“This is your syllabus,” the professor said, holding up his own identical copy of the sheet. Then, as if the class hadn’t believed him, he pointed to the word “syllabus” at the top in bold lettering. I still remember the odd silence in that room as sixteen students wondered if the remainder of the class was just going to be a tenured professor reading aloud from handouts.
While the seventeenth, to my immediate left, wrote the word “syllabus” phonetically next to the page heading on her sheet. I promptly edged my seat a few inches away from hers and then died inside.
“Are there any questions so far?” the professor said, stopping his whirlwind lecture to let our young minds digest all the facts he’d been throwing at us.
“What is dead may never die,” I muttered, feeling my insides trying in vain to die a second time.
Here, I jotted down those words in my own notebook, thinking it might make a good line for a book character who you like, then dislike, then is mutilated until you sort of feel bad for him. The girl to my left saw what I’d written down, shuddered, and moved her chair slightly away from mine, as well.
A hand went up. “What’s the attendance policy?” someone – clearly a winner – asked.
I had a brief moment of surprise that someone would choose that as their first impression in college. The professor, meanwhile, dashed my hopes of hearing something I couldn’t read myself by reading the paragraph on attendance, word for word. And as annoyed as I was at wasting an increasing portion of a gorgeous summer day indoors doing the activity I think awaits most sinners in Hell, the question had made it clear that students could not, in fact, just read the syllabus themselves.
The farce went on for several more minutes as my spirit tried to escape its cage of misery when there was a knock at the door. And in walked a man that would have looked more at home in an 80’s metal band than academia. “I can take it from here, Dean. Unless you want to keep boring my class to death.”
(Note: It’s worth noting that the man I mistook for the course instructor wasn’t a Dean. His name was Dean. Though he was also the head of the department – which in other schools would have given him the title of Dean. Thus allowing everyone to call him “Dean Dean, PhD.”)
The two exchanged some pleasantries, exchanged some friendly insults and then the department head left. The newcomer introduced himself as a recent graduate student (who I’ll nonetheless be calling “professor” for the sake of simplicity). And while I didn’t know it at the time, I would come to deeply respect him over the course of the next five years. Whereas he would gradually lose all respect and patience for people who, in his view, had no place in higher education.
In short, I’m not sharing his name until he’s got tenure someplace.
“I’ll assume you can all read,” he said, dismissing the remainder of the syllabus. “But are they any other questions?”
A familiar hand went up. “What’s the policy on attendance?” the same student repeated. It was only when an entire classroom of heads swiveled in his direction that he clarified, “I mean, I know missing is bad, but will we lose points? How much can we miss without losing points? That sort of thing.”
He apparently hadn’t liked the previous answer he’d gotten from the syllabus and hoped to hear something different from the man who wrote it.
The professor, for his part, only frowned when a hundred other reactions might have been more fitting. “It’s pretty cut and dry. You miss three classes, you drop by a letter grade. No penalty past that, though my experience has been that people who miss all the lectures do badly on the tests…which are based on the lectures, so…”
The student nodded in understanding. He then immediately disproved that understanding by asking, “Is there any way to get an exemption?”
“To the attendance policy? Or attending in general?”
“The policy…or either. Both, I guess?”
The professor’s face went through a series of emotions at this answer, settling at least twice on complete confusion. He shook it off. “Well, I’m not forcing you to take the course. You could stop taking it and take something else instead.”
“It’s just…this isn’t even my major. This was one of the only courses left…” The younger man trailed off. “Honestly, I’m just looking to pass. I don’t want to waste effort in my non-major courses. So…what’s the least I could do and still pull off a C?”
“I really don’t know,” the professor said. He seemed to be in disbelief that he was actually having that conversation. He wasn’t alone. “I’ve never been solicited for advice on how to be mediocre before.”
The instructor changed tack. “May I ask what your major is?”
“Oh.” The student was taken back. “I…well, I haven’t actually decided on one yet. But definitely not this.”
“Do you even know what ‘this’ is?”
“Bravo. And what do think anthropology is, exactly?”
The younger man considered. “It’s sort of like…philosophy?” he offered uncertainly. When two separate classmates buried their faces in their hands, he quickly sputtered, “But, not exactly. I mean, it’s like philosophy…for people, though.”
The professor blinked back at him. “As opposed to…non-people philosophy?”
“Right. Like…not stuff.” A pause. “And not animals.”
The exchange went on for some time thereafter, slowly destroying any shred of dignity the student had when he’d arrived at college. He never once seemed to notice. In fact, he looked downright pleased with himself when the professor agreed to let him miss as many classes as he wanted without losing points, in exchange for him never speaking in class again. This, the instructor explained, was an effort to avoid “wasting either of our valuable times.”
“Well,” the professor said after their deal was struck, shaking his head, “I didn’t really have any plans beyond handing out the syllabus today. So I’ll be cutting this one short.” His tone suggested he’d liked to have cut it far shorter.
He half-heartedly asked if there were any more questions. Thankfully, no one volunteered. And with that, we were on our way.
I still remember that as something of a crossroads for my life in college. It was the moment I met the professor who would eventually become my Dr. Cox-esque role model. It was the day my naivete regarding college being a “sacred place of higher learning” died.
And, most of all, it was the day a student strolled into a class he was paying for, demanded permission not to return and then tried to bully each of his classmates to take notes for him as we filtered out.
I’m happy to report that not a single one of us volunteered. Not even when he begged. Not even when it came to to pronouncing “syllabus” phonetically.