Confessional: I Had a Conceited College Professor
In college, I had a number of professors who cared more about making you understand how well versed they were in the material than they did about convincing you that the material that they A) (presumably) loved, B) had devoted their careers to, or C) flat-out knew better than anyone alive, was relevant to your education. Unsurprisingly, the most blatant of these irritants was a scholar who had, at some point in his existence, determined that reclusive literary types were morally superior to everyone else.
This professor taught a class that I had registered for only because it fit into my intricately thought-out schedule. Despite the fact that I was a reader and considered myself someone interested in learning . . . things . . . and stuff . . . essential to my overall health during my college years was that whatever intellectual endgame the tuition that my parents paid demanded I pursue did not interfere with my social arrangements. For instance, there was no way I could be in class at 7:30 on a Thursday evening, because that’s when I had to be drinking cheap cans of beer in the shower and picturing the even cheaper cups of beer I would be downing later on at the bar. So when my advisor, a thin-lipped perfumed woman who spoke in a slightly sarcastic tone, well aware that her job was just middleman BS, rattled off a bunch of information about “requirements” (to which I nodded my head and remarked, “Oh, right, yeah, I remember”) and suggested I take this course, I took one look at the gridded sheet of paper she’d been tapping with her pencil eraser and asked how many 300-level ENGs were available in MW 2:30 (signing up for 300-level ENGs made me feel good about myself).
“Just one,” she said.
“‘Mimes and Mystics.’”
“Cool. Sure, I’ll take it, I guess, if that’s it. Mimes are weird, like . . .” I stopped and reassessed my thoughts. “Ha.”
I don’t know why I said this, or why I spoke at all. Nor do I remember if I even had a single coherent thought about the class I had just signed up for. But when I look back on this moment, it is this particular exchange that seems to perfectly encapsulate my college mentality: I attempted to show interest in matters when I thought doing so would make me appear to be a conscientious adult, but I usually failed at this because, basically, I didn’t care about anything.
One of my talents, along with holding in my urine for long periods of time during car trips, is the ability to take an accurate pulse of a person or a group. On the first day of “Mimes and Mystics,” it was obvious to me that my twenty-five or so fellow students had arrived with a variation of the same mindset, which I determined to be something along the lines of, “Well, this’ll probably suck.”
Our professor came in so late that I had already reached the point of being deathly excited that he wouldn’t show and that the class would be cancelled and the course disintegrated. Never mind that this would have caused complications in my scheduling and possibly compromised my ability to graduate. It was what I craved.
His arrival was thus a disappointment, but only for a moment. Once he entered the room, I couldn’t stop staring at him, not in the way that students are naturally inclined to look at teachers, but in the sense that he seemed like a caged animal—odd but benevolent; you wonder if he fully understands what we perceive his world to be.
The professor placed his briefcase in the center of the teacher’s desk, sat in the chair, leaned back to settle in, then leaned forward to slide the briefcase to the side so that it would not block his view of the class, then leaned back again, then assumed for some reason the disposition of one who is severely agitated—his mouth puckered and his eyebrows slanted inward—and then fidgeted in his chair for a few more seconds and, as he was doing so, began speaking.
“Remembering as being invaluable to processing memory on the page is what guides an economical truth to emerge, the economy of it vital and hand-in-hand with its success, in relation, of course. Inside-out and outside-in, you could say—and many have argued correctly. A scream, a glance, a laugh, a flick of light. Writing’s about fullness. Stories come from where? We don’t know. We never have.”
Once this came out, he seemed to relax, even though he was making feverish eye contact with students (and yet, on the other hand, it seemed like he might just view them as objects that he had no choice but to look at). He went on:
“Thoughts inside thoughts, swirls, was how James put it—did it. Herodotus observed history to invent history, Odysseus battled to create the novel, so-to-speak, Tolstoy society for the sake of mankind’s conventions.” Something on his desk seemed to puzzle him, and he appeared deep in thought. “Should we write like Hemingway, ‘this and this and that’ in succession? I think he’s very good, I do, I think. Morrison as of late, wrapping worlds, is about thrusting and exposing, capturing. Sentences, sentences, long or short, and short is okay, they tell us something. What’s packed inside of them? Like Woolf said of Dostoevsky: coils to be sprung.”
He went on in this vein, referencing names and postulating half-ideas. His throaty voice was somehow soothing, and every so often a trace of an East Coast accent would slip out. He had an intense but nonthreatening face—when the light was right, his nose looked liked a penis—and was good-looking. He also resembled a pelican.
He wore glasses and a musty sweater. He was smallish in stature, thin but not too thin, and at least seventy years-old. I got the impression that he was unsure as to whether or not his life had been fulfilling.
I also felt that he spoke differently than anyone I had ever heard speak. After many minutes—at least thirty passed—I had the sensation that whatever he was positing about authors and their work was doubling as commentary on the very speech he was giving us. It seemed that he was writing a story with his speech—he was working inside-out and outside-in, looping themes and threads through and around each other—and once I made this insight, it hit me that his speech was so beyond the scope of my intellect that I was at least two sentences behind him. This was not a 300-level ENG. I had taken many of those and easily earned A- or B+ in all of them. This was some new form of education, and I was lost. But at the very same time, I knew that if I could learn from this guy all the time, I would actually care about college, and I felt a jolt of excitement for whatever he was to say next.
The professor glanced out the window, where it was so sunny and so beautiful and so . . . boring . . . so lacking in thought . . . in ideas . . . See the September leaves falling gently on the pretty girls, the sharp guys laughing and teasing, back in college to drink and party—ignorant cretins! . . . So beautiful outside . . . and yet so dreary . . .
At this moment the professor gave a self-reflexive grunt-chuckle, and spoke the clearest thing of the day:
“And of all the contemporaries I consider Bobbins the most mischievous, which is always easier to say when you know the author and impropriety is not an issue.”
Immediately, a girl said, “You know Bobbins?” Everyone turned toward her, both surprised that a student had spoken up without insecurity and pleased that someone had broken the tension.
“Are you his dad?”
Heads turned to the professor. He clearly considered this amusing, but it was impossible to tell if he did so with a humorous or a haughty detachment. “No, I am not his dad.”
“You kind of look like him.” Silence. “Sorry,” the girl finally said.
“I knew his father,” the professor said.
Now you could feel the entire class paying attention, like its antennae had been tuned. The professor was no longer a spectacle but a source of secret information. It just so happened that Ring of Rainbow, the feature film based on Bobbins’s 1987 best-selling literary thriller about a renegade traveling circus jester (Bobbins’s first and only foray into the genre), had been screened in the Student Union the night before. I hadn’t seen it, but I had seen the flyers posted around campus and was aware that at my large, public university, I happened to be sitting amongst the exact type of people—smart-, arty-, and inquisitive-looking students—who probably had. I had resisted Bobbins for years—it was not a painful resistance—mainly because of what my father said that summer night. But I kept up with the critical and popular response to Bobbins’s work, and so I was well aware that Bobbins, beyond being merely influential, was one of the main literary arteries of his generation. People wanted to know what he was really like.
“I was a frequent guest of the Bobbins household,” the professor said. “Very close with his father for a time in the late-‘60s, I was, and intrigued to watch Jonathan discover the unconscious.”
“Did you know he was going to be famous?” said the girl who’d started this whole thing. She was a natural leader, and I felt no embarrassment for her in her adolescent challenges to the highly intelligent professor. In fact, I silently commended her for having the guts everyone else and I lacked.
“Ah, well.” You could tell, by the way the professor curled the corners of his lips and stared vacantly but dramatically at squares on the scuffed floor, that he relished such a retelling.
“Jonathan had a knack for character qualities. The emotions he’d ascribed to a toaster oven at six, you should have heard. Craft and creativity for inanimate objects I’ve found are central to the deep philosophies of the best. They can become rascals, though, even in a fine home.”
No one seemed to know what to say to this, so the girl said, “So do you like still know him?”
“Well,” the professor maybe demurred.
“Like, could you call him right now? I’m just asking because, you know, it’s Jonathan Bobbins.”
She said this with a little laugh of disbelief, and a slight murmur rippled through the class. “Yeah, it’s Jonathan Bobbins,” everyone seemed to be saying.
“No,” the professor said when it died down, “I do not keep up with him.”
“Do you like him?”
“Are you still friends with him?”
“I was friendly with his father.”
“So you know him.”
“I knew his father, yes.”
“But what about Bobbins? Jonathan?”
“He’s highly important to our understanding of stories.”
“So you’re not still friends with him?” the girl said, seemingly annoyed. Despite the nature of her questions, there seemed nothing inappropriate about their exchange. It was almost like the professor was inviting it.
The professor smiled. “I am not.”
“Because,” he answered, “relationships, as we all know, have a tendency to, when strained, dissolve.”
“Okay. Huh. Okay, because everything I’ve read about Jonathan Bobbins says that—and you would know better than me—that he’s a super nice guy.”
The professor didn’t miss a beat. “People’s personalities have a tendency to change, as well, when you are sleeping with their mother.”
The class went silent. You got the feeling the professor had been waiting all class—and perhaps all his life—to say it.
As one may suspect, my professor proved to be a prick. He rarely allowed for discussion, and his speeches on writing and literature became exponentially stale. He jetted out of the classroom as swiftly as possible, was never present in office hours, and marked our essays with vigorous but unintelligible notes. He thought we understood and respected him. Really, we had tuned him out.
He assigned us to read three Bobbins novels, as well as an essay collection Bobbins had edited, and I was sickened by all of it, not just because of the content (that disdain would come later; in the time of my intellectual apathy, I found Bobbins’s work to be “whatever”) but because of how I pictured these peoples’ lives—self-important writers engaged in the lowest of low-level love drama. I felt like a shameful idiot for my gullibility in those first, glorious forty-five minutes of class.
But I did my work and earned my A-. My professor, whose name I will never mention, given that he is a well respected scholar in his field, as well as a married man with a grown son and daughter, was a sleaze who taught me far less than he’d promised. But what he gave me, David and Masha do not know, was the greatest Bobbins bargaining chip one could ask for.