So You Think an English Professor's Life Is a Cartoon

Many academics do—and the online animation site they use has become a tool for teaching as well as satire

Jeremy Drey for The Chronicle

Leslie Allison, a doctoral student studying 20th-century American literature at Temple U., spent $5 and about 90 minutes to craft a cartoon satire of Ph.D. life that has attracted almost a million views on the Web.
January 16, 2011

Leslie Allison has a dream. She hopes to be a professor teaching upper-level English classes at a small liberal-arts college, one that would allow her the freedom to do research without the pressure to do it for tenure.

Yeah, she knows.

No need to burst her bubble. Ms. Allison, a 26-year-old English Ph.D. student at Temple University, has already done more than anyone in America to poke fun at this particular aspiration.

She belongs to a growing army of amateur animators who have used a do-it-yourself cartoon-video Web site, called Xtranormal, to vent about the academic life. The company's simple text-to-movie technology—"If you can type, you can make movies," goes the slogan—is gaining a wide following among educators as a tool for both teaching and satire.

Chances are that you're among the nearly one million people who have relished a dark chuckle over Ms. Allison's online video, "So You Want to Get A PhD in the Humanities." That's the one where a jaded professor warns a bright undergraduate that she will waste away in a library for up to nine years of grad school, only to get a job earning less than a janitor at a college in Alaska, where she will remain single forever and work 65 hours a week "trying to publish an obscure article that no one cares about in an obscure scholarly journal that nobody will read."

"I like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society," the pigtailed idealist shoots back. "I want to live a life of the mind."

"Oh my God," the professor says. "Life is not a movie script."

The novelty of the site is that anybody's life can become fodder for a hit movie. To make a video, you buy points to spend on the predesigned characters and sets in Xtranormal's Web library. Then you enter a script to make those characters speak, in their deadpan robot tones. You don't need much money or any editing skills. And you can publish the finished product, anonymously or not, to YouTube, Facebook, and Xtranormal's own site.

Ms. Allison spent $5 and about 90 minutes to craft her blockbuster, posting it to YouTube under the alias "MinnieMouse1224."

"Historically there's been no way of anyone making a movie this easily," says Graham Sharp, president and chief executive of Xtranormal, which has offices in Boston, San Francisco, and Montreal. "We've become the tool that every niche group can make videos with."

Nearly every higher-education niche has done just that, it seems, though the gags often make sense only to insiders. For example, do you find regression-discontinuity designs funny? Political scientists do.

Useful in the Classroom

Beyond disciplinary ridicule, some fans argue, Xtranormal does actually have a classroom use: instructional videos.

Educators were among the first to stumble on the site, in 2009, back when its creators had a very different business plan. They originally tried to sell the system to animation professionals. That bombed, Mr. Sharp says, because the product lacked enough features. But was there a market for text-to-movie technology among ordinary consumers? In part because of Xtranormal's popularity with teachers, who were using the software to animate lessons in subjects like Spanish, the company decided to find out.

It worked. In June, Xtranormal scored its first viral sensation with "iPhone4 vs HTC Evo," about a store clerk trying to convince an iPhone-crazed customer that an Evo was just as good. The profanity-filled film, created by a 25-year-old employee of Best Buy, has had 11.4 million views on YouTube.

With 30 employees and hardly any marketing, Xtranormal has spread to about 2.2 million registered users, Mr. Sharp says. Those cartoon dabblers have created roughly 9.5 million movies.

The company is working on making the site more useful in the classroom, with education-specific features anticipated by midyear. After Xtranormal triggered an outcry by switching from a free service to a "freemium" model, which costs money, one frequent request has been a group subscription rate, Mr. Sharp says. That way instructors might get access to characters and sets for 20 students, plus the ability to monitor their work. He may hire a consultant, he says, "to help us get our education offering correct."

Ms. Allison, who teaches an undergraduate introduction-to-fiction class at Temple, is already planning an extra-credit assignment using Xtranormal. She wants students to create a conversation between two characters in a book they are reading for class, or between two authors with competing philosophies.

She drafted her humanities video after seeing another parody, "So You Want to Go to Law School," which apparently set the template for many of the spoofs that followed. Ms. Allison has a personal blog but says publishing such comments in that medium could seem like "ranting."

"The cartoon aspect of the video lends some humor to it and allows people to receive the message that you're putting across more positively," she says. "Even though it's a very cynical message."

Even so, Ms. Allison instantly panicked after posting her video on Facebook. She feared getting in trouble with her department for disparaging Harold Bloom as a "misogynistic narcissist" who was given his own department at Yale "because no one could frackin' stand him."

She took down the video after 10 minutes. But it was too late. Two of her friends had already shared it.

'Bring Out the Crazy'

Like Ms. Allison, Katharine McDermott saw the law-school clip and decided to make one about her subculture, the academic library.

College libraries are like the "prissy" older siblings of their public peers, quips Ms. McDermott, 27, a reference clerk at the Pratt Institute's library, in New York. She scripted a fake job interview for her affectionate send-up, "So You Want to Be an [Academic] Librarian."

"I don't want to work in a public library," the job candidate declares to her interviewer. "I hate children and poor people. I am very sensitive to foul odors. I want to wear argyle sweaters and loafers to work."

What follows is four minutes of riffing on the minutiae of library life: the divide between librarians and clerks; the e-mail lists that spew out 20 messages an hour; the exacting personalities of otherwise cool people who flip out when something is moved to the wrong shelf.

"In order to control all of this information, and to make it accessible to people, you kind of have to bring out the crazy," Ms. McDermott says. "You have to care about the Dewey Decimal System... Having to care about that, it really highlights some of the more sadistic tendencies of the information professional."

Both Ms. McDermott and Ms. Allison stress that their real-life professional experiences have been positive, exceptionally so, despite the bile of their videos.

Ms. Allison notes that Temple's graduate program has given her funds, plus full health insurance.

"I'm not as bitter as my characters come across," she says, chuckling.

Web Satires of Academic Careers

More than a few corners of academic life, it seems, have spawned their own spoofs on Xtranormal. Here's a partial list, and you can search for these titles on and Some of the videos include profanity.

"So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities"

"So You Want to Be an [Academic] Librarian"

"So You Want to Be a Historian?"

"So You Want to Go to Law School"

"So You Want to Be a Journalist"

"So You Want to Get a Ph.D. in Political Science"

"So You Want to Go to Business School"

"So You Want to Get a Ph.D. in Physics?"

"What English Professors Talk About"

"One Professor's Fantasy"