Who can doubt that academic life is full of striking human dramas?
Alongside the familiar campus novels and detective fiction set in universities, there are a fair number of plays and films focused on academic rivalries or seductions. A while ago, I became intrigued by the slightly less trodden topic of academics in comics and graphic novels and soon found some lovely examples. These ranged from the most basic of superhero comics to sharp satire and even Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful memoir of growing up in Iran.
Perhaps strangest were the writers who decided to produce a graphic novel about the attempt of the philosopher Bertrand Russell to put the whole of mathematics on firm foundations. This led to a book – said to have been read by only a single person – which took 362 pages to prove that “1 + 1 = 2”.
It might seem hard to think of a less dramatic subject for a book, but Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou’s Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth is a huge favourite of mine, partly because it conveys so well just how dizzying and even “dangerous” some forms of very abstract research can be, how they can lead to despair and even madness.
I am delighted that my own amateur efforts to explore these themes are now being supplemented by serious academic research.
Pauline Reynolds, associate professor in education at the University of Redlands, and her research associate Sara Durazo-DeMoss (California State University), as I explain in the latest edition of Times Higher Education, have analysed the picture of university life to be found in 100 different comic books covering the period from 1938 to 2015. The results are not pretty.
Superheroes and heroic animals, including Lassie and Yogi Bear, may pop up on campuses, but female and ethnic minority professors are notable by their absence – and the rare examples who do turn up almost invariably come to sticky ends.
Fortunately, however, today’s graphic novelists are presenting more realistic reports from the academy. Those who dip their toes into serious research by embarking on a PhD can find it a somewhat soul-destroying experience, but I’m not aware of much fiction that describes what it’s like. Now a French graphic novelist called Tiphaine Rivière, as I describe here, has drawn on her own story of failing to complete a doctorate and produced a brilliant black comedy called Notes on a Thesis.
Her heroine, Jeanne, is working on “the labyrinthine motif in the works of Kafka”, although it is a sign of her increasing disengagement from the world that she can’t stop making minor adjustments to the title of her thesis. She earns the money to keep herself going by doing administrative work at the university, under a boss utterly determined to break her spirit. But her real problem is getting caught up in the labyrinthine details of her own research and never managing to get more than cursory feedback from her supervisor, the arrogant and overworked Kafka expert Alexandre Karpov.
Eventually she becomes obsessed with getting even the briefest comments from him and drives her boyfriend crazy by talking about nothing else. Scientists doing “real” PhDs in laboratories treat her with contempt.
As Jeanne’s life gets bleaker and bleaker, it begins to resemble the subject of her thesis – a parable in which a man waits endlessly outside “the gates of the law” in an attempt to find justice. PhD students hoping for a word from a supervisor, particularly if he is a French superstar academic, may also be destined to wait for ever…
It is not unusual to hear of doctoral students who feel abandoned and, often as a result, abandon their PhDs halfway, just as Rivière did. It’s great to have the issue raised so eloquently in such an amusing book.