What if professors really are human? (On Professor Walter Vale of The Visitor)

As I watched the beginning section of The Visitor and was introduced to Walter Vale, a sad-sack economics professor, I was prompted to think about professorial characters in film. They are usually male and often either wacky, depressed, unfaithful, or horrible teachers (or all of the above).

I love the film Wonder Boys, but Douglas’ character is hardly an overly positive representation. I also liked Smart People. But, that professor also fell into the typical type-casting noted above. As for the husband/professor in Terms of Endearment, well how dare he treat the wonderful Debra Winger that way! I suppose Indiana Jones is a quite positive, albeit rabidly unrealistic, celluloid professor.

Watching The Visitor, I found myself asking “Where are the women?” (This is pretty much a refrain in my head as I watch TV/film as men outnumber women like a bazillion to one on the screen.)

The only woman professor that I can think of in a film is Julia Roberts character in Mona Lisa’s Smile. It’s been a long time since I saw that movie, but I remember having a love/hate relationship with it. I liked that Robert’s character was smart, funny, and a good teacher. I didn’t like they had to include the romance narrative for her character or all the other females. Doing so mitigated against the “you don’t have to get married just because you have a vagina” message of the film. Also, as I recall, the film was seething with privilege of the white, hetero, moneyed variety.

The Visitor carries on the tradition of what seems like a rather unchanging representation of bad college professors in movies.  (Readers, please let me know if you can thing of positive professor’s in movies!) Does Hollywood have something against my kind?

In the film, when a flustered student comes to Professor Vale’s office with a late paper, Vale curtly refuses it, acting out the stereotype of professor as non-emotive robot. I do have a strict policy on late work myself, but I am human – when life gets in the way of churning out that academic masterpiece, I take context into account (as do almost all profs I know).

As we learn in the first quarter hour or so of the film, Professor Vale is lacking in human social/emotional skills, let alone teaching acumen. He lectures from the podium to largely empty seats, marking him as someone who has not read his hooks or Friere. He has not supplied the students with a syllabus, though it is weeks into the semester. Then, horror of horrors, we see him simply whiting out the date on a syllabus from several years ago, presumably to teach the same exact course he has been slogging through for 20 years. No wonder why those seats are empty.

Finally, we learn he has not really co-authored the paper he is asked to deliver at an NY conference, but only read it. Further, he is not really writing the book he uses as an excuse for course releases. Not only on tenure review committees, but on Ratemyprofessor.com, he would be raked over the coals!

After this introduction to Professor Apathy, the film makes a sharp turn to explore issues of immigration, globalization, incarceration, and, yes, the meaning of life.

What finally wakes Professor Vale from his academic slumber is the friendship he forms with a trio of people after being forced to travel to an academic conference in New York. Once there, he finds his Manhattan apartment inhabited unexpectedly by Tarek and Zainab, both who are in the US “illegally.” (I put this term in italics as I do not believe humans can be “illegal” and question the linguistic ways US culture deems some as worthy of citizenship and others as “illegal.” Acts can be illegal, people cannot.)

Walter and Tarek become good friends, bonding through music and the drumbeats of New York life. Meanwhile, Walter doggedly attends his academic conference, which is portrayed as boring, meaningless, and devoid of real human contact. Incidentally, the conference scenes show most of the academics in formal business suits. I have been to many academic conferences, albeit none of them economic ones, and NONE of them have been populated by people wearing suits only. Blazers maybe,  but formal three piece business suits? No. What the film seems to attempt to convey in these conference images (as well as in the representation of departmental meetings) is: ACADEMICS ARE BORING! They have no idea what is going on in the real world! They talk in academic jargon about pointless stuff!

Certainly, some of these negative depictions are partly true. There are a lot of boring academics and some that don’t know much beyond their ivory tower area of expertise. Many do speak ‘academese.’  Yet, MOST are not this way (at least not in my experience). The academics I have known care about the world and making it a better place –  they seek new knowledge and experiences. And, while they might use three and four syllable words more often than the next person, they are generally pretty interesting and certainly do not dress in three piece suits!

So, while I liked the broader messages of the film (the critical view of (im)migration policies, the scathing critique of the prison industrial complex, the global focus that reveals white/western privilege), I took issue with the professors are not quite human framing. For Professor Vale, it is the ‘real humans,’ the ones that play music, have sex, and enjoy food, which must bring him back to life.

Walter’s friendship with Tarek, Mouna, and Zainab are what return him to the human side of this dichotomy. Even the names are telling here – Walter is boring and redundant, while a name like “Zainab” is full of verve and originality. It takes real humans with cool names to save this sad, boring, hopelessly un-cool robotic shell of a professor – that, and of course, a little hetero loving.

It was a great film, but sadly, yet another negative depiction of a professor.

(And, as a side note, I am off to one of those “boring” conferences the film derides, but it promises to be anything but boring. We will not be wearing three piece suits  – rather, we will be protesting at the Pentagon, lobbying at the White House, and strategizing about how to de-militarize the globe. If you live in DC and want to take part, or if you are interested in de-militarization generally, go here to check it out. As I will be at this conference all weekend, I won’t’ be online again until likely Monday afternoon. Sorry in advance for any delay in responding to comments/links.)


6 thoughts on “What if professors really are human? (On Professor Walter Vale of The Visitor)”

  1. Maybe your field is different than mine, Prof, but we have a LOT of those type. They dress more poorly, though.

    On the other hand, there ARE engaged, enthusiastic profs with good teaching skills. They are not the majority, though.

    If you think about it, a few years in the professoriate can burn anyone out. Publish, publish, publish! Teaching ratings are a popularity contest based on how entertaining and easy a prof is. There are, however, enough students who truly want to learn that it’s all worthwhile.

    But, really…don’t you know more than a handful of the sort you described? Henry Kissenger was right, I think, when he said (I paraphrase) the politics in academia are so “viscous because the stakes are so small.”

    1. Rachel,
      I suppose I know a few prof’s like those described – many of which defected to administrative positions. No surprise there. How sad that the money in academia is not in teaching/research but in being a typical bourgeoisie paper/rule pusher.

      It’s sad to think the good, engaging prof’s are not the majority, but then what can we expect when we don’t give prof’s the pay, perks, respect they (we) deserve?

  2. It is too bad that professors are portrayed so negatively in films — but from my perspective, that gives me the advantage b/c I always get to surprise my students! I will never fit the stereotype, and even though I speak plenty of “academese” in the classroom (in part to help my students learn how to acquire it) and push my students to approach ideas and academic writing as seriously as I do, I ultimately always end up surprising my students because I can mix this “seriousness” with humor, respect, and a plainly pleasant (and human) personality.

    I say, let them perpetuate stereotypes! We will deconstruct them!

    — L

    1. Onely,
      Great viewpoint! I, like you, enjoy showing students we are quite human — and often quite funny.
      Good points too about ‘academise’ being an important language for students to become conversant in.
      Happy humanized teaching!

  3. I think a lot of what Walter is doing – gliding through life, as if on autopilot – is he is missing his wife. He plays the piano in memory of her. Yes, he is boring – I was glad to see that Tarek, Mouna, and Zainab brought him out of his shell. But I see him firstly living in the ivory tower only because he has retreated there – possibly because he lost his wife.

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