Because reality is brutal and unforgiving, I like to watch movies. As a university professor, I am naturally drawn toward movies about university professors. Among the hundreds of movies that have been filmed on campus, here are my top five, along with some links to my favorite clips. I hope you enjoy.
5. Back to School (1986). Starring the incorrigible Rodney Dangerfield, this movie is about a multi-millionaire, self-made business man who, as a very mature student, enrolls at university at the same time as his adult son. Like so many wealthy students, he thinks he can just buy his way through his degree, but in the end his intellect is tested and he perseveres. One scene, in particular, stands out as among the best in campus movie history. In it, Professor Terguson, played by the equally incorrigible Sam Kinison, freaks out when teaching about the history of the Vietman war. Oh, and this clip is not suitable for work (NSFW).
4. Tenure (2009). This is a seriously underrated film. Most of my colleagues have never even heard of it. Starring Luke Wilson, it tells the all-too-familiar story of that tenure-track professor who’s an awesome, inspiring lecturer, but just can’t publish. We all know someone like this. I had such a professor when I was an undergrad. She delivered the most amazing lectures, gave more words in feedback than were required for the essay, but still didn’t make tenure. The story revolves around the competition between two tenure track faculty members seeking a single tenured position, again a situation that is all-too-familiar to us. In this clip, Luke Wilson’s character reads a rejection letter from an editor, only to later be falsely accused by a tenured female faculty member of, erm, peeing on the toilet seat.
3. Old School (2003). This is another Luke Wilson film that tells the story of a group of middle age men that decide to start their own fraternity on campus, despite the fact that they are not even students. The movie isn’t very profound and there are no deep lessons to be learned from it, but it’s light and funny, as evidenced in this clip where the members of the fraternity have to demonstrate their school spirit and Will Ferrell’s character catches fire.
2. Good Will Hunting (1997). Who doesn’t love this movie about a troubled boy genius who ends up working at MIT and falling in love with a Harvard med student? Starring Matt Damon and Robin Williams, this film will literally make you cry. I adore Robin Williams’ character, an obviously precocious scholar who got his PhD from MIT, but, because of his wife’s cancer, ended up teaching at a lowly community college whilst his colleagues went on to win Fields Medals and teach at the most prestigious universities. The message is clear: success, or perceived lack thereof, is often a function of events in life over which we have no control. You can get a feel for this sentiment in this moving clip.
1. A Serious Man (2009). Finally, we reach my favorite university film, directed by the incomparable Coen brothers and starring Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a physics professor struggling with his work and home life. The story is deeply philosophical and open to various interpretations. My own reading of the story is that it is a modern-day rendition of the Book of Job from the Old Testament (incidentally, I feel a lot like Job this year). Professor Gopnik experiences a sudden and swift downward spiral and a moral dilemma that could be viewed as a test from an angry God. Every scene is beautifully filmed, but this one stands out as among my favorites. It illustrates the anxiety everyone feels when they go up for tenure.
If you haven’t seen these movies yet, I suggest you drop everything you’re doing right now and watch them. Just don’t do it on your work computer.
Prof. Andrew R. Timming
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