I got to thinking the other day about some of the professors I had in school. They ran the usual gamut of human foibles and self-absorbed idiosyncracies. Most of them were competent and hard working, and though only a few qualify in my mind as superior teachers, a few of them were what I would call incompetent.
I’m thinking of one real pieces of work that crossed my path. Highly neurotic, paranoid, crawling with uninteresting peculiarities, he had little sense of the real world and how he affected people around him. His own colleagues hated him, and students ran for cover when he came shuffling down the hall. The secretary in his department had informed the chairwoman she refused to interact with him on any level and for any purpose – all such encounters would have to be mediated through the chair herself. Yet, both the chair and the dean were essentially powerless to bring this toxic tumor to heel, for he had tenure and brought in largish amounts of grant money to the department and college. I was told he had threatened several times to quit and take “my operation” elsewhere – and in truth there were several schools that, given the man’s scholarly status and his valuable grants, would have been quite happy to tolerate his intolerable ways.
To me in my former naïveté about what a scholar should be and how a professor should comport himself, he struck me as a prime example of the potentially corrupting influences of too much federal money on higher education. This roboprof – according to folk etymologies floating around the department so yclept because he was so robotically predictable in his tedious screeds — was in effect untouchable, and nobody seemed to care that his classes were predictable disasters and students avoided them in droves. Teaching assistants and research helpers developed ulcers, drove the other students crazy with their constant dissecting of the man, and pleaded each spring with the director of graduate studies not to be assigned to this professor – but there were always some unlucky schmuck, usually one of the new students. This in itself was a terrible thing, since first year of graduate school is no nap in the stacks and disorienting enough all by itself, and the added complications of having to handle this … this creature certainly didn’t help.
When he walked into a graduate seminar you could almost hear the students sucking vinyl as they came to attention in their chairs, ready to endure a few hours of psychological torture and withering humiliation. He had his favorite scapegoats and would ride them mercilessly. If a student said something he disagreed with or was factually wrong he would land hard, snorting in contempt or curling his bloodless lips in fastidious disgust. And he was inconsistent, so it was hit and miss how he would take your comments. The hardier students started keeping a record of his backtracking and were not above pointing out such lapses to him, to which his usual response was a version of, “I couldn’t possibly have said that.” But he had, and everybody knew it. Their view of him as the term wore on changed from fear and loathing to contempt and loathing. In the end, though actually quite a brilliant man in his narrowly scoped out area of ‘expertise’, he turned all the students off and taught them nothing, obsessed as they became with his “how” rather than his “what.” Even the most charitable ones had faded by mid-term – and there weren’t many of those around after a couple of months of graduate school, an eat-or-be-eaten microcosm of feral Darwinism where you buried what you killed to keep it away from the other hungering hyenas.
I took one class with this cancer – a complete waste of time intellectually but instructive as a monitory exemplum of behavioral repertoires to avoid within the predatory ecology of the graduate seminar. The smallest thing would trigger in him an almost compulsive need to deviate from the afternoon’s program and run off onto the boring byways of his endless personal problems. He was quite fond of complaining of the numerous injustices he endured at the heartless hands of an uncaring world – which included his wife who didn’t respect him (I wondered why!), his stockbroker who was stealing him blind, the mechanic who expensively didn’t fix his car, the worthless Washington ignoramuses threatening his funding, incompetent university administrators, the waitress who slopped his coffee, jealous colleagues, idiot editors, stupid students, the rain, the sun … well, you get the picture.
(Unfortunately he was not the only professor I ever had who transformed his rôle as respected pedagogue into that of neurotic fault finder, publicly vomiting forth his paranoid theories of conspiracies designed specifically with him in mind that a third-grader would find laughable.)
The students manufactured convincing displays of phony sympathy and gave seemingly rapt attention to his meaningless meanderings. These were, I suppose, meant to be some kind of real-world confirmation, as it were, of his human authenticity, of his regular-guy-ness behind all that supposedly formidable intellectualism. In fact, however, they merely turned him into a masturbatory exhibitionist waving his thick academic johnson of egregious character defects in front of audiences with eyes glazing over and do-not-disturb signs gently rocking on the doorknobs of their minds. Like so many people of his ilk, he mistakenly imagined everyone shared deeply his own boundless fascination with those Niagaras of pathologies cascading so relentlessy from his livery lips. For such a smart guy he was really pretty dumb.
I believe there’s more to be said, but enough for now!