History Professors on Screen

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Is it time for Indiana Jones to move over? NBC this fall aired a new series featuring a history professor (!). In Timeless, which rebooted on January 16, Abigail Spencer plays Lucy Parsons, a specialist in the history and anthropology of American politics who is recruited to a time travel team whose task is to save the world from a chrono-terrorist.

Lucy Parsons is noteworthy because fictional history professors have been a rare species in film and television. For other leading roles, there’s Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), a Boston University professor of U.S. history turned freedom fighter in the TNT series Falling Skies (2011–15) and Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), George Washington University professor of history (not physics) in the film Arlington Road (1999).

So perhaps there’s a new answer to the question “What can I do with a Ph.D. in history?” According to Hollywood films and network television, you can battle extraterrestrial aliens like Tom Mason, unmask terrorists like Michael Faraday, or work at “protecting history, preserving the past” by hopping into a time machine that looks like a giant cement mixer like Lucy Parsons.

It is certainly encouraging that U.S. history professors are judged capable of derring-do, especially if they are younger than fifty and physically attractive, but these scattered appearances also offer a way to consider the public perception of academic historians. These are productions for American audiences, and the leads all specialize in United States history (we trust that they’ve joined the OAH in their backstory). What sorts of historical events do showrunners think will be interesting to a general public? What specialization should we choose if we want to be useful in an adventure? Will historians ever get equal screen time with astronomers, computer scientists, and archaeologists?

We tell students that history is all about contextual analysis and critical thinking. However, scriptwriters don’t seem to know how to make the most of their characters’ professional lives. History professors on screen function as purveyors of information. Despite their years of study honing sharp interpretive interventions, their contributions are usually textbook-level facts.

In Falling Skies, a show about desperate armed resistance to invaders from distant stars, Tom Mason occasionally adds some value to the anti-Espheni struggle by drawing on his knowledge of military history as second-in-command of the Second Massachusetts Militia Regiment. The series does not delve very deeply into the possibilities, however. Instead, Mason reels off encouraging analogies from classical history and the American Revolution before leading a squad of ragtag fighters against patrolling aliens. For someone whose biggest previous battle was for tenure, he’s more impressive as a guerrilla fighter than an analytical historian.

In Arlington Road, a thriller about domestic terrorism, tightly wound Michael Faraday teaches a course on “American Terrorism.” Early in the film we sit in on a class in which he comments that “terrorist acts, violent political theater” have always been a fringe element of the political process. An impassioned lecturer, he challenges students to wonder why anti-government actions have been rising in an era of prosperity. Rather than voting, we need to understand why “more and more of us are joining the ranks of a resistance.” His obsession is the bombing of the “Roosevelt Federal Building” in St. Louis, an event very closely modeled on the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. In a second lecture he questions the narrative that a single man perpetrated the bombing. The public wants a single name, fast, so that it can forget and move on, he tells the students, implying that he is not so naïve.

This is a promising start, but the movie leaves the university as Faraday becomes increasingly suspicious of his new neighbors on his suburban Virginia street. Leaving historical interpretation behind, he picks up the phone and pretends to be checking references to pry information out of the University of Kansas registration and records office. He turns himself into an investigative journalist and detective to uncover the neighbors’ hidden links to the St. Louis bombing, tries to stop their new plans, and ends up himself an unwitting victim and bomber—historian as conspiracy theorist proved correct, darn it.

Viewers meet Lucy Parsons in Timeless as she lectures to a large class, standing in front of a big split screen and wearing a headset mike like Taylor Swift. Her topic is the American war in Vietnam, which she attributes to LBJ’s sense of masculinity as expressed in his admiration for his own penis. “We’ve got to get inside these people’s heads,” she tells the students, good advice to any historian, but the lecture ends before we get any further. It turns out that Lucy’s mother is a famous historian, now ailing and retired, who built the department, but that Lucy is being denied tenure—no reasons given. Before she has a chance to consult with her AAUP chapter, however, agents from the Department of Homeland Security whisk her away to a secret installation that happens to contain a time machine. The feds want to pair her with a computer programmer and veteran of the U.S. Army Delta Force as a time travel team who will repeatedly head back into the past to foil a bad guy who has stolen the world’s other time machine. Their first stop is the Hindenburg disaster. The episodes that follow are like opening an American history text to random chapters ranging from the French and Indian War to the Watergate burglary and points in between.

Lucy has initial doubts, but the feds reassure her that she is “world class” expert [then why no tenure, especially since she causally mentions in episode two that she wrote a book on Lincoln’s assassination]. Her job in the sequence of adventures is to help track down the time criminal, while periodically turning history nerd to provide nuggets of information that familiarize the team members and audience with the events the episode is revisiting. She also helps wardrobe specialists get period clothing right and reminds the other team members how to blend in with the appropriate decade. To her credit, she can pop up information about relatively obscure figures such as Shawnee leader Nonhelema and Revolutionary era spy Austin Roe as well as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Scriptwriters are also cautious in their choice of historical topics and events. The bombing of the Albert Murrah Building in Oklahoma City was still familiar in 1999, when Arlington Road was released. Setting the resistance to alien invaders in Falling Skies in the vicinity of Boston resonates with viewers who remember the origins of the American Revolution. As with the alternative history and time travel genre in general, the events and situations in Timeless are also reasonably familiar, allowing the action to crank up rapidly without a minimum of exposition. Week by week, Professor Parsons encounters John Wilkes Booth, William Travis and Davy Crockett, Wernher von Braun, George Washington and Benedict Arnold, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. This need for reader or audience familiarity is why slews of alternative history stories pivot on the Battle of Gettysburg but none that I know of on the Battle of Perryville, which saved the Ohio Valley for the Union. I’m not expecting fu­­­ture Timeless stories to deal with the McKinley Tariff Act or Baker v. Carr.

We still face the problem that there aren’t many of us on screen. History professors are popular as talking heads in documentaries, but less so as dramatis per­sonae. Films and TV often depict “hard” scientists as both heroes and villains—eccentric genius inventors, epidemiologists, forensic anthropologists, astronomers, computer wizards concocting artificial beings. In the current science fiction film Arrival, Amy Adams gets to star as a genius linguistics professor, operating very like a real linguist.

Closer to our area of expertise are adventuresome archaeologists like Indiana Jones and tomb raiders like Lara Croft, whose exploits highlight the dramatic dilemma in putting fictional historians on screen. Archaeologists decode ancient maps and crack open ancient tombs. Historians file Freedom of Information Act requests and leaf through dusty tomes. When those ancient pages contain something earthshaking, it’s not a historian but a professor of “religious iconology” and “symbology” who puzzles out the Da Vinci code. In the same vein, National Treasure (2004) and National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) are also preposterous adventure-heist films that revolve around historic documents and artifacts. Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage) is a treasure hunter and cryptologist with degrees in engineering from MIT and American history from Georgetown, but he doesn’t have university obligations to get in the way of exciting break-ins. His mother, played by Helen Mirren in the second film, does teach at the University of Maryland, but her field is linguistics with a specialty in Native American languages—again close, but not quite academic history.

It is encouraging, nevertheless, that the two history professors who are shown doing what we’re paid for—teaching—seem pretty good at it. Early scenes portray both Lucy Parsons and Michael Faraday as confident and authoritative lecturers who are likely to receive positive student evaluations. Neither is a pompous gasbag nor an archetypal absent-minded prof, and their competence establishes that other characters in the story should take them seriously and respect their expertise.

Another bright spot may also cheer some members of the profession. Recent years have seen considerable professional angst about the decline of traditional political and military history. If you are willing to be whisked away into a parallel universe, however, these are the very specialties you should pursue to be an action-adventure star.

Carl Abbott is Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, Emeritus, at Portland State University. A specialist in urban history, his most recent book is Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Wesleyan University Press, 2016).

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