dead body of John Quincy Adams (because he’s a president, and therefore must be smart), solidifying their defiance of the college system by electing to defile a corpse to keep from going to class.
Katherine Ann Watson, Mona Lisa Smile (2003)
Charged with teaching—and determined to change the minds of—young ladies at Wellesley College in the 1950s, Mona Lisa Smile’s Katherine Ann Watson (Julia Roberts) rages against the gender machine, refusing to sit idly by as her students pursue marriage instead of higher education. As the movie’s schlock-tastic tagline goes, “In a world that told them how to think, she told them how to live.” In her one year teaching at the school, Watson somehow manages to reform the art-history curriculum, introduce her students to Jackson Pollock, teach scads of young women what life’s really about, and fall in love. Not a bad year for a rebel professor, all in all.
Thornton Melon, Back To School (1986)
Rodney Dangerfield’s persona was always that of a put-upon schlub—and not a particularly cuddly one, either. So it’s not surprising that Dangerfield’s most popular film, Back To School, is also his warmest—though it’s still pretty anarchic. Dangerfield plays Thornton Melon, a rich clothier who enrolls in college alongside his son in order to show the kid how to be a big man on campus. (Tips include throwing money around and becoming the school’s biggest party animal.) He also ruffles the feathers of the administration, as when he undercuts his first Economics 101 session by interjecting real-world costs—dealing with the Teamsters, for example—into the prof’s starting-a-business lesson.
Lambda Lambda Lambda, Adams College chapter, Revenge Of The Nerds (1984)
If the events portrayed in Revenge Of The Nerds occurred in the real world today, they would cause an Internet shitstorm covering, among other topics, college bullying, race issues, sexual harassment, and misconduct amongst academic faculty. But audiences in 1984 were prepared to accept a plot involving freshmen at the fictional Adams College ceding their dormitories to Alpha Beta fraternity members, who need a place to crash following a mid-party house fire. Through what might be considered highly irregular protocol, these so-called nerds are required to join a fraternity in the simple goal of locating student housing, and are rejected by all national fraternal organizations except one: historically black frat Lambda Lambda Lambda. Despite persecution at the hands of the Alpha-Betas (and through what might be considered sexual blackmail of the sisters of Pi Delta), the Tri-Lambs persevere, and in the end it’s the Alpha Betas sleeping in the gymnasium. This school clearly needs a new dorm and some more traditional housing policies.