Tag: professor

(May as Well) Burn After Reading

burning

Even with all our wars and bickering, I like to think there are certain commonalities with all of us that link us to the rest of mankind on a very fundamental level. I like to think that any two people – no matter their religion, creed, race or class – share something that makes us all innately and inescapably human.

Though, before this starts sounding too flowery and poetic, I should clarify that I’m talking about our shared dislike of how much college textbooks cost.

No two students are exactly the same, meaning that everyone is bound to have their own unique journey through their college years. Some join clubs. Some prefer the solitude. Some like early classes. Some like late ones. And some prefer not to attend at all, because it’s not their money. But one of the first experiences all students will universally hate is buying books.

For those who’ve never been to college, I’ll try my best to explain. First, imagine you’re going through a TSA screening at the airport. Then imagine you’re randomly selected for a cavity search. And lastly, imagine that before you can waddle off to find a bag of ice, the TSA agent holds out a hand that was very recently inside you, clears their throat and nods to a large sign that reads, “Tipping is mandatory.”

It’s pretty much like that, except without the fun trip afterward.

Because that’s the thing people always need to understand about buying books for classes. It’s not as bad as you think. It’s generally much, much worse.

I still remember my first experience at the student bookstore. I’d been reaching for a copy of my astronomy book when I spotted the $110 price tag and cringed. With money a bit tight, I opted for one of the used copies lower on the shelf. That’s when, still not finished with my first cringe, I cringed again at the $99 used price tag.

I made several decisions at once then. For one, I made a mental note to copyright a movie where people do things inside other things and have whoever directed the next Batman movie do it. For another, I decided to find a more used copy at a lower price. I moved lower. And lower. And before long I’d reached the floor. Despite several of the used copies looking like they’d recently been used as second-rate attic insulation, none were more than 10% discounted from the shiny new ones that prompted my first cringe.

Seeing no other option, I chose the least-destroyed used copy I could find and trudged up to the counter. There, I mentally calculated how many meals I’d need to skip to keep a positive checking account balance while I waited for a line of similarly broken students to finish their own purchases. Within about thirty seconds, we were even sighing in unison.

“Well,” you say, butting in, “at least that’s the last of it.” You then brush your hands together to emphasize your point.

Except, no. Because like some horrible, horrible onion, there are many distinct layers of awful to the experience.

Not long after, I noticed an “error” on my syllabus. “Are these pages for the assigned reading right?” I asked the professor after class. “It just sort of starts midway through a random chapter and ends on the first page of another. It doesn’t cover any of the topics you mentioned in class today.”

“What edition of the book do you have?” the professor asked with a sigh, sounding distinctly like it was a conversation he had at least hourly.

I looked at my copy. “Seventh?”

“Right. We’re using a new edition,” he explained, before adding, “There’s actually a newer one coming out in the Fall, now that I think of it.”

I blinked at the useless collection of pages and failure I’d mistakenly purchased in place of the book I’d actually needed. “So…I can’t use it, then?”

“Not necessarily. I mean, it’s still pretty much the same book as it was in the third edition. You’ll just have to search around a bit to match up your pages to the ones I assign.” He shrugged. “The chapter titles are even the same so it shouldn’t be a big deal, except…”

“I take it you’re about to tell me some really good news.”

Swing and a miss. “I mean, the good news is, finding the pages isn’t a huge deal. There are only three reading assignments from the book anyway, and I mostly cover it in class anyway.”

“I’m highly concerned that you consider that part the good news,” I said grimly. He’d effectively just revealed that I’d spent a hundred dollars on a book he’d only expected me to open three times in the course of his class. It made me more than a little worried at what he considered bad news.

“Well, the trouble is, you’ll need a new copy to connect to the online coursework. It has a CD and password that can only be used once.” Having apparently brushed against some memory of what it had been like to be a decent human, he muttered, “Sorry.”

“The online coursework is 15% of the grade…so…” I trailed off into my own misery. “Is there any way I could get a CD and password?” Seeing his lips begin to move, I clarified, “Without buying a new book and wasting a second $100.”

“$100? I thought it was $110.”

My eye twitched.

He hesitated before finally answering, “There is one thing.”

“Tell me the thing.”

“I’ve heard you can purchase it direct from the publisher and cut out the school as the middle man,” he answered. “The good news is that one of my students last year said it was only $60. And I think it only went up $5 in the new edition.”

“You have an interesting view of what constitutes good news.”

This, naturally, led to a lecture on how he wasn’t setting the prices. He was, in fact, on my side. The best I could do, he reasoned, was to make the best of a bad situation by succeeding despite the difficulty. Then again, it was hard to see him as any sort of fellow victim when he’d been the one to make the questionable reading list in the first place. And I’ll admit that his position was more than a little undercut by the fact that he’d actually written the book and was collecting royalties from my purchase.

Now, as luck would have it – and trust me, miraculously so – the CD and password in my used copy hadn’t been used before the book was sold back. Since books are totally non-refundable or exchangeable (until buyback, which I’ll get to), it literally meant that if I’d picked any of the other used copies at random, I’d have been buying a $100 paperweight.

And one that required (at least) a $65 replacement, no less.

Was that a bad experience? Absolutely. But not nearly as bad as the time I bought the most recent edition and couldn’t use it because the professor was still using the third edition workbook CD. I had, in fact, bought a too-new edition to use in his class.

Or the time a professor said they requested the library remove all copies of a book. In his words, “If there were copies at the library, people would just check them out for the reading assignments instead of buying them, to save money.”

“I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said. “That was pretty much my argument for why a copy should be in the library.” I then let him get back to baking children into pies in his house made of candy.

But that, much like the used book I once found missing every page from Chapter 14 to the back cover, is only half the story.

The First Day of the Rest of Your Class

facepalm

“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?”

“Anthropology.”

“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.

An Intermission in Edgewise

derail

“Are you okay?” the radiologist asked, hovering near the door.

“What?” I said, shaking off the lapse in my concentration. “Do I…not look okay?” For that matter, why would anyone in a hospital ever be asking if I was okay rather than just using some sort of science machine to check?

“You were telling a story and then you just sort of….” He made an inarticulate move with his shoulders and neck. “It was like you were talking for a really long time and then just stopped for about four months.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Wait. So you were listening to the story? I thought you had stuff to do?”

“As a framing device to tell your entire college story, I think it works better to have someone actually hearing it and occasionally asking questions,” the strangely narrative-minded radiologist offered. More quietly he muttered, “Otherwise, you’re literally babbling to yourself in an empty waiting room.”

“Oh. Well…what did you think of the story?”

The man considered for a moment. “It’s interesting enough. Though I’m not sure anyone would get a ‘That Darn Cat’ pun.”

“Wait. You can know the titles, too? How does that work in the framing device? Am I actually prefacing all these segments with a title?” I demanded. “For that matter, why are you doing this to the fourth wall? Are you angry at it? Did it wrong you somehow?”

He managed a weak shrug. “I’m just a heavily embellished character. You’re the writer. You figure it out.”

I grumbled to myself. “I should’ve written a character less aware of narrative structure and literary devices,” I lamented.

“Nooooo,” he corrected, dragging out the word accusingly. “You should’ve kept telling the story – one you touted as literally never-ending – rather than losing focus before your first class even started in the story. If it’d kept going then you wouldn’t need to return to this initial segment of the story to explain the lapse.” He sighed. “Now you’ll have to keep revisiting it throughout the story to make it look like that’s what you intended to do from the beginning.”

“I can’t believe I’m being chastised by my own creation.” Then again, my toddler had recently run into the bathroom while I was using it to tell me I was a bad dancer and that I needed to stop. This might just be part of the creative process.

Still, he was right.

The radiologist, I mean. My son is dead wrong.

“All right,” I agreed, feeling properly chastened. “I’ll have to keep up on this a little more. There’s not much sense in writing a story with no end if I just stop in the middle.”

“Technically, you stopped right at the beginning.”

Anyway,” I said, riding over his snark, “let’s see. Where was I?”

“You were using a map to find your classes the first day.” The radiologist paused. “I mean, I’m not sure if that was going anywhere or if you were going to jump to another random point or…”

“Actually, it’s supposed to be subtly mirroring the actual columns I wrote professionally while I was in college. It sort of seems random, and it is, I guess, but it all has a predetermined path if you use those columns as a road map,” I explained. Then, a bit more sheepishly, I admitted, “Though…due to an event that happens much later in the story, those original columns were all destroyed. So I’m kind of piecing it together from memory…”

The man nodded sagely. “It’s probably just as well. I don’t think enough people even remember you wrote those to get that reference.”

“I said it was subtle.” I slowly absorbed the insult. “Also, shut up.”

“Do you even remember what comes next?”

“Of course I do.” Of course I did. Mostly. “I just have to find my train of thought. From almost half a year ago.”

“That’s a long break in the train schedule.”

“Well, trains don’t come through often anymore.” I shrugged. “I don’t think the industry is doing well, honestly. I think it’s because…”

The radiologist gave me a long-suffering look.

“Right. Right. Anyway, let’s get this thing back on…track.” Trust me. All good story metaphors are about trains. I didn’t have much of an alternative. “Let’s rejoin our hero…”

“Ahem.”

Fine,” I said, almost in a growl. “Let’s rejoin our protagonist…” I waited to make sure there were no further objections. The other man made a “so-so” motion with one hand. “It was a warm, sunny day. Summer was in full swing. The birds were singing. The flowers were blooming. And I, for whatever reason, had decided that the best use of my time was to sit indoors having a man who’d spent most of his adult life earning his doctorate read a class schedule to me while I held it.”