In celebration of the F.E.P.
I am a fortnight away – less – from the end of my undergraduate degree. In October I will start a Masters. The October after that, with luck, a PhD. My usual flippant explanation when people ask about this is that staying at university forever seems like the easiest way to avoid having to get a real job, but well. The cosy, slightly unreal nature of academia is absolutely a factor. The sheer desire to communicate ideas is another. (Never, ever, let me get started on Interesting Things I Have Learnt Today.)
I aspire to teach. I would be perfectly happy to spend an entire career discussing books with students and never do any research at all, though the research is also fun. But the absolute pinnacle of my aspirations is to be a Famous Eccentric Professor.
Famous Eccentric Professorship is that elusive state of being whereby one has been around doing respectable work for long enough that you can say more or less anything and people will at least give it a hearing. If it is remotely plausible it will be hailed as an insight of utter genius; if it turns out to be complete rubbish, you will be forgiven because you are Famous and Eccentric and operate on a rarefied plane that only occasionally makes contact with the real world.
There are some F.E.P.s who are genuinely F. – people who are household names. I should add that the F.E.P. does not need to be a literal academic P.; alongside academics like Tolkien, Hawking or Dawkins, I would count as an F.E.P. someone like Stephen Fry, who has an impenetrable aura of knowledgeability to the point where everything on QI could be an utter lie and nobody would notice.
The inverse of the non-academic F.E.P. is the hermit-like, only-academic F.E.P., who can only be called F. within the bounds of their particular field of study. The nature of academia is such that a long-serving specialist in medieval romance or asteroids or lichen or cuttlefish or post-structuralism can attain near-veneration by the small cult of researchers who also study those things whilst remaining utterly unknown to the world beyond. Those few who, for whatever reason, reach out to the public may become household names; but for every F.E.P. who writes a Lord of the Rings or a Brief History of Time or a God Delusion and is suddenly on everyone’s radar, there are probably half a dozen of their colleagues held in equal esteem who are perfectly happy to remain obscure.
There are degrees of F.E.P., as well. Every university department has its F.E.P.-in-training, who has been at the university for approximately forever and probably taught some of the faculty when they were students, and gives magisterially and without notes the same set of lectures they have been giving since 1907. They may well have a pet theory to which they subject their supervisees, or be working on a fourteen-volume edition or fantastically complex theorem that has been ‘almost finished’ for twenty years. They will long since have lost their awe of those who came before them, and are the most likely species of lecturer to cheerily inform you that Important Thinker A is an outdated irrelevance. And they will get away with this.
F.E.P.s gain an intangible aura of credibility that is extremely hard to dispel. Because being an F.E.P. means that any subject of which you speak, or potentially anything you do, gains a temporary sheen of your gravitas, rendering it for a little while immune to any negative connotations it may have. The downside of this is that famous people can and do get away with murder, sometimes literally. An example might be the disgusting number of people willing to rush to Roman Polanski’s defence: apparently drugging and raping a 13-year-old child and then fleeing justice for thirty years is A-OK when you’re an auteur.
The positive side of the F.E.P.’s +5 Aura of Seriousness is that under cover of it, things can sneak into the public eye that have been traditionally derided. Stephen Fry’s credibility rubs off on Twitter and his other famously favourite gadgets. When Stephen Hawking talks about aliens (his advice is ‘avoid them’, incidentally), people listen.
Or look at Tolkien. Teenaged geeks who dream up 1000 years of history and four languages for their EPIC FANTASY TRILOGY (I have known enough fanficcers and would-be fantasy authors, many of whom were the same people, to know that a fourteen-year-old joining an Internet message board of a certain kind is 99% certain to be writing an EPIC TRILOGY of some variety. I was) are derided for, well, being teenaged geeks. But let the long-serving and well-respected Professor of Anglo-Saxon stand up in front of an audience and give a lecture on his invented language, culminating in a whimsical poem about light-footed nymphs, and why, you have a work of genius.
And finally, for an example that hasn’t actually happened yet, I suspect that the videogaming industry will finally start to come of age in the public eye when someone of the F.E.P. variety puts their official stamp of credibility on it – when a famous movie critic or professor of literature says “This is art,” or, better still, just discusses some game as art as if this goes without saying.
I have been scrupulously gender-neutral in referring to my hypothetical F.E.P.s, but there remains the fact that most of them (all four I mention above, for example) are men. I suspect this is simply down to the fact that long service is an essential component of becoming an F.E.P., and so the number of women in that position now is nowhere near the number of women on their way to it. (Ex.: my year of English is over 70% female; the teaching staff is over 70% male.) I imagine the ratio will alter as the current crop of male professors die or retire and their places are filled by the generation below, and so on. By about the year 2050, I fully expect there to be scads of female professors emeritae and Heads of Department pontificating happily to their students. Maybe I’ll even be one of them.