The semester has Officially Begun. We’ve plowed through the first awkward classes when I don’t remember anyone’s name and arrived at Progress! The evil genius tasked with classroom scheduling may have hidden my three sections of composition in a fluorescent shoebox of a classroom with just enough chairs and, oddly, three trashcans, but I’ve found that my students are engaged and smart. The initial insult of testing into my class has faded a little, and they have begun making jokes about gorillas and minivans with chrome rims and Texas, a state that, let’s face it, is just funny. Hooray fall semester! I love you!
But this is the honeymoon period. I know that there will be at least a few days this semester when being a professor will feel like working at a late night comedy club as the opening act for the headliner. You stand in front of a marginally curious but mostly disenchanted audience, armed only with your wits and the meager tools granted any other cog in the great machine of post-secondary education: a syllabus, a roster, the small sense of authority granted by a title in front of your name. You gambol back and forth and sweat and make the same mediocre jokes every night, even though they’ve never really worked. Some of the half-listening crowd stare at you blankly, suggesting a degree of attentiveness while really planning, in their minds, a weekend of sugar cereal mornings and rum-and-Coke late-nights. Others stare awkwardly at the carpeting and wait for it to end so they can return to their dorms and not do the reading. You make 80s pop culture references they don’t understand and smile with too much teeth.
Come on, guys! It’s like Goonies! Heeeey yoooou guuuuuys! No? Anyone? Bueller?
Standing up there can be exciting or soul-killing, but in either case, it’s pretty exhausting. I usually end the day ready for a glass of wine and an entire pizza. Faced with the grueling but usually rewarding performance of professor-dom myself, I find that I can more readily identify the survival strategies of my past teachers — professors who took on roles as fear-mongerers or prat-fallers or interpretive dancers, best-buddies or camp counselors or devil’s advocates. And those disguises aren’t bad. Sometimes they’re necessary to rouse a classroom full of eighteen-year-olds out of their slothdom. Sometimes they’re just fun. A few professors might manage to defeat an entire semester without any performance or trickery, but I’ve found that those are the professors who seem more ivory tower than human being.
While I’m always looking for ways to project the image of the Mean Professor instead of Dr. Marshmallow, I think it’s important to recognize that I always learned a lot from professors I could imagine wearing a funny hat. Even if they never brought one to class.
So here’s to the professors who make a 9 am section bearable through their crazy antics. To the professor who had to spontaneously re-imagine his class when he discovered a granddaughter had emptied his briefcase of his notes and papers and substituted an entire wardrobe of doll clothes. To the professor who let her class vote on the most eligible Austen suitor. And to the biology professor who came to the first day of class with a goldfish swimming in a blender — a lesson in how all living beings could be reduced to their smallest constituent parts.
And no worries. The fish remained intact, if a little spooked.