Professing Some Hatred
THE OTHER DAY at lunch, as I sat there trying to figure out what kind of sea creatures, if any, went into making my seafood flakes, I overheard someone saying he'd figured out that every lecture at Harvard costs $35 per student.
Upon hearing this I was immediately overwhelmed by a feeling of shame. I thought of my poor parents, long ago reduced to tenant farming in order to pay my term bills, and how I was throwing away more than $100 dollars of their hard-earned money each and every week.
Then, however, there came a feeling of anger. I thought about what lectures are like here, and realized that they should be paying me $35 per sitting.
I hate going to lectures.
First of all, I hate professors. Like the plague, they come in a variety of strains and forms, but the effect is nearly always the same.
The first type of professor I've suffered under is The Hollow Man. Before I took his course, I had heard that this man was "the world's greatest living authority on Shriner poetry," and I was therefore expecting a lot.
Only when I sat down in the first lecture and an animated fossil shuffled out towards the podium did I begin to wonder. Wonder, for instance, if this man's first books had been copied by monks.
After a good five minutes spent wrestling with a microphone and clearing his throat, he shattered my hope that appearances can be deceiving: "Hmmmmnughagggh...In the course of 20th century...uhm...literature, the contribution of the...uhm...Shriner poets should not be...uhm...overlooked...uhm..." As he continued, droning on endlessly in the same monotone, I began to feel that another voice was speaking through him, perhaps that of a long-deceased carrot.
Eventually the speech of this renowned oracle, this spirit medium for dead plants, became just so much background noise--like the pounding of the surf, or the whine of a chainsaw. The only bits of excitement were the occasional long periods of silence, each one of which caused me to look up from my notes, half-expecting it to be followed by a dull thud and a cry for oxygen or a taxidermist.
NOT ALL PROFESSORS go out with a whimper; some, in fact, go out with quite a bang. Such, at least, was the case of one jolly, well-established old soul I found sitting up on stage the first day of class. For the next 50 minutes, I followed him on an autistic crusade as he enthusiastically explored the farthest regions of his own senility. Soon, I began to wonder if I was in the right class.
Smiling, relaxed, he rambled on, hopelessly out of touch with any acceptable reality: "...As T.S. Eliot once told me,...hmn, ha ha,...and thus, you know, a novus homo, ho ho, ...and therefore, Robert Browning stands as...hee hee, `...the boy stood on the burning deck,' ...Michael Blumenthal 'hath perced to the roote,' ...on the other hand...I'm Spartacus!"
All of this was entertaining enough, in a clinical sort of way, but I had great difficulty writing anything down, or figuring out why the title of the lecture was "Feminist Interpretations of Beowulf."
If there is an element of pathos in all of this, it is nowhere more evident than in the case of professors who have been victimized by the advent of technology. For example, an art lecturer I saw in mortal combat with a projectionist, describing the curves and masses of a cathedral for five minutes before realizing the image on the wall was that of a nude. After another five minutes had passed in total darkness, and he had totally given up on ever seeing the right slide, it suddenly appeared in full glory in the middle of his face. Watching him tap his way back to the podium with his pointer, his tangled, uncooperative microphone cord swinging behind him like the Cowardly Lion's tail, I wondered if his career was over.
IF THESE OLDER academics are victims of age and obsolescence, then the younger generation is terrorized by tenure. This results in two distinct types of lecturers.
The first of these is the Unwilling Academic, a bespectacled, goat-voiced man in his 30s who has spent the last nine years of his life in Namibia cheerfully studying gibbon dung. As is evident in his shaking hands and uncertain style, only the twin prospects of starvation and separation from his beloved droppings has forced him onto the stage.
If he is not bad enough when verging on implosion, woe betide the listener once he gets his confidence and begins sharing his interests with the audiences. "The most fascinating thing," he says with a disconcerting zeal, "is that the larvae don't actually eat the dung, but absorb it through a sticky, permeable membrane located here."
Much harder to pity, or even tolerate, is the professor who wants to lecture. This young, ambitious person is so intent on making a name for him or herself that he or she is determined to say something new--anything new. Sitting in class listening to this scholastic yuppie say "...the Bible thus foreshadows life, for just as Hagar is chosen by God to give birth to Ishmael, so will Sammy Hagar be chosen to sing for Van Halen. However, whereas the seed of Hagar will flee before the tribe of David, David Lee Roth will do his own album," is not the worst part.
The worst part is looking around and noticing how many people are writing it down.
MY OWN NOTES are not very good and its largely my own fault. Not only do I have a tendency to fall asleep in any lecture that doesn't show or at least mention Gilligan more than once, but I can't take notes. While most people take down the important points and ideas of a lecture, I have a strange congenital disorder which allows me to catch only transition elements. Thus, even if I manage to stay awake for the whole hour, my only record of it is a piece of paper which says "We must first...therefore...the most important thing for the exam is...on the other hand...disregard the...consequently...and finally...do not, for any reason..."
If it seems like all of this belongs in the CUE guide, you'd be quite right, but for some strange reason, they've never printed a thing I've written. As much as I have tried to warn people, my voice has been strangled by a conspiracy of silence. Okay, I confess; I've never been there when they handed the CUE forms out.