The Missing Professor: An Academic Mystery
reviewed by Mark Morton - September 06, 2006
Look at its front cover, and youll see that The Missing Professor by Thomas B. Jones is subtitled an academic mystery; flip the book upside-down, glance at its back cover, and youll see that its described as a collection of informal case studies/discussion stories for faculty development, new faculty orientation, and campus conversations. This bifurcation is in fact the books premise (or gimmick). When read casually, its the story of Nicole Adams, a recent Ph.D. who has accepted her first faculty position at Higher State University in Iowa, an institution plagued with problems ranging from the threatened loss of accreditation, financial mismanagement, a Dean who serves cannabis-laced brownies to his faculty, and a professor who goes missing the day that Nicole arrives on campus. However, when approached more reflectively, the tale becomes a catalyst for serious discussion as its chapters comment on issues that will be familiar to faculty at any institution of higher learning: admission standards, peer evaluation, classroom management, faculty governance, core curricula, tenure standards, and so forth.
To spur discussion of such issues, the author has included a series of questions at the end of the book (in the upside-down section) that are as pithy as they are thought-provoking. Over 100 of these questions are provided, and I can easily imagine a group of interested faculty, with or without the guidance of a faculty developer, using any one of these questions as a starting place for collegial conversation. Heres a sampling:
How are peer evaluations of teaching conducted on your campus? Are there other approaches to peer evaluation of teaching that might be more effective and appropriate? (p. 6)
How would you define student incivility? (p. 8)
What lies behind changes and reforms in general education throughout higher education over the past fifteen years? (p. 19)
Why do you think most colleges and universities have been reluctant to grant credit for prior experiential learning or to expand such programs? (p. 12)
Equally useful are the links to online resources that the author intersperses among these discussion questions, such as the Carnegie Foundations introduction to the scholarship of teaching and learning, or Indiana Universitys Survey on Academic Incivility. This part of the bookthe discursive codaare the pages to which I will certainly return in my role as a faculty developer.
However, much less successful is the fictional aspect of the book. The front cover, as I mentioned, identifies the book as an academic mystery and yet the inside jacket describes it as a parody of an academic mystery. This uncertainty is carried over into the narrative, where the story seems to vacillate between screwball antics on the one hand (such as a masquerade party where someone dressed as a zucchini attacks the universitys benefactor: Vegetable and host wrestled across the platform gourd and lord locked in mortal combat (p. 106) and numbingly conventional plot elements on the other hand (such as the protagonist quitting her job and leaving the state in the final chapter, only to be pursued and caught by Clark, her handsome colleague and recent love interest the fact that Nicole has just been worrying about her student debts, and that Clark has just received an extremely large reward for having found a million-dollar painting, makes Clarks last-minute appearance an especially clichéd and patriarchal deus ex machina).
This unhappy marriage of parody and conventional story can even be seen in the names of the characters: as in most spoofs, we have characters with names that seem humorously allegorical. To note only two, consider Olaf I. M. Osgood (a mere stones throw from O. I. M. So Good) and President Thea Monark (her moniker implies she is not just a President, but also a goddess and sovereign). Yet these characters inhabit the same world as the mundanely named Bob Olufssen, Clark Mackenzie, and Paula Pendergrass. These odd juxtapositions might be forgiven if the characters were engaging or even likable. But for the most part, the faculty and administrators who make up the majority of the characters in the novel seem like one-dimensional, mean-spirited scoffers, embroiled in petty disputes, waxing nostalgic for the good old days, and behaving much like the unruly students for whom they have such disdain: With that Runting abruptly exited the lecture hall, the faculty pushing and shoving to follow her out like grade school kids at recess (p. 39). I also found it a bit unseemly that these ostensible professionals often manifest an inordinate fondness for touching one another: Sunny walked behind Simons chair and placed her hands on his shoulders and let it be noted that this occurs during a committee meeting.
However, The Missing Professor is not without its good moments. I laughed out loud upon reading this description of a committee meeting that has come off the rails:
Quickly the discussion advanced to intricate arguments about morality, orality, fatality, semiotics, linguistics, ballistics, structuralism, objectivism, yogi-isms, reification, sublation, globalization, and Oprah. Professor Flavelich stared at the opposite wall, his eyes glazed. (p. 85)
Likewise, the faculty members demonstrate some redeeming wit when they slightly alter the pronunciation of the last word in the title of the administrations action plan, A Commitment to Focus.
I can certainly admire the laudable goal of The Missing Professor: to entertain as it educates, to use the genre of the (parody) mystery novel as a springboard to exploring the serious issues that currently confront faculty members. In this regard, the book recalls Edmund Spensers sixteenth-century epic, The Faerie Queene, which aims, as Spenser himself tells us
to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline: which should be most plausible and pleasing, being colored with an historical fiction, the which the most part of men delight to read, rather for variety of matter, than for profit of the example. (p. 625)
In other words, if you want to capture the attention of a busy sixteenth-century courtier you have to cloak your ideas in something that he will find delightful rather than profitable. Whether you have to take a similar tack in getting the attention of a busy, twenty-first-century academic is an open question. But if you do, then I dont think The Missing Professor will do the trick. There is merit in its sober section of discussion questions at the end of the book, but as an entertaining mystery novel or parody, it falls flat.
Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene, Book 1. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. M. H. Abrams, et al. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2000. 624-771.