It's not hard to be a professor.

It's hard not to be a professor.

For anyone bound to academia by even the most nebulous of ties, these statements seem both ludicrous and paradoxically true. To push them past the threshold of believability, all you need is a rejiggering of semantics.

Who counts as a "professor"? As of 2016 contingent faculty make up a solid majority of the American professoriate, with 73% of university teaching jobs off the tenure track.1 And what do we mean by "to be"? Does "being a professor" merely encompass all the acts that, together, add up to the practice of professing now: research and writing, recommending and admitting, lecturing masked in unventilated classrooms, or adapting lesson plans for video conferences?

Alternatively, is "to be" a gloss for "to become" that is, to receive at least one faculty appointment? You might argue this way, substituting equivalents, that it's comparatively easy for a humanities PhD on the market to be a professor, even if living as one is increasingly hard. Any job candidate who secures a contract to teach one course for a single term has done it: become the professor as labor commodity, as Deborah Thurman sketches it out in her essay for this cluster, fungible in their interchangeability.2

The job market feels like a rigged game: labor-intensive despite its unwinnability and, frankly, unaesthetic. Its constant, unglamorous grind yields, in most cases, no shining tokens of progress. Still, continued attachment to the academy can be challenging to shake off a cruel optimism, a sunk cost. It's hard to not be a professor when you haven't envisioned anything else for your future.

Both of us eventually made the imaginative adjustment from aspiring professors to people who "left the field." But before that, we entered PhD programs right out of undergrad, which we spent calling the act of studying "LARPing as professors." It wasn't really a joke.

These were habits we liked cultivating in the tea-scented quiet of our dorms: switching on the desk lamp to read, underlining a passage with an insistent stroke, feeling a syntactically tangled sentence in an ancient language unfurl itself into sense within our brains. To keep practicing these gestures to expand them into a life we thought we had to become academics. And so we extended our professorial playacting through grad school, until we realized that habit alone couldn't help us realize our "fantasies of a magic space for intellectual pursuit," as Hannah Alpert-Abrams and Saronik Bosu put it.3

When we were students, we tried to speak like academics, to reason like academics. Now that we've left the academy, we find that we can't just put away our academic things. Today, both of us work in tech. We no longer read books in the fields we studied, and we've stopped translating from the languages we trained our attention on for years. But we still swap reviews of forthcoming campus novels, trade rumors of acquaintances who got jobs. Our decade-old dream of becoming professors has transformed into a nostalgic impulse to consume the products of professorial life not the scholarship, but the lifestyles.

Faced with the collapsed possibility of an academic career, we remain in thrall to what Dylan Davidson describes in this cluster as the "marketing strategy" of dark academia.4 After we let our work laptops idle off into sleep, we obsessively revisit the profession we abandoned, in illusory form: not just reading novels that help us retread our old stomping grounds, but playing a game that lets us literally roleplay as professors.


A monastic military academy with strong resemblance to a small liberal arts college (SLAC) may seem like a strange setting for a strategy game.5 And an early-career faculty member makes an odd sort of hero. But these are the basic ludic building blocks that make up Fire Emblem: Three Houses (FE3H), released by Nintendo for the Switch in 2019. This Japanese roleplaying game (JRPG) immerses players in a literally dark academic fantasy: a gothic campus, all kaleidoscoped glass and buttressed stone, its walls and spires darkened by the fog of war. The main attractions of the game are meant to be, presumably, the turn-based strategy and the sprawling cast of characters, all of them armed with distinct abilities that lend combat a permutative, chess-like intricacy. Against all this, the academic setting is mostly just scenery. But for us, it offered a tantalizingly facile way to play out our old dreams. 

When you step into this gorgeous, velvet-dim world, you get to be the sort of teacher who moves novels like The Secret History into murderous motion: a magnetic, inscrutable sage who transforms besotted students into killers. Donna Tartt's Julian Morrow codifies the trope of the "charismatic professor who inspires cultish devotion in [ . . . ] students."6 Morrow's hold over his charges, however, is ultimately condemned by both the students themselves and the whole lethal slant of the plot its devolvement into murder and trauma. FE3H, in contrast, turns killing into the actual telos of instruction: your students are young officers, your subject war.

The game's wartime setting imbues its depiction of teaching with life-or-death stakes. FE3H's player character, Byleth, joins the faculty at a military college that schools young adults in both combat and battlefield command.7 Its student body draws from three polities locked in a momentary détente. At the beginning of the game, Byleth chooses which of these titular "houses" to lead attending to its students through one-on-one tutorials, designing its strategy for mock battles. When the brittle peace fractures, though, their focus shifts from schoolyard scrimmages to real bloodshed, and it becomes their job to teach some students to kill others. The resulting violence is foregrounded within the game becoming, in fact, its emotional center. Players, encouraged to replay with each of the three houses in turn, will find that a favorite student in one playthrough becomes an enemy in the next. Maneuvering Byleth into killing them is meant to hurt.

FE3H is operatic in its scale, depicting the human cost of systemic injustice, the zero-sum outcome of competing nationalisms, and the plight of young leaders caught between terrible choices. Royal step-siblings clash on the battlefield, casting their old friendship aside; a trainee knight takes up arms against his adoptive father. But at the same time, the game is about pedagogy. Through its wartime setting, it hyperbolizes one of the central dramas of teaching: that your students, autonomous beings, may make choices that pain you squander their talent, apply (or not) to grad school, throw in with an enemy of your state. Yet this treatment of pedagogy as an emotional minefield runs parallel to the game's glossy, frictionless depiction of professing as a day-to-day act. Teaching may be vulnerable, painful, and ultimately difficult as an affective practice, but being a good teacher is easy for Byleth.

In-game, the exact mechanisms of that ease include practices drawn straight from real-world academia's dark side, though FE3H warps them into forces for good: nepotism and grooming. FE3H conjures up a hero so blameless and so incandescently talented that these practices seem to lose their insidiousness and become mere stagecraft; they are gears and knotwork to hoist Byleth up to their rightful place at the top. When all the forces of plot exist to lift you to the height of the profession, being a professor isn't hard. For Byleth, in fact, its essential ease slips into inevitability a destiny impossible to refuse. Though they have no teaching experience, they're offered a job by a powerful administrator who knows their famous father, to instruct students roughly their own age. For Byleth, this sudden ascension to a faculty role is more stoically accepted than eagerly sought. Taking it in stride means abandoning their life as a mercenary solitary and acontextual and learning to act as a leader bound by institutional attachments. In making this transition, they become the twisted mirror of so many aspiring professors in the real world, who often leave academia for something equally unanticipated.

Once ensconced within the college's moss-covered walls, Byleth grows into their unlooked-for new role with ease. Players raise their "Professor Level" from E to A+ by integrating them ever deeper into the campus community: tending to the school greenhouse, fishing to supply its dining hall. These schoolyard chores designed to elevate Byleth through the game's approximation of tenure and promotion stand out as FE3H's one partial concession to the labor of a professorship. Simulating real academic work would make for a bad gaming experience. And so Byleth never plans lessons, agonizes over research, or sits on committees. Instead, players handle their service through a fishing mini-game.

To be sure, FE3H advances no broader claims about the abusive hierarchies that render academia inhospitable to so many real-world scholars: it never endorses the rightness of nepotistic hiring, for instance, as a general practice. Its sole concern is with constructing Byleth as an exception: a talent so immense and yet so generous that all practices are gilded into rightness within the halo of their presence. Naturally, Byleth's students flourish under their charismatic instruction. The game takes care, in its pre-war phase, to communicate a sense of mutual growth the students and their teacher becoming stronger and wiser together. At the beginning of the game, Byleth lectures, gesturing enthusiastically, to an intro-level class seated in neat lecture-hall rows. After a plot-significant timeskip, though, the desks are pushed out to the edges of the classroom, arranged in a rectangle where students take turns talking: an upper-division seminar table.

Byleth, a nepotism hire, is also a pedagogical prodigy. Their genius naturalizes the questionable circumstances of their appointment hiring, or perhaps supernaturalizes it, bending inequity into the satisfying shape of something divinely ordained. Byleth is literally a chosen one, and therefore deserves their job even though there are apparently only three professor positions on the whole continent. In a similar move, the game presents Byleth's teaching prowess through the logic of grooming whitewashed, of course, by the legitimizing aura of true love. Byleth's students bloom under their tutelage in part because they fall in love with this preternaturally young, irresistibly magnetic authority figure. In fact, many of them are available as marriage partners in-game. Players don't have to stage-manage Byleth into a student's arms. But they're actively rewarded for exploiting students' romantic attachments, given power-ups in battle and access to exclusive, story-building cutscenes.

This relationship-building mechanic, an established JRPG convention, is generically appropriate. The game takes pains to render it palatable in other ways: making Byleth close in age to their students, introducing a timeskip that blurs the old student-teacher roles, scripting love confessions that double down on autonomy and mutual flourishing. In the context of FE3H's collegiate setting, though, this marriage plot reads troublingly.

Literary fiction has often nodded at the harms wrought by unequal relationships in collegiate settings. FE3H, however, shies away from this dark treatment, thanks to its unwillingness to depict Byleth as anything other than a savior. As a result, its student-professor relationships aren't the fraught, destructive romances of campus novel mainstays like Susan Choi's My Education (2013) or Amy Gentry's Bad Habits (2021). To the contrary, playing through different pathways in the game proves that Byleth's intervention is often the only thing standing between their students and utter ruin. Their good sense and nobility of purpose are overdetermined, their relationships purified of salaciousness and harm.

Transposed to a real-life professor, Byleth's treatment of their students would be boundary-crossing and exploitative. But FE3H plays out the fantasy that it's possible for total control over your students to be truly, verifiably, for their benefit. As hard as it worked to absolve Byleth of wrongdoing, the game's potency as wish fulfillment wavered for us here. Only in the context of its artificial world could student-teacher romance prove salvific, rather than abusive by definition.


Ultimately, FE3H abstracts away all the frictions of a real academic career in favor of a professorial aesthetic: gothic architecture and gamified symbols of progress. But the kind of frivolous ease that FE3H exemplifies is the real attraction of dark academia, which distills a troubled industry down to its most evocative patterns, its plushest textures.

We suspect that these patterns and textures were always the point for us. Even when we lived within the hope of it, academic work felt impossible: something to conjure up, in illusory form, through an aesthetics-driven magical thinking. As early-career grad students, we once attended a conference on religion in ancient Rome and China, giving a pair of interrelated papers. As the youngest and most junior presenters there too shy to correct the program that prematurely labeled us "PhD candidates" we were certain we were frauds.

And so we painted our nails to match in a shade of tasteful purple-gray called "It's Genius," applied mirrored dashes of Luctor et Emergo "I struggle and emerge" on our wrists. It was a scent we reserved, in its lucky Latinity, for challenges like quals and conference papers, academic boss battles where our ignorance put us at risk.

We wielded these costumes and scents as psychic weapons, like Byleth armed themself for battle with silver shield and magic sword. It went beyond aestheticizing the professoriate, the way dark academia has long done through its sepia-drenched, woolen-forward moodboards. When we uncorked our appositely named little charms, it was as though we were casting a spell. We were practitioners of a makeshift glamor magic, constructing a fragrant facade of control in the face of our youth and uncertainty, our fear that we would never know enough.

Byleth, an omnidisciplinary warrior, wields real magic on the battlefield, both violent and curative. They have no need for glamor magic. An attractive prodigy in a gorgeous, rose-windowed world, they have the prowess needed to thrive in their nepotistically acquired role, and their student-spouses love them with a pure and redeeming ardor. There's no guilt in the effortlessness of landing the role, no doubt at the facility of playing it so well. In this simulacrum of power and security, there's only the joy of achieving the impossible.

The frustrations are gone, the ruses work, and we get to be good at this job. That's what we wanted once. Here's the only way we can have it now.

Caroline Mann (@caro_mann) works as an account manager at a scholarly publishing software company. She earned her Ph.D. in Classics at Princeton University.

Lucia Tang (@lqtang) works in digital marketing at a venture-backed startup. She holds an M.A. in History from UC Berkeley.


  1. Colleen Flaherty, "A Non-Tenure-Track Profession?" Inside Higher Ed, October 12, 2018,.[]
  2. Deborah Thurman, "The Adjunct Complaint" Post45: Contemporaries, March 15, 2022.[]
  3. Hannah Alpert-Adams and Saronik Bosu, "What's Hope Got to Do with It?", Post45 Contemporaries, March 15, 2022.[]
  4. Dylan Davidson, "To Be Transformed," Post45 Contemporaries, March 15, 2022.[]
  5. Like Annapolis and West Point, which the U.S. News & World Report ranks alongside elite liberal arts colleges like Williams and Amherst every year, FE3H's fictional Garreg Mach much more closely resembles a SLAC than a research university; its putative product is not scholarship, but impeccably trained graduates ready to assume their places among the societal elite.[]
  6. Amy Gentry, "Dark Academia: Your Guide to the New Wave of Post-Secret History Campus Thrillers," CrimeReads, February 18, 2021.[]
  7. Addressed throughout the game with the gender-neutral title of "Professor," Byleth has two possible character models and a fluid gender, pinned down only by the player's own choices. For that reason, we refer to Byleth with they/them pronouns throughout.[]