Over the weekend Cosimo and I went to see Agora, a movie set in fourth-century Alexandria and focusing on the female scientist and philosopher Hypatia. (The movie has had only limited theatrical release, but it's available next month on DVD.) The cinematography was stunning and the story potentially compelling, but in the end I found it disappointing: the narrative dragged, the Christians were cartoonish bad-guys--who nevertheless seemed more obsessed with defending geocentrism than debunking pagan gods--and there were countless missed opportunities to depict the movie's political and intellectual conflicts with more nuance.
Still, I was interested in the way the movie tried to dramatize the intellectual life. The filmmakers clearly didn't know how to portray Hypatia as a teacher: we see her instructing a group of young men on a few occasions, but they're awkward, flat scenes, and it's not clear that the men are there for any reason other than the hot pants (hot togas?) that Hypatia gives them. The scenes involving her intellectual investigations are a bit better, particularly toward the end; I liked the fact that the movie didn't shy away from some basic geometry or from a coherent explanation of the Ptolomaic universe and why it was so hard to escape that model.
It got me thinking about how hard it is to dramatize what we do, by which I mean, what we actually do, as teachers and researchers. There are plenty of compelling movies about teachers, though those movies tend to equate "good teaching" with having a charismatic classroom presence and endless amounts of compassion. But being a good teacher doesn't have much to do with the teacher's personality, and most of learning doesn't happen in the classroom. It happens inside students' heads, over a long period of time, in unpredictable and entirely undramatic ways. Movies can only hint at this, by showing us what we take to be external signs of those internal changes: the students start showing up for class and stop acting out. They speak excitedly and articulately. They pass tests and they win awards.
It's even harder to dramatize scholarship. The only even halfway successful movie examples I can think of feature research-as-detective-story: the scholar discovers new documents in an archive, or an attic, or some long-neglected record-books (possibly while receiving obscure threats from people in high places) and eventually OVERTURNS EVERYTHING WE THOUGHT WE KNEW.
Now, plenty of us work in archives on a regular basis. But even on the rare occasion that we turn up a shocking! new! fact! (that this writer was a secret homosexual or that that nobleman's poems were actually written by his sister), the discovery itself isn't the real work. We still have to spend countless hours working at home or in shabby libraries, reading crappy monographs and badly-photocopied articles, and cajoling the ILL librarian to order us just one more book after we've been blocked from the system. We write draft after draft, do more research, get some feedback, and revise. After a year or two or three, we might produce a 40-page journal article.
If it's good, that journal article will be referenced and wrestled with for thirty years. If it's really good, it could totally transform the shape of our field. But even if the response to a given work of scholarship is dramatic, there's not much dramatic about the process by which it gets researched and written. (Which isn't to say that it's not enthralling, at least sometimes, for the scholar herself; it just doesn't make for good cinema.)
But maybe I've just been watching the wrong movies. What are your votes for films that come closest to conveying what it is that we actually do, as teachers and scholars?