Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Professional Goal? To Be an Eccentric Genius Professor

I took classes from a few crazy, fabulous, genius eccentrics during my college years. Well, maybe not "fabulous" eccentrics and crazies, but definitely folks that at least bordered upon your stereotypical absent-minded/obsessive/peculiar/dysfunctional/delightfully weird/what-have-you model of the tenured academic. Some of them I was even good friends with.

There was the wonderfully kind and eminently distractable old-school political theorist, who would start wearing a Tom Baker/Dr. Who-style scarf everywhere he went as soon as frost hit the ground, and who would lecture for an hour and a half on three lines of The Federalist Papers one day and the next day spend an equal amount of time speculating about the theological destiny of the Maori people and telling us about his figs. There was the fellow who lived and studied for years in Europe and whom, as far as I could tell, had never fully recovered from the time change upon returning. Perpetually late--sometimes by as much as 20 minutes--we'd patiently wait for him to rush into class, clad in gym shorts and a windbreaker, breathless from wherever he'd just run from, clunk his omnipresent convenience store jug of Dr. Pepper on the desk (I swear it was a half-gallon in size) and proceed to lecture, stopping only occasionally to slurp. They were two that really stand out. There was also the fellow who'd remove his shoes and sit in a cross-legged yoga pose on his desk while conducting class, but he was completely normal otherwise. Oh, and then there was the political science professor who had a nervous breakdown and left in the middle of class one day, beginning a "sabbatical" that lasted a few years, but that was really more of a kind of sad case than anything else.

These were great people; I learned a lot from them, particularly the barefoot guy on the desk. They inspire to find and cultivate my own personal weirdness in the classroom. And apparently, if Robert Klose is at all correct, I need to get busy with it, because campus crazies are an endangered species:

What has become of the eccentrics in the ranks of our professors? From time to time, when I run into a colleague from another institution, I ask if he or she knows of any such individuals. Almost always, the answer is either "no," or a lengthy pause of consideration before offering up a bland example of an octogenarian who drives a motor scooter....

I recently unearthed one of my college notebooks. On the inside back cover I had caricatured each of my instructors from that particular year. One glance and I immediately recalled the inspirations for my artwork....Professor Gleason was a bumbling biologist whom, due to his generous and ovoid physical proportions, we students had nicknamed "The Egg." He seemed to be totally baffled by his own course material, and managed quite capably to convey this bewilderment to the class, so that none of us knew what the hell was going on....One day he took us down to the banks of the Hackensack River for a field trip. We helped him get the large motorboat into the water, and then the ten of us students looked on from the bank as he worked away at the engine, yanking the pull repeatedly to get it to start. He hadn’t noticed that the boat had begun to drift away, and we had no intention of alerting him. We all watched in silence (and with rising anticipation of a canceled class) as The Egg worked at the engine, his crablike arms too short to extract the pull all the way. Within ten minutes he had drifted out of sight. So we went home....

I miss these people. Or better said, I lament not having colleagues like them in my teaching environment. Where have the outlandish characters gone? My sense is that the nature of the university beast has changed and has had a leveling effect on the spectrum of personalities. As higher education has striven to define itself as a business ("Students are our customers!" chirps a perky poster), there is less tolerance for professors who might--heaven forbid--embarrass the institution and drive the paying public away. The result has been a more rigid screening of applicants for conformity, or, in the lingo of current hiring practices, "institutional fit....Our eccentrics and dreamers and mental drifters have been replaced with pragmaticians who have mapped their courses out with all the precision and predictability of masons building a wall. Nothing is left to the imagination, and even their attempts at humor abrade us specifically because we know they are trying to be funny for our sakes. How much more wonderful it is when a professor makes us laugh because his world is odd, his steps sometimes unsure, his glasses eternally lost upon his head, the toilet seat propped under his arm.


This paean for a lost (or, at least, most disappeared) world of eccentricity fires me up with determination. Not, to be frank, my habits are such as to lead to much absent-minded tomfoolery. I mean, what are my nutty resources, anyway? I am late sometimes. Once I missed a whole class; that was embarrassing (I sat at my desk, checking the clock, somehow certain the class was scheduled to begin at 1:30pm, even though no Friends University class has ever started then). And I've gotten distracted to the point of completely failing to deliver any kind of lecture at all on a few occasions (questions about Star Trek are particularly good for derailing me); I know at least some of my students have filed that knowledge away. What else? Oh, well, I'm terrible with names, and in a weirdly focused way, such that with some students I just never get them right, continuing to refer to them as "Anthony" or "Heather," even though they'd just introduced themselves by their actual names. There are all the jokes about me riding my bike in the rain, of course. And I always wear ties; that stands out. Oh, and the Santa Claus hat during fall semester finals. But no, none of that is truly eccentric; I need to come up with something better. Something involving a toilet seat, maybe. Thank goodness my job here is likely secure enough that I'll have years to work on it.

12 comments:

WVS said...

I had one prof who was fond of using the following at various points, for emphasis: "you can kiss my --- til I bark like a fox up a tall oak tree." It was often said at, well let's just say disconcerting times. Another smoked the proverbial pipe. It rarely stayed lit, but his teeth were a deep brown, the hair Einstein-like, late for class - made the class stay late, etc. These guys were picturesque. And you're right. Leveling is the word.

Ricketson said...

I suppose that blogging can't be a classroom eccentricity, can it?

My impression (at least for biology) is that academia has become increasingly "professionalized". There are more and more professors, and the number of PhD's have increased even more quickly (increasing competition for each spot).

Also, research grants have become bigger, meaning that research groups are bigger and professors are selected more for their managerial abilities than they used to be (though many of them are still horrible managers).

Craig said...

Starting a few years ago, I told my wife that I needed to start working on my professorial idiosyncracy....that trait or habit that only a tenured prof could get away with. So far, all I have is the well-known characteristic of never, ever wearing ties. And I, like you, am a little disappointed by my lack of creativity.

Matt said...

I can say that I've met only a few philosophers (and a few more academics in general) who don't have at least one serious personality quirk. Many of them are not charming, either, and most don't realize they have them. (This may well apply to me, too, I'll admit.) So, maybe you have this already and just don't know it. If you need more, I suggest wearing shirts that really don't need to be tucked in (think polo shirts) and tucking in only half, and also wiping off chalk boards with your hands rather than an ereaser and then wiping the dust all over yourself, especially in your beard and hair. Those would be harmless enough, even if common.

Camassia said...

I am all in favor of eccentricities, but frankly the article you linked to didn't give any examples of how the professors mentioned were visionaries or geniuses ... just that they were good for students to pull tricks on and tell funny stories about later. Also, my current job has impressed upon me how that sort of "genius" was enabled by an underpaid and largely female staff who managed the physical details of life so they didn't have to. In fact, if academia is like practically every other workplace out there, the computerization of the office and the subsequent reduction in secretaries may be a large factor in the disappearance of hopelessly out-of-it professors. And that may not be such a bad thing. In my experience as a student, the most important thing any professor could bring to class was enthusiasm for the subject, and for sharing it. In that respect, Russell, I'm sure you're just fine the way your are.

Russell Arben Fox said...

To quote Monty Python, Camassia, ah, you're no fun anymore. But of course, you're right to puncture the romanticizing of this stereotype. It's like those wonderful old stories about batty English Lords, or Jeeves and Wooster, or whatever: we laugh at them, but also would rather not live under them, because we know that the only reason such ineffectual tyrants were able to survive was because they had servants to do all the actual work. The fact these eccentric geniuses have had to learn to take care of themselves is a good thing.

Camassia said...

Yeah, I'm a spoilsport. But I do remember a few years ago another professor-blogger was pondering the same question, and I liked someone's suggestion to keep weird animal specimens in jars around the office. It might be more fitting for a natural scientist than a political scientist, but you can get creative. Maybe you can say one of them is a fragment of Karl Marx's brain you're keeping as a relic, rumored to cause miraculous conversions of free-market ideologues whenever they lay hands on it.

Hector said...

Re: and I liked someone's suggestion to keep weird animal specimens in jars around the office.

Well, my current hope is to eventually be a professor (and yes, I'm in the natural sciences) so perhaps I should start doing this. I do have a giant peacock feather adorning my grad-student cubicle, so perhaps that's a good start. :)

Re: If you need more, I suggest wearing shirts that really don't need to be tucked in (think polo shirts) and tucking in only half, and also wiping off chalk boards with your hands rather than an ereaser and then wiping the dust all over yourself, especially in your beard and hair.

The curious thing is that I do these already and never though twice about them. Especially the 'wiping chalk boards with my hand' (though I don't have a beard).

Hector said...

For the record, what did the professor think about the theological destiny of the Maori people?

Maori culture had its creepy aspects, including apparently widespread cannibalism. Though of course no culture can be described as entirely good or evil, and you find all sorts of good and evil people within any culture one cares to mention.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Hector, he had been a missionary amongst the Maori in New Zealand decades before, in the 1950s. He loved to tell stories about them, and their history with different Christian proselytizers over the years. He was a great storyteller, but I'm not sure he actually knew very much about their culture. He was also convinced that there was a hidden Christian heritage to those people, and that Christ would return first to them. He had no argument to back this up; just something he was convinced of. Really, he was a hoot.

Anonymous said...

I'd be really pissed if these incompetents described in the article still had jobs. I mean, I can teach the pants off those people, and I'm whacky as all get out but no tenure track job for me. (I'm fine where am at, so no pity party). My eccentricities include a) letting my students teach me dance moves b) ranting about Disney and gender c) a game called "pick a book" wherein students pick any book of my bookshelves and give me the title, I tell them the author, the argument and 2 or three books related to it, when I read it, and the year it was published give or take a few. Then again, high school students are easily impressed. Oh, and casually dropping the fact that white as I am, I once modeled for an African American hair magazine.
Western DAve

Lindsay said...

I am a very crazy person myself,and I'm in my Freashman year in college.I want to be a History Professor. Once I asked my Dad what it'd be like to be normal.He answered,"You will never know!" Also, I forget everyday things like to brush my teeth,and I wear the same clothes three days in a row sometimes more.I get really nuts at random times and laugh till I'm on my knees laughing at absolutely nothing. And I like old men,and i mean old! Am I a normal girl?