I woke up to an email earlier this week, and it held this link to a list of celebrity professors. It really got me thinking about why it is that we do what we do, and what it really means to be “known.”
I highly doubt that I will ever be included on such a list, nor do I really want to be. I have no aspirations to work at a prestigious university, publish articles or books that make be the next Harold Bloom (God forbid!), or even for people outside of my chosen niche to really know my name. But some people do aspire to that.
And for them, making such a list is of utmost importance. Many people work their entire lives just to be recognized for having “made it.”
Sure, I know those people on the list, and I’ve got a couple of books by a few of them on my bookshelves, but their ideas and reputation do not directly influence my life, academically or personally.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I highly respect the people on that list (and lists like it). They have all made considerable contributions to their fields, which are undoubtedly worthy of note. I don’t like to think of the world without them and those like them in it.
They’re just too far removed for me to consider them personally influential. I’ve read Toni Morrison. She’s good at what she does, but her writing and ideas don’t speak to me. Interviews with her make her seem stuffy and uptight, the exact opposite of what I can relate to in an author. Stephen Hawking for all his brilliance is light-years (forgive the pun…or don’t) ahead of the rest of us, and that makes him seem unreal in many respects. And those are the two who actually seem like “people” to me. The rest of the list are “names” people drop when trying to sound well read or intellectual.
And I’m not the kind of guy to go pick up a book or a movie just because it’s won some awards, which is generally how celebrity scholarship is determined. I’ve read quite a few Pulitzer winners that I didn’t think were worth the time; I didn’t take anything from them.
But then again, I’m of a very specific breed. I think that celebrity obsessions are silly, and I feel more of a connection to authors and scholars who try to present themselves in an Everyman capacity. That’s why one of my favorite authors is Stephen King. He does not present himself as a literary author (though I think he is); he wants to be known as a storyteller. One of my favorite scholars, Gerald Graff, writes about making academics a conversation and how traditional schooling can obscure learning. I love that kind of stuff. It is their non-pretentious style of information sharing that lasts with me. They don’t make it seem like you “need” it, but if you want it, take it and do something good with it.
And then there are the professors who actually make a difference. I’m sure that if I were in Toni Morrison’s class, I would take a great deal away from it. However, I don’t have that opportunity, so I have to take only what I can from her published work, and any kind of published work is a kind of faceless discourse.
The real celebrities in my mind are those who make a difference in people’s lives. To me, Dr. Carl Buchanan is influential because he is the one who taught me that I can do scholarship on anything, even comic books, through his courses on graphic novels. He made a personal difference in my life, and he will never be included in a list like this. In my eyes, though, it’s the personal touches that make professors matter, not being included on a list. There are hundreds of thousands of professors in the world, some good, some bad, but in my mind, the most influential and the most famous are not the same.