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geezeronthequad: Professors – Give Them a Break!

September 30, 2011

In college, I was a slacker. I skipped class, didn’t study as hard as I should have and tried to make up for it the night before the test. I finished with a 2.60 GPA. It would have been lower but student teaching saved my tail. When they called my name at graduation, I grabbed that diploma like the number two guy on a mile relay team grabs the baton and we were out the side door. We were down I-80 to celebrate at the International House of Pancakes before anyone realized what a terrible mistake had been made. I got my act together in grad school and, in retrospect, grew serious respect for the profs who endured me.

Being a prof isn’t easy; first you have to survive grad school. If anyone reading this is thinking about grad school, read this first. Getting a PhD is almost like monasticism without God. First, the candidate completely withdraws from the known world. He or she does so in the company of a select few to pursue and endure the intense rigor of highly specialized study of something almost no one cares about. (Marmalade: It’s Traditions and Place in the Modern World. I am not making this up.) Then we culminate the program with a dissertation sweated over if not written in blood that not even our grandmother will read. In our early thirties, we emerge with a newly minted PhD and a student loan debt resembling the economic deficits of  the European Union. We start as a rookie when our college buddies stand well into their careers and marriages. We teach classes other, more experienced, profs don’t want to teach. These classes brim with students who just want three credits and out-the-door and who ask penetrating questions like “Is this going to be on the test?” or “Do we have to buy all the books for this class?” For more of the perils of professordom, look here. Does this sound like fun or what? I salute here those who endured me.

Bruce Macbeth –  My undergrad academic advisor. What a killer name for someone majoring in English! A renaissance man and a throwback to when you could get tenure with a master’s degree. I usually saw him to approve schedules or when one or more classes grades were going down the tube. We talked regularly. One day I got a special summons where, on behalf of my father, he shared very personal information as to why my education was so important to my parents. It changed me to this day.

Don Wilson – In the story of Robin Hood, Don could have been Friar Tuck. A hearty laugh, a salty mouth and an appreciation of a good brew, he loved 19th century American literature. He also was the first prof who seriously challenged me to tangle with big ideas on their own turf. Knowing I was involved with the Jesus Movement on campus, he lent me his copy of “Future of an Illusion” by Sigmund Freud. He suggested I read it, take notes, and we’d discuss it. I did and we talked. He shared with me the disillusioning effect his grad work had on his faith but also said he still had it. I took every class he taught.

Anton Karasek – The first prof I saw in front of a classroom. A real political rebel. Without the college’s knowledge, he brought an official from the Communist Party of Romania into class for Q&A. In 1969, this was huge. When he returned tests, he waited until the last part of a double period. He called each student into the hall alphabetically to go over their test one on one. They didn’t come back in to tip off those of us waiting. And they were never seen again. MWAHAHAHA!!! Seriously, I thought I could really write. As long as there were essay questions, I could save my tail. I walked out to meet him expecting some praise. He’d plastered my test with little red circles! No, wait! Each circle had an ugly face and horns – bulls’ heads. Every place he thought I was spreading ignorant fertilizer, he drew a bull’s head. Each head had its own ugly face gagging and retching over my first attempt at a college test. Welcome to college, mister!

Vahe Berberian – A cello instructor trained in European conservatories. I did some music on the side and the two of us shared some space in the college symphony. Have you noticed how, in a symphony, all the bows move the same way at the same time? That doesn’t just happen; string players learn how to do that and it’s often written into the music. Being a jazz guy, I felt free to ignore that and stood sawing away on my bass like a surgeon in a Civil War field hospital. I drove him crazy. He would spin his head like that girl in “The Exorcist” watching me. One semester, I toyed with taking lessons from him and went to him to talk about it. In a thick Armenian accent, he said, “That would be good, Mr. Swartz. I could use the money and, believe me, you could use the lessons!”

Arthur Zallys – The man who taught the class nobody wanted to take – Intro to Philosophy, three hours at one pop. Near the end of his career, he stood like a spindly chicken who could discuss Aristotle in front of a comatose class. On a dead Saturday night in January, I bumped literally into him in front of a newsstand. We exchanged brief words and I went to move on. He kept talking. It started to snow and our shoulders turned white while we stood there for almost forty-five minutes. In between shivers, it hit me. He was lonely, lonely enough to have a conversation with a comatose student from a class he knew everyone hated. I started to volunteer in class whether I knew the answer or not. Being wrong was no big deal (I reference my GPA above.). “Wasn’t that Calvin’s theory of marinara ontology?” He would grin and tell me to keep trying. I got my C, three credits and out-the-door. And deeper respect for the people who stand in front of coneheads like me. Some suggestions for Christ followers.

Pray for all your professors. They have the same spiritual and human needs as anybody else.

Go to ratemyprofessors.com and rate every one of them a “hottie“. That’s right, every one. They could use the encouragement and maybe even the chuckle.

Visit as many as possible during office hours – with no agenda. Just say that you like to learn about your profs and not just from them. Ask things like “What made you fall in love with your discipline?” or “What jazzes you about teaching?” Here is Dr. Ken Stephenson’s (Univ. of Oklahoma) faculty website. Thirty minutes or so with a prof might not be as dull as we think.

Study, come to class prepared and participate. It’s the only way to escape the bulls and we aren’t talking Pamplona, Spain here.

A friend beginning at an Ivy League school asked his advisor about the best profs. The student resolved to take as many as he could squeeze in regardless of what they taught. He wanted to sit under people whose heart beat for what they taught and he made no mistake. The vast majority of faculty love students and watching what learning does when it breaks loose inside them. And God loves them too – both the ones who know it and the ones who don’t.

Turn in your night vision goggles to the attendant and exit to the rear. See you next post at geezeronthequad.com.

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3 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on geezeronthequad and commented:

    My salute to the professors who survived me…and respect to all the ones who never had to.

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