I got a good education in college. Mostly, I have my professors to thank for that. Rather than force students to parrot their own beliefs, these learned men and women encouraged me to consider all sides of an issue, to dissect and analyze its components, with context and without, and then arrive at my own opinion. I will be forever in their debt.
But in my checkered five-year college career (in which I managed to earn not one but two useless degrees and a minor in Literature) I did encounter a handful of professors who failed to meet the lofty standards and degree of intellectual rigor to which I’d become accustomed. Let me tell you about three of them.
Professor Jihad–The Anti-American Comparative Politics Professor—I’m a big believer in considering alternative points of view, but Professor Jihad was a bit of a one-trick pony. The only opinion he was willing to countenance was one in which United States (or one of its nefarious Western allies) was responsible for all the world’s ills, from climate change to herpes. I understood pretty early on just how pronounced was his monomania when he found a paper I had written insufficiently excoriating of the West. His red-ink comments dripped with disappointment.
I adapted. I decided to make a game of “writing to my audience” as it were. My papers became rabidly, comically anti-American—no connection to American perfidy and imperialism was too tenuous; no snide, predictable jab at Western cultural values was beneath me. And of course, he ate it up. The guy adored my bullshit, and called on me often in class, giving me the opportunity to indulge my talent for talking convincingly at length about whatever twaddle it was that the prof wanted to hear. Despite this, he never managed to get my first name right and I couldn’t be bothered to correct him.
Ensign Dorkus–The Uptight Nerdy Physics Professor–This guy looked more weaselly than a tall man has any right to. He was probably younger than I am now, but was even then determinedly courting middle-age. His shiny bald skull was ringed by shaggy, mousey hair. He favored sweaters, Dockers and sockless loafers, which made him look less like a preppie than like someone’s uncool dad. He wore thick birth-control glasses and talked about Klingons a lot.
His class was a new offering at my school: a bold, if self-evidently ridiculous and doomed-from-the-outset attempt to rethink the teaching of science: mathless physics. Rather than slog our way through a terrifying forest of equations, formulae and cosines, we would write softball essays on such topics as Is the Space Program Worth the Money? However, it quickly became apparent that Ensign Dorkus graded these essays not on the quality of our arguments, but rather on the specific position we took (in the Space Program question, for example, the correct answer was “yes”).
Just a few weeks into second semester Ensign Dorkus admitted defeat, and made few friends among the students when he reverted to more traditional teaching methods and abruptly reintroduced math to the course. When we complained, he had the gall to explain to us much as he would to an idiot child, “Well, you can’t do physics without math!” He was a bachelor, and likely still is.
Dr. Knob–The Self-Loathing Backup Sociology Instructor–Even sociologists know that sociology isn’t a real academic discipline, but I needed the class to graduate. Dr. Knob wasn’t even the tenured sociology prof; he was a backup brought in at the last minute when the real professor’s class became too full. He was thick-built and beefy, with a docile, bovine face set into a neckless head that was completely hairless except for thick eyebrows and a walrus mustache which seemed somehow to comprise a matched set.
His discomfort with his own whiteness was palpable. He was the kind of guy who pronounces the names of Latin American countries—but only those countries—exactly how a native speaker would pronounce them in either Spanish or Portuguese—“HWHAT-ah-mal-ah,” “MEH-hee-ko,” “ar-yen-TEE-nah,” “EH-hwhah-dor.”
He was particularly eager to ingratiate himself with the Latino students. He would sometimes pose questions to the class. When a Asian, white or African-American would answer, he had a habit of greeting their answers with a polite, but puzzled skepticism, as if what they were saying didn’t quite make sense. Then, when a Latino student would provide essentially the same answer (which was now correct), he would smile paternally at the foolish non-Latino student as if to say, “See, I’m teaching you.”
He’d show films about the plight of migrants in America every couple of weeks, and we’d take those opportunities to sneak out of class. He never noticed. He never discussed the texts he’d assigned for class and which I never bothered to buy. Instead, he’d send us on crap errands to places like the laundromat or the welfare office and ask us to “journal” our experiences. I didn’t waste my time going to those places, and instead wrote lively fictionalized accounts, peopled by an insane menagerie of twisted addicts, determined, self-sufficient single moms and grim predators. It was good enough to earn me a B+, which was the non-Latino equivalent of an A in Dr. Knob’s class.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that none of these gentlemen received tenure.