Tuesday, July 3, 2007

How Not to Be a Professor, by F. Porpentine, Age 20 and 1/2

I've been dipping into my undergraduate diaries on and off, these last few months. It's a slightly narcissistic thing to do, but they make for entertaining and sometimes painful reading, and I figure I have something to learn (or rather, re-learn) from the bits where I talk about classes and professors. (There are a lot of those bits, since I was starting to think about grad school, and I was surprisingly attuned to some aspects of the profession -- enough to figure out what was going on when my favorite history profs had a fairly spectacular meltdown just prior to going up for tenure, for example. Evidently I knew more or less how academic hierarchies worked, although I seem to have had some peculiar ideas about what they actually meant: about an English professor with whom I'd taken a class a few semesters earlier, I commented, "I'm surprised he remembered me - but then, he is an associate professor, so I guess that means he's only half senile." Then again, maybe that isn't so far off base, after all...)

Anyway, among other things, I came across two lists entitled "Rules for Professors" and "How to Drive Your Students Crazy, Part 2." (Part 1, sadly, seems to have been lost.) I reproduce them here, adding my editorial comments in brackets and italicizing all the ways I've already failed to live up to my own standards. Maybe I'll collect the full set by the time I get tenure.

Rules for Professors (REMEMBER these -- the day will come when they don't seem so obvious!) [Indeed it will, kid. Indeed it will.]

1) If nobody talks in class, you're doing something wrong. 9 times out of 10, the questions aren't specific enough.

2) Please treat us like intelligent, rational people. [I regret to say that I have failed to do this on occasion, though I am sincerely sorry for it.]

3) Don't ever, ever tell your students how much you hate reading papers / teaching freshman survey classes / undergrads in general. [Well, one out of three's not bad.]

4) If you have to make your classes read something truly awful, bake cookies for them (H----'s Law). [H---- was the aforementioned history professor. She was awesome. Sadly, I don't have time to bake cookies every time we read something that some students might consider awful.]

5) Encourage disagreement, but don't insult students to their faces.

6) For God's sake, throw out a few questions you don't already have an answer for. If you do have an answer in mind, don't assume it's the only one possible. [Heh. At least I'll never break this one -- some days I feel like I don't have ANY of the answers!]

7) Never make lists of paper topics. [As in, I think, "you may only write your paper on one of these topics" -- I don't think I've ever done that, although I've been known to give examples.]

8) You don't do your students any favors by going light on the written work. [No, but sometimes you do yourself a favor.]

9) Just because you're young, female, and untenured, it doesn't mean you have to act like a bitch. [Whoo. A lot of anger there. I don't even remember what triggered it.]

10) The gods gave us sarcasm so that the powerless would have a sharp, subtle, defensive weapon against their alleged superiors. It is neither fair nor elegant to use it the other way around.

How to Drive Your Students Crazy, Part 2

-- Say absolutely nothing about the requirements for the class or basis for grading until two weeks before the end of the semester. Then tell your students that the entire grade for the class will be based on a 5-minute oral exam (in a language not their own). Ask everyone 3 questions, the answers to which are buried in the notes from the first 3 weeks of class, none of which have anything to do with the actual reading assignments. Give out grades as the spirit moves you. [I encountered the prof who perpetrated this one when I was studying abroad in Spain -- cultural differences much?]

-- Attempt to relate English Renaissance drama to a) Indonesian contributions to the Clinton campaign; b) the O.J. Simpson trial; c) the fact that one of your students happened to be wearing a propellor beanie today. [Italicizing this one because I'm sure I'm guilty of some equally bizarre analogies, if not these specific ones; the prof responsible for b) and c) was in fact one of my favorites, and I catch myself imitating him on occasion. I hated Prof a), but I've also found myself imitating him, at least in one particular thing.]

-- Do nothing in class except repeat and explain the readings. Explain them wrong.

-- Try to spark class discussion -- invariably -- with the phrase "What do you make of this?" or "Would anybody care to comment on that?" Wonder why the class is so quiet.. [OK, not guilty of the "invariably" part, but I'm sure I've used both of those phrases more often than I should.]

-- Pick a favorite word -- say, "articulate" or "figuring." Use this word at least once every ten minutes, usually in a context where it doesn't make sense: "Michelangelo's painting articulates the power of the male nude." "What did you make of the figuring of the two families in Wuthering Heights? [OK, kid, let's hear you speak extempore for two hours straight without falling back on pet words!]

-- Base your class on discussion to show your students what a modern, up-to-date guy you are, but refuse to listen to any interpretation you din't think of thirty years ago. Neither seek nor accept written comments on the course evaluation forms. [This was Professor Indonesian Campaign Contributions.]

-- Tell your class all about your home repairs, which consist of proofing your house against the twentieth century: "My wife and I nailed boards over the central heating vents, and we've been healthier ever since." [This was ALSO Professor Indonesian Campaign Contributions.]

-- Constantly change your syllabus so that assigments are due earlier. [I haven't a clue who this is, though I can identify the profs who inspired all the other items on the list. Apparently I blotted it out.]

-- Call everything a "discourse," including movie posters and documented historical events. Attempt to read all of these things as if they were fictional texts. [Apparently I hadn't figured out yet that "documented" historical events are by definition documented by people who make choices and have agendas, or else I was being deliberately perverse. Huh.]


heu mihi said...

Hilarious--thanks for sharing these! I'm always struck, in reading old diaries (particularly from around that age, in fact), with how I can alternately feel identified with and totally alienated from my younger self.

Sisyphus said...

Heh --- I'm so glad I didn't write/save anything like this! I was such a little smartass then. Nothing like now. :)

Of course, in my MA program I always used to joke that my first book would be "How Not to Run a Grad Seminar." (damn, I should have taken notes during some of those angry, beer-fueled discussions!)

Fretful Porpentine said...

JB -- Indeed. Sometimes my twenty-year-old self sounds smarter than I am now, and then I run smack up against a line that makes me think, "Wait, I thought WHAT was a good idea?"

Sisyphus -- I would totally buy that book! I think anyone who's ever been through grad school would, except perhaps the ones who really need to be reading it...

Lea said...

If nobody talks in class, you're doing something wrong.

Does this mean the kids who excoriated me on Rate My Professors are right?

Fretful Porpentine said...

Nah, I think you're probably doing fine, unless you're the reincarnation of my American Lit professor who delivered stupefyingly boring lectures and looked up every thirty minutes or so to say "Would ... anybody ... care ... to ... comment ... on ... that?" (I'm a little alarmed at how hard I was on professors when I was an undergrad, but some of them did deserve it.)