Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, and the American Professor
What Academic Novels Tell Us About Teaching
By Lorie Roth

From the June 2002 AAHE Bulletin

Populated by pompous deans, ineffectual presidents, petty or eccentric faculty members, and efficient secretaries, American universities are a hotbed of conspiracies and politicking, substance abuse, and sex scandals. Well, not really. But such is the world of the academic novel, a type of genre fiction that always takes place in a university setting.

As someone who works in the world that academic novels portray, I thought it might be helpful to look at how teaching is portrayed in this popular form of fiction. Three novels in particular seem the most relevant to analyze because all were published in the 1990s and are set in American universities. They are Moo by Jane Smiley, Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (made into an Academy Award nominated film starring Michael Douglas in 2000), and Straight Man by Richard Russo.

All three of these books are, of course, fiction. So before I look at them in more detail, I want to consider, for comparison’s sake, a nonfiction source of information about teaching, the U.S. government’s National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF). Gathered directly from 974 higher education institutions and 31,354 faculty members who were employed full-time in the fall of 1992, this study’s data on U.S. faculty and their work is roughly contemporaneous with the three novels and might serve as a benchmark by which we can judge the more literary evidence found in the academic novels.

How We Spend Our Time
First of all, NSOPF shows that professors work a lot: the average number of hours worked per week is 52. Table 1 shows how that time is divided into the various components of faculty work and indicates that most faculty time is devoted to three principal areas: teaching, research, and service.

Table 1
National Study of Postsecondary Faculty 1993
Percentage of Time Faculty Devote to Academic Activities

Academic Activity  All Universities Public Comprehensives
Teaching 54 60
Research/scholarship 18 14
Administration/service 20 18
Professional growth 5 5
Outside consulting; 3 3
Source: National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF). Conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in 1992-93. Percentages are rounded.

The left column shows the percentages for all types of universities, from Research I institutions to two-year community colleges, whereas the data on the right are specific to comprehensive universities, institutions like those that comprise the California State University, where I am employed, that focus primarily on undergraduate instruction with some master’s degree programs. In the comprehensives, faculty members devote 60 percent of their time to teaching, with the rest roughly divided between research and service.

This is the academic world as seen through the eyes of the U.S. government. What about life at the university as seen through the eyes of novelists?

How Characters Spend Their Time
Using a research design into which no one will want to inquire too deeply, I calculated the amount of text in the novels devoted to various activities that comprise the academic life. Results are shown in Table 2. Whereas the federal survey focused exclusively on academic work, the novelists, on the other hand, write about the academic life. This necessitated the addition of extra categories to capture the richness, robustness, and vitality of the academic life.

Table 2
Percentage of Time Faculty Devote to Various Activities in Three Academic Novels

Faculty Activity NSOPF
(comprehensives only)
Moo Wonder Boys Straight Man
Teaching 60 9 9 9
Research/scholarship 14 17 9 4
Administration/service 18 11 6 16
Professional growth 5 1 6 0
Outside consulting   3 4 0 0
Drinking/drug-taking     2 12 5
Sex (having or thinking about)   11 8 11
Politicking/conspiring   12 2 13
Family   7 22 25
Other*   27 27 17
The “other” category includes subjects peculiar to and individual to each novel, such as, for example, dealing with or looking for: a huge pig, kidney stones, an ancient Ford Galaxie convertible, a boa constrictor, and the suit Marilyn Monroe wore to her 1954 wedding to Joe DiMaggio. Percentages are rounded.

One caveat: In analyzing the activities depicted in the novels, I must confess to feelings of inadequacy in always distinguishing between what constitutes administration/service and what I’ve defined as “politicking and conspiring.” Although I feel confident that I can recognize drinking and sex, I am not always clear about where to draw the line between being on a committee, which is designated as administration/service (and helps you earn merit pay), and general politicking and conspiring (for which you earn no official rewards).

The importance of both in the academic life can’t be underestimated. In Moo, for example, the time spent politicking and conspiring (12 percent) is just about even with time spent on committee work (11 percent). Compared with the data from NSOPF, Moo, set in a research university, shows a pretty fair representation of research activities — at 17 percent — only a bit less than the 18 percent characteristic of the total universe of institutions. Time devoted to external consulting is also comparable — 4 percent at Moo U, 3 percent in the federal study.

The second novel, Wonder Boys, is mostly about getting loaded — as you can see from the figure of 12 percent in the drinking/drug-taking category. But it also falls into a fairly predictable range in the research and service categories, with 9 percent devoted to research and 6 percent to service. The main service activity is the annual gala called WordFest, in which English majors get to meet editors and publishers from New York City, which also probably explains all the drinking and sex.

Straight Man, set in a comprehensive university, shows itself to be pretty much like my home institution — heavy on the service component at 16 percent, which is close to the NSOPF’s 18 percent, and also, traditionally, with a demanding teaching load, lighter on research and scholarship, with only 4 percent of faculty time devoted to these latter activities.

But the most striking aspect of a comparison of three 1990s academic novels with a survey of faculty work in the 1990s lies in the top row of Table 2: the percentage of faculty effort devoted to teaching. If you look at the top line across all columns, you can see what academic novels tell us about teaching, and that is: very little. They tell us about research and service in roughly the same proportions as they occur in real life. They tell us about sex, drugs, and rock and roll in probably even greater proportions than they occur in real life, at least in my real life. But they don’t tell us much about teaching — 60 percent of faculty work in real life, but only 9 percent in all three of the novels.

Federal survey data (as well as our own experiences) tell us that faculty devote much of their time to teaching, so it is striking that teaching shows up so infrequently in books that purport to represent the academic life. Why isn’t teaching more thoroughly and comprehensively portrayed in these books?

The Hidden Activity
The novels themselves give us an answer: Teaching is the most private and solitary act in academic life, and teaching is almost always done behind closed doors. In these novels, even the sex is more public than the teaching. The characters have sex in the stacks at the library, in the stairwells, in campus greenhouses, in any available open space. But teaching is always private, unseen, invisible, imperceptible to the general academic community. This central fact about teaching is pungently illustrated in a scene from Straight Man:

The main character Hank Devereaux says:

I stop outside Finny’s classroom and peer in through the small window in the door. … His students have the grim look of death camp dwellers, . . . six of the eleven consult their watches. Four yawn. One starts violently awake. And they’re only fifteen minutes into class. . . .

I make what I think is a clean getaway, but then I hear the classroom door open behind me and feel pursuit. “This,” Finny hisses at my retreating form, “is harassment.” . . .

I hold up my hands in surrender. “Finny —”

“Stay away from my classroom, or I’ll file a grievance,” he warns me. “I’ll get a restraining order if I have to.”

This is privacy with a vengeance.

There are probably at least two reasons why teaching is such an intensely private activity. First of all, the academy has few institutionalized, formalized structures to make teaching a more public and a more accessible venture, which is not the case for the other major parts of faculty work: scholarship and service.

Although research is done in the privacy of an office, study, laboratory, or library carrel, and research results are often written up by a single individual working alone, the articles and books generated are submitted to journals and publishers for others to read, review, and comment upon.

Likewise with service. Faculty members may read a tenure candidate’s dossier in the privacy of their offices, but then they go to a meeting and talk about it.

But there is no comparable mechanism for teaching. Teaching usually involves a lone professor. Teachers may share and discuss and form a community with their students, but scarcely ever with their colleagues, their peers, their equals. This is the reason to feel hopeful about the scholarship-of-teaching movement.

If we believe that free exchange of information makes for better research; if we believe that discussion and conversations make for better decisions about tenure and promotions and curriculum; in short, if we believe that discussion can improve research and service, then it seems likely that discussion can also improve teaching and learning.

Beyond Analysis?
The second reason that teaching seems so inaccessible and invisible is that it is often perceived to be a black box; that is, something that we accept, admire, sometimes even reward, but never analyze very well. Exactly what do we mean when we say “teaching”?

According to the definitions used in NSOPF, teaching is at least five separate and distinct activities: preparing for class, performing in the classroom, developing new courses, advising or supervising students, and grading or evaluating their work. Although NSOPF identified teaching as comprising these activities, it didn’t collect data about them individually.

Interestingly, however, a 1994 survey of Cal State faculty did collect data to show what percentage of time was devoted to each of these activities, and they are shown in Table 3. Like most faculty members at comprehensive universities, professors at CSU campuses devote almost 60 percent of their work time to teaching — 59.43 percent, to be exact.

Table 3
Breakdown of Cal State Faculty Work Devoted to Teaching, Total = 59.43%

Teaching Activity Percentage of Time
Preparing for class 17.60
Performing in classroom; presenting 17.63
Developing new curricula 3.39
Advising or supervising students 10.74


Source: 1994 Teaching, Technology, and Scholarship Project Faculty Survey. Institutional Profile for CSUC [California State Universities and Colleges] Institutions.

As these percentages show, Cal State professors spend as much time preparing for class as they do actually performing in a classroom, and they spend even more time — almost 21 percent — interacting with students outside the classroom, either by evaluating their tests and papers or through conversations during office hours and in the hallways.

Traditionally, the focus has been on only one aspect of teaching: performance in the classroom. When assistant professors are considered for tenure, faculty peers observe their classroom performance. When job candidates are invited to interview, they give a classroom lecture. Often neglected or overlooked are the other activities that actually take more time and may even be more demanding and more meaningful for students. What makes a good syllabus? What makes a good test? What kinds of research projects are likely to help students learn? What constitutes a helpful comment on a student’s paper? Questions like these have often been overshadowed by an emphasis on only one activity — performance in the classroom.

The three novels don’t say much about teaching, but when they do, they give full justice to the range of activities that are teaching. The portrayals of the various activities of “teaching” in academic novels suggest that we need to disassemble the black box; that we need to look more closely at all the components that go into teaching, and not emphasize classroom performance to the near exclusion of the other activities that are equally critical to student success — how we prepare syllabi, how we design assignments, how we grade papers, and even how we talk with students in the hallways.

What do academic novels tell us about teaching? That it is invisible; that even though teaching is the most significant part of academic work, it is the least visible, the least discussed, the least shared experience. It is legitimate and professional to talk about scholarship and committee work, but teaching is not yet a respectable and respected topic of conversation. And before we can improve teaching, we first need to make teaching a fit subject of conversation.

Lorie Roth is assistant vice chancellor for academic programs for the 23-campus California State University system. Contact her at

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