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Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Glories of Professorship and University Life

A few weeks ago I sent out a request asking for reading recommendations for the summer. While the Barnes & Noble in Manchester is sadly inadequate, it did have one book on the long list I received: Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl (Thanks for the suggestion, Marisa Wolfe). I'm only 60 pages in, so I'm reserving judgement, but so far there have already been a number of passages that made me wish I had a pen or pencil on me. Here's one of them for you. The father of the main character is a university professor, and very much in love with his job, as the following passage indicates:
"I'm serious. Is there anything more glorious than a professor? Forget about his molding the minds, the future of a nation -- a dubious assertion; there's little you can do when they tend to emerge from the womb predestined for Grand Theft Auto Vice City. No. What I mean is, a professor is the only person on earth with the power to put a veritable frame around life -- not the whole thing, God no -- simply a fragment of it, a small wedge. He organizes the unorganizable. Nimbly partitions it into modern and postmodern, renaissance, baroque, primitivism, imperialism and so on. Splice that up with Research Papers, Vacation, Midterms. All that order -- simply divine. The symmetry of a semester course. Consider the words themselves: the seminar, the tutorial, the advanced whatever workshop accessible only to seniors, to graduate fellows, to doctoral candidates, the practicum -- what a marvelous word: practicum! You think me crazy. Consider a Kandinsky. Utterly muddled, put a frame around it, voila -- looks rather quaint above the fireplace. And so it is with the curriculum. That celestial, sweet set of instructions, culminating in the scary wonder of the Final Exam. And what is the Final Exam? A test of one's deepest understanding of giant concepts. No wonder so many adults long to return to university, to all those deadlines -- ahhh, that structure! Scaffolding to which we may cling! Even if it is arbitrary, without it, we're lost, wholly incapable of separating the Romantic from the Victorian in our sad, bewildering lives..." (11-12)
Besides the fact of his being entirely correct about us needing order and structure (I confess, I'm a little bewildered at the thought that if indeed I am successful in getting a job as a book editor, I'll no longer live within the context of a "school year"), I think he's hitting on something deeper. What astounds me about atheism is the courage that it has to take. I would be absolutely terrified if I thought there was no higher being than myself. Sure, I'm responsible for a lot, but there's someone up there infinitely more intelligent and powerful who has things under control. Not that professors are God or anything, but weren't there certain teachers or professors you've had that you could sit and listen to all day long, whose store of knowledge and experience and understanding of the world was monumentally impressive? Humans like having a reliable authority, someone they can go to for the answers, someone they can always trust to explain what's going on. I remember my mother telling me once, "I have no advice to give you. You already know everything I would say." I was horrified! Outraged! Really, really scared. I experienced a similar feeling of shock when I went to an old professor of mine saying, "I've just finished Wise Blood, and I need help understanding what's going on here." He responded, "I've never read it, but I've seen the movie." Well, I was dumbfounded. He's supposed to know EVERYTHING. He's supposed to have read everything. Luckily, based on his knowledge of Flannery O'Connor and the movie, he was still able to help. So, like the speaker above says, professors can't frame all of life for us -- though we might view them as deities at times, they are only minor ones, each with their own sphere of knowledge. But if you have a good university, guess what? All spheres will be covered! And it will be organized and neat and tidy, and the constant evaluations would keep you on your toes, help you understand the world, and, ultimately be a superior form of yourself. Life would be better. So, the conclusion? EVERYONE SHOULD GO TO GRAD SCHOOL!!! Who's paying?


  1. Great! I love it! You know, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Civil War fame said that there is nothing so much like god on earth than a general on a battlefield.....Chamberlain was both a general and a professor.....some times, there's nothing so much like god on earth than a professor in a class room!!!

  2. Glad you're enjoying the book so far! It gets kind of crazy, but has many intriguing and original passages like this one. Let me know your thoughts when you finish it.


    P.S. Please get that book editor job as soon as possible so that you can hire me as your assistant/sidekick and we can revolutionize and reform the literary world, as well as pay our rent.

  3. For contrast, Kierkegaard's poke at assistant professors in Fear and Trembling, Problema I:

    "When in our age we hear these words: It will be judged by the result—then we know at once with whom we have the honor of speaking. Those who talk this way are a numerous type whom I shall designate under the common name of assistant professors. With security in life, they live in their thoughts: they have a permanent position and a secure future in a well-organized state. They have hundreds, yes, even thousands of years between them and the earthquakes of existence; they are not afraid that such things can be repeated, for then what would the police and the newspapers say? Their life task is to judge the great men, judge them according to the result. Such behavior toward greatness betrays a strange mixture of arrogance and wretchedness—arrogance because they feel called to pass judgment, wretchedness because they feel that their lives are in no way allied with the lives of the great. Anyone with even a smattering erectioris ingenii never becomes an utterly cold and clammy worm, and when he approaches greatness, he is never devoid of the thought that since the creation of the world it has been customary for the result to come last and that if one is truly going to learn something from greatness one must be particularly aware of the beginning. If the one who is to act wants to judge himself by the result, he will never begin. Although the result may give joy to the entire world, it cannot help the hero, for he would not know the result until the whole thing was over, and he would not become a hero by that but by making a beginning.

    1. Well, yes, I've certainly had a few professors who fit this description. And, I must, I'm sure I'm not the only teacher who was ever aware of the fact that grades simply do do justice; sometimes they seem to low, given all the work and earnest attention a student has given, and sometimes you just really wish that that smart, lazy kid hadn't gotten an A+. But as far as the hero judging himself by the results, well, sure it can help him. Help him to move on to his next task. Adulation of others, be they superiors, compatriots or social inferiors, emboldens the spirit to accomplish great things. That adulation is a direct response to good results. I'm not saying that unless a hero gets a round of applause each time, he'll quit doing heroic things. But I imagine the applause would be welcomed whenever it came.

  4. As far as summer reading goes, anything by Richard Russo but especially, "Straight Man." A delightful book all about the university.

  5. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Read it and weep for joy.

  6. I've heard so many good things about A Confederacy of Dunces. I even started it last spring, but got sidetracked somehow. Perhaps that will finally be next on the list, after I finish The Moviegoer. Or perhaps it will be Straight Man! Anyway, thanks for your suggestions.