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Post Road Magazine #33

The Professor's Chair

Jacqueline Doyle

What's your name again? Associate Dean what? Before I address the Chair's ludicrous report of the alleged "incident," and I will get to that in good time, I'd like to say a few words about good teaching practices, about which Department Chair Stan Reston knows very little, and you, having never been in the classroom, may safely be said to know even less.

I'll be the first to admit that I have a reputation among students for being eccentric, which is preferable to being boring, in my book, though Stan says behind my back that I lack seriousness. Better to lack seriousness than to lack levity. Stan rarely cracks a smile, and his student evaluations reflect that. Just as well that he's Chair instead of me, penning pointless reports instead of actually teaching classes. Forty years in the profession have taught me that skillful dramatization, what Stan dismisses as "antics," helps students to remember what they've learned. "All the world's a stage," after all. Students like to tell the story about the time I kissed a chair. Frankly, I don't remember what that was supposed to illustrate—probably the thingness of things, the concreteness of reality. Like Samuel Johnson kicking a rock. It's been centuries now and we still remember that Johnson kicked a rock, that Newton was hit on the head with an apple. I digress, but there's a place in the classroom for concrete props, fruitful digression, and the artfully placed pun. It may be true that my digressions often involve my ex-wife, but only when she is relevant. Literature brings out our deepest emotions. There are very few poems in the literary canon that don't have something to do with betrayal or lost love, and what better way to convey the importance of literature than through personal anecdote and the real emotion a poem can arouse. If I've been close to tears at times, it was only an attempt to bring that home.

As you know, the so-called "incident" occurred on a day in "lonesome October." "The skies they were ashen and sober / The leaves they were crisped and sere," as Poe wrote. There's often a discernible slump at that point in the term. Students no longer believe they're going to earn an A in class, or that they'll get by with no work. They've realized that they don't like Tennyson, or Donne, or Milton, and that they will be required to read said bard for nine more weeks. They have student loans, or strict parents, or they're on academic probation, or all of the above, so they can't drop the class, but attendance tends to wane, students in the back row yawn and nod off. Sometimes action or loud noises are required to galvanize the student body. I'm not saying what I did was absolutely necessary, but all seasoned professionals wing it in the classroom.

The discarded umbrella in question was leaning against the wall. Perhaps I should take a moment to observe that janitorial services at our underfunded state university have declined lamentably in the more than forty years I have been here. By the end of the year the classroom looks like a particularly unappealing garage sale, with broken furniture piled in the corner, and miscellaneous lost and found items cluttering the teacher's desk.

The umbrella had long since lost its owner. I'm sure I was making a point, possibly about Elizabethan stagecraft, when I began to brandish it like a sword. I once studied fencing for a small role on the stage when I was an undergraduate, and sometimes I fancy that the theater was my medium, teaching just a poor second. I assumed a playful fencing stance and began to point the umbrella at students who seemed inattentive. Some instructors let sleeping students lie, but I prefer to call on slackers and challenge them to think. Or at least to wake them up. I was certainly not threatening anyone, unless asking students to muster an intelligent response might be construed as threatening. I did not "lunge" at anyone, as alleged in the report. I was in a fencing stance, as I said, so verisimilitude may have required a forward motion of the umbrella. I'm well aware that an umbrella might be considered a weapon, but this umbrella was a pedagogical prop, nothing more. My ex-wife came to mind, and I parried, a bit of inspired improvisation on Marlowe. "But that was in another country, and besides the bitch is dead!" I did not "shout triumphantly."

When the student in question, Miss Houghton, began to cry, I was as baffled as anyone. She was sitting dead center in the third row, in a class of some forty students. I don't know why she in particular should have felt an "atmosphere of menace." The umbrella wasn't within four feet of her person, and was never pointed specifically at her. Female undergraduates, it's worth mentioning, turn tears on and off like faucets. A coed will arrive in my office with an overdue essay and start to cry because Roger's broken up with her, or because her roommate Brittney is spreading rumors about her. I keep a box of Kleenex handy for just such occasions. Maybe a girl begins to sniffle in the classroom because a poem reminds her of her poodle Misty, hit by a car when she was ten. Tennyson's "In Memoriam"—"'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all"—leads a certain sort of female undergraduate to bemoan the loss of her high school boyfriend and earnestly explain why it was all for the best. Literature brings out emotions, as I said, and when a female student dissolves into tears it often means I'm doing my job. It did not immediately occur to me that Miss Houghton was distressed by the umbrella.

Refusing a conference with me because she deems me "dangerous" seems laughably extreme. I am willing to apologize to Miss Houghton. I am not willing to apologize to some here-today-gone-tomorrow junior administrator for perfectly justifiable teaching techniques, however, or to consider "early retirement"—yes, I consider this early, for at seventy-three I am still in full possession of my faculties—on the basis of one hysterical undergraduate's response to one incident. I have employed legal counsel to represent me should it become necessary. In the meantime, you, Associate Dean—what's your name again?—and Stan Reston, and anyone else with objections to what goes on in "Masterpieces of British Literature" can kiss my chair. You'll have to excuse me. I'm late for class.

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