WARNING: Non-Medieval Content Ahead
Last night, I watched Stranger than Fiction, a film in which Dustin Hoffman plays a professor of literary theory named "Professor Jules Hilbert." Though I'm sure as I watched the film I was supposed to be struck by the cleverness of using Vladimir Propp-style theory to help the protagonist determine his future by plugging his situation into a few archetypal story arcs, I couldn't concentrate on it because of Prof. Hilbert's office.
This office* was HUGE. Two of the walls were glass, looking out on a nice view. No doubt a single piece of this furniture was of more value than all the furniture in my entire office. The Chancellor's office at my university isn't as nice as this English professor's office was.
Well, maybe he is some kind of celebrity professor, then? At one point in the film, he mentions that he is teaching FIVE courses that semester -- a terribly heavy load even at a community college. He talks about teaching, and he talks about service, but the only research he really talks about is writing un-answered letters to Emma Thompson's character. So, here's a guy on a burdensome teaching load with an office that would rival that of most university presidents.
I own a business on the town square. Every so often, my students will meet my wife there (she runs it) and realize it is mine. They then ask me a question like, "Why do you own a business? I mean, if I got paid as much as a professor, I wouldn't work so hard." I then ask them how much they think I make, and they nearly always give an answer in the six-figure territory.
It's surprising how much people think professors make. Here is a movie about a character in a book who also happens to be a real person, who can hear the narrator speaking in his head, and the most unbelievable part of the film is the professor's office. Though movies like this no doubt feed the image of the wealthy professor, I think it probably reacts more to an image people already have. Somehow, we are perceived as wealthy.
Perhaps it is because we are respected, and people equate respect with wealth. Not many jobs come with a title, and most professors (in America anyway) are entitled to two: Doctor and Professor. Doctors make a lot of money, right? And they aren't even real PhDs -- in most cases, they are merely MDs, right? Therefore, it stands to reason that professors make even more than medical doctors!
Perhaps it is because everyone around us is so poor. I spend most of my day around two types of people: other professors and students. Other professors are paid on a similar pay scale to me, and students are at the poorest they will probably ever be in their lives. By comparison to students, professors are rolling in the dough!
Or perhaps it is because so many professors come out of families with money. Though there are plenty of first-generation-college-graduates among the ranks of professors, graduate school is an expensive proposition, so it helps to have parents with financial resources. Often I'll meet professors with very expensive tastes, and in most cases these were cultivated as they were growing up.
I understand the image of professors as lazy -- most of the work done by professors is done when no one is watching. Not surprisingly, most college graduates think of the job of professors as being teachers, and so when professors spend no more than 12 hours a week in the classroom, it sure seems like we don't do much of anything. Research and service tend to be solitary activities (or at least out of the public eye), so they are naturally not noticed. This I understand. The wealthy professor? That part I don't get at all.
*I couldn't find an image of the office online. Sorry.