We’ve all had them—ancient professors who dress poorly, haven’t shaved in between three and four lifetimes, get covered in chalk and don’t seem to notice or mind, and go through lectures with a clarity and calmness only possible after the thousandth iteration. This, it seems, is the image of the “Ivory Tower,” the “absent-minded professor,” the aloof curmudgeon who puts up with absolutely zero foolishness, and even less nonsense. This is the image of a certain privilege, at least noted from afar, ascribed to those whom society has granted the cap of the intelligentsia—a well-earned position given the amount of education needed to get hired, books published to get tenure, and generations taught to become immortal. This, to many young academics, is the dream, the goal, the model of a good and productive life.
A friend once told me, over beers after studying for comps in his apartment, that he “can’t wait to get old.” At the time it blew my mind that anyone short of 90 years young, much less 32 or 33, would wish, even dream, of decrepitude and ache. But as I get older, I see how it makes sense. Aging, especially within a professional field (call it “intellectual aging”), brings respect from one’s peers. To present at the same conferences as friends, colleagues, mentors, and “intellectual crushes” year after year, to produce work read by an accepting and engaging audience of those same peers, and to, in the words of every millennial ever to move to LA, “make it,” creates a comfort and sense of self-worth that motivates even the most successful, nothing-left-to-prove scholars.
But there are two sides to academic life, beyond the misery of administration, “the job hunt,” and committee work—the side that earns publications and name recognition, and the side that earns the respect, acceptance, and minds of students (let’s call it the “public face of academia”). At some places, and to some people, the former is more important. To some, there’s something cool, or indeed quite natural, about not caring who students are, or reacting harshly to an email worded in a not-exactly-clear-and-or-rather-unintelligible way, to being absent-minded, on an intellectual plane far above the children falling asleep during lecture and constantly worrying, once awake, whether this or that will “be on the exam?”. Fair enough. That certainly makes things easier.
But I noticed something a year or so ago, namely that I absolutely feared that life, that image, and that sense of social absence. Maybe it’s high school all over again. Indeed, there’s a solid point to be made there. But in reality, I recognized that the classroom is a fundamentally social atmosphere, even, stay with me here in the realm of Habermas, a social sphere. Our students are people affected by the world around them (that should be quite obvious!). They have individual lives, interests, worries, loves, fears, emotions, etc. etc. How, I asked myself after nearly a year of looking down when I walked across the Quad, am I supposed to educate these people if I refuse to allow myself to know them, or allow them to know me on a human level? Are the words I speak during lecture so important that they somehow defy the basic humanity of the person from whom they bellow, and in whose ears they finally settle? Clearly, I had an odd, existential crisis on my hands not more than four years into the earliest stage of my career.
So I started changing certain aspects of my professional self. No longer did I walk with my head down. Indeed, I sought out eye contact and a quick “hello.” I forced myself to memorize every last one of my students’ names, even if, in some cases, the class was capped at 185 (disclaimer: I only remembered the names of the students who actually showed up regularly to class, which, of course, was far fewer than the total). On Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas, what have you, I posted a rather lengthy (three paragraphs) biographical sketch of myself, letting the students know that I have two cats (Padraig, a domestic shorthair, and Sophie, a chubby British Shorthair), love soccer and the delta blues, married a poet, and named my car “Henry.” I started seeking out my students if I saw them at a coffee shop, asking them how their semesters were going, if they had read any good books lately, the simple how-ya-doings that make human interaction less awkward and hierarchical.
Between the occasional joke, or self-deprecating scolding (such as, “Wegmann, you’re losing it up here” after misspelling a word on the board), I made it clear that I was serious about history, and actively chose to dedicate my life to providing them (the students) with the tools necessary to become more knowledgeable, well-rounded citizens and scholars. I told them that I respected each and every one of them just for being in the classroom at the designated time on the designated day, and choosing, wisely, to seek an education. I graded honestly, and quizzed honestly, and expected the absolute best of these people who were now part of my world, my everyday life.
And that’s the key. I think many educators (and I say this from experience alone) fear that if they make themselves available to their students on a personal or social level, they will compromise the integrity of the students’ work, and lose control of the classroom. This is true, but only if that educator tries to adopt the same interests, mannerisms, and experiences as his or her students. If you fake it, you lose it. I didn’t fake anything. Yes I read a quillion books a month. Yes I still listen to 90s music. Yes I get inexplicably passionate during lectures and end up ranting, sweating, and, let’s admit it, yelling about a seemingly random event that none of the students have ever heard about. But that’s the beauty of the whole thing. They might think me a dweeb or a nerd; but they’ll tell their friends about it with honest smiles on their faces, come to class the next day, and put effort into each assignment because they know that they have my respect and my recognition that they have lives just as complicated, just as stressful, and just as real as mine. You can’t buy and sell that. You have to work for it.
Last week I gave one of my classes a bonus assignment. For 10 points, an individual student had to find me on campus (so, not in my office or in class), and, with one finger in the air “like an Enlightened philosophe,” recite Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” from memory. I did this to break a barrier, to allow students to approach me at lunch, while walking down the hall, or while I have my morning tea in the student center, and risk embarrassment. Every time a student stopped me and successfully performed their Kantian imperative, I laughed, shook their hand, and thanked them for engaging the material. I had friends of my students, people I had never seen before, giving it a go just for fun. There was an honesty to the interaction, and the effort the students put into the assignment, that gave me hope. I felt connected. I felt open. I saw the glimmer of success in their eyes. This, I thought, is why I do it. This is why I love my job.
Now students stop me on campus more often, sit down with me for tea in the morning, and approach me after class with a thought or a question. And the truth is that I do respect them. I respect them as much as I respect any senior scholar at any top university, because they’re my real audience. They’re the ones I speak with and see everyday. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir here. Maybe you all came to this realization long ago, and I’m the one limping behind the pack. But I can’t stop thinking about what would have happened if I never looked up. Certainly not this feeling. Certainly not this joy.
‘Til next time, as always,