What has become of the eccentrics in the ranks of our professors? From time to time, when I run into a colleague from another institution, I ask if he or she knows of any such individuals. Almost always, the answer is either "no," or a lengthy pause of consideration before offering up a bland example of an octogenarian who drives a motor scooter.
It is often said that academia is not the "real world." I’m not so sure how true this is today, what with the distinction between gutter and campus highly blurred, and practical emphases on job placement and technological "know how" supplanting the liberal arts. But looking back at my undergraduate years in the 1970s, I do think I studied in a sort of bubble highlighted by, for lack of a better descriptor, wacky professors who may not have been able to function outside the ivory tower.
I recently unearthed one of my college notebooks. On the inside back cover I had caricatured each of my instructors from that particular year. One glance and I immediately recalled the inspirations for my artwork.
There was, for example, Professor Feigenblatt, who walked with a stiff limp and chain-smoked during his German lectures. After each smoke he would drop the still-glowing butt onto the carpet and slowly grind it in with the tip of his orthopedic shoe. As a preamble to every lecture, he would clop over to the desk of each of the Fräuleins present and would ask permission to remove his sports jacket. Then he would light up and begin his rambling lectures while blowing smoke in our faces. On one occasion when he was absent, he sent his elderly German secretary — replete with bifocals on a pearl chain and her hair in a bun — to proctor a test we were taking. I approached her desk with a question from that test. To my surprise, and delight, she gave me the answer, loud enough for everyone to hear. A line quickly formed at her desk, and she dutifully helped all of us out. "Ach," she said, giggling, "if Professor Feigenblatt ever finds out he’ll be so annoyed." We all promised we wouldn’t tell. The professor returned the following week with the tests in hand, his face aglow. "Wonderful grades!" he exulted. "Everybody got an A!"
Professor Gleason was a bumbling biologist whom, due to his generous and ovoid physical proportions, we students had nicknamed "The Egg." He seemed to be totally baffled by his own course material, and managed quite capably to convey this bewilderment to the class, so that none of us knew what the hell was going on. I once went to his office with great trepidation to ask him to explain a challenging concept. When I arrived there he had his back to me as he stood before an elaborate apparatus of glassware, ringstands, tubes, and clamps. I recall thinking, Well, how about that? Still waters run deep. He does know what he’s doing after all. When he turned to me, however, he was stirring a cup of coffee, brewed on the intricate set-up. One day he took us down to the banks of the Hackensack River for a field trip. We helped him get the large motorboat into the water, and then the ten of us students looked on from the bank as he worked away at the engine, yanking the pull repeatedly to get it to start. He hadn’t noticed that the boat had begun to drift away, and we had no intention of alerting him. We all watched in silence (and with rising anticipation of a canceled class) as The Egg worked at the engine, his crablike arms too short to extract the pull all the way. Within ten minutes he had drifted out of sight. So we went home.
My organic chemistry professor, Dr. Weinstein, was rather fearsome and had little patience with students. His reputation didn’t rest upon his teaching prowess, because he had only one mantra — “Read the book!” Word was that he had fathered a famous chemical reaction during World War II and continued to get mileage out of that one, shining achievement. He was also as near-sighted as Mr. Magoo. On the first day of class he distributed our glassware and warned us, in his harsh, croaking voice: "I will inventory the glassware at the end of the course. If any is missing, you’ll pay!"
Well, there was inevitable breakage during the semester, and a lot of it. On the last day, Weinstein told us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the lab benches while he walked from student to student with his clipboard. For our part, we were passing the glassware to one another behind our backs in such a way that everyone wound up with a "complete" set. "Well," rasped Weinstein when he was done inventorying. "That’s a first." If he later discovered the deficits, it didn’t matter, because his eyesight was so bad that he would never be able to identify any of us.
Professor Holzer taught an elective in sociology. In addition to her atrocious hats, one of which resembled the bread fungus Rhizopus, her most salient gloss was her inability to find not only our classroom, but the campus as well. It was Professor Holzer’s first semester at the university, and we took full advantage of her complete mystification about the location of the campus. After missing the first class and arriving 30 minutes late for the second, she turned to us and asked for the best way to get from her home to the school. We told her to proceed in a completely contrary direction, up the Taconic State Parkway. She did so, and missed the next class. But when she surfaced again she seemed not the least bit more witting about what had happened and asked us for directions again! This time we sent her to Queens. Eventually she discovered the correct route to the school. I would like to say that she forgave us for the shenanigans; but why would she? She never suspected we were taking advantage of her.
Mrs. Reynard (she was an instructor and not a titled professor) taught English lit. Her specialty was Romantic English poetry. The thing was, she couldn’t remember who had written what. One day she commenced a rolling commentary on Robert Browning, beginning with his biography and then dissecting his metrical technique with the focus and deliberation of a brain surgeon. She ended her discourse with the comment, “Once you’ve read Browning, you’ll never forget him.” Then she recited a poem, “The Birth of Love,” after which she placed her hand on her heart and sighed. A student spoke up. “But Mrs. Reynard,” he said, “that’s Wordsworth.” “Oh,” she said, and blinked uncomprehendingly as she began to page through the text in search of Browning.
Professor O’Rourke, of psychology, was the epitome of the absent-minded professor. He was the type who pushed his glasses up on his head and then spent the next fifteen minutes looking for them. He could often be seen wandering around the parking lot searching for his car before realizing that he’d taken the bus. He once went into the men’s room with his briefcase and came out with the toilet seat under his arm. I kid you not. But within his discipline he was absolutely crackerjack.
In the jaded eyes of us students, it was clear that our professors would have a hard time functioning in the wider world. Gleason, we knew, would never be a boat pilot, O’Rourke would fail miserably as a parking valet, and Holzer’s inability to connect points A and B would automatically disqualify her from driving a cab.
But I miss these people. Or better said, I lament not having colleagues like them in my teaching environment. Where have the outlandish characters gone? My sense is that the nature of the university beast has changed and has had a leveling effect on the spectrum of personalities. As higher education has striven to define itself as a business ("Students are our customers!" chirps a perky poster), there is less tolerance for professors who might — heaven forbid — embarrass the institution and drive the paying public away. The result has been a more rigid screening of applicants for conformity, or, in the lingo of current hiring practices, "institutional fit." This is a catch-all phrase that colleges and universities use to trump all other qualifications and acquire the person they had their eye on all along. In other words, a brilliant eccentric who can simultaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other while captivating his students has less institutional fit than a bland monotone who sticks to the text and is grateful to the administration for giving him a job.
What about me? I don’t think I’m eccentric, or cranky, or absent-minded. What professors with these characteristics have in common is their unwittingness: the prof is out of touch, to a greater or lesser degree, with his surroundings and especially with how his students regard him.
I still recall an event at the end of Professor Gleason’s biology class. Between semesters we had a seven-week break. At the beginning of the break a few of us went to his office and put a few fruit flies in his desk drawer along with enough food to sustain several generations. When we returned to school after our lengthy vacation we followed The Egg across campus as he waddled toward his building. We waited outside his office as he arranged his things, got his coffee apparatus going again, and then, as he opened his drawer, screamed out, “Oh, my God!” This was followed by a frantic racket as he swatted at the swarm with what sounded like a frying pan. But he apparently never suspected a thing. He certainly didn’t interrogate any of us. The cozy academic life for him simply went on.
Now, if I were to open my desk drawer one morning and recoil as thousands of fruit flies streamed out, I’d immediately know something was up, and I’d immediately suspect my students. Then I would plan my counterattack. Perhaps this comes from having grown up in rough and tumble New Jersey, where interpersonal warfare is part of the social fabric and nobody is allowed to get away with anything.
I was recently at a gathering of colleagues, some of whom had brought their college-age children along. I took the opportunity to ask if any of them knew any true eccentrics at their schools. Those of my generation (baby boom) and older had colorful stories to tell from their undergraduate days. But not one of the kids could describe a prof who was outrageous or singular in any but the most benign and modest of ways. Their teachers were, for the most part, unmemorable.
Oh, where have they gone? Where are these helpless, hopeless, unaware yet frequently gifted personalities who, like planets orbiting their stars, never stray far from the schools that give them comfort and purpose? Is there nowhere to be found a philosophy professor who has taught his mynah bird to recite the odes of Pindar? Or a physicist in search of a perpetual motion machine? Perhaps a linguist who is working on toe sign language? Our eccentrics and dreamers and mental drifters have been replaced with pragmaticians who have mapped their courses out with all the precision and predictability of masons building a wall. Nothing is left to the imagination, and even their attempts at humor abrade us specifically because we know they are trying to be funny for our sakes. How much more wonderful it is when a professor makes us laugh because his world is odd, his steps sometimes unsure, his glasses eternally lost upon his head, the toilet seat propped under his arm.
I have heard it said that nostalgia is a form of protest. And I suppose it is, because I feel a longing for something I once had and that I now miss. I realize that one cannot hire a new professor because he or she is eccentric, but what’s sad is that hiring committees no longer overlook eccentricity in their constant striving for institutional fit. Perhaps this is because eccentricity has become conflated with liability. The only hope, then, in the current social climate, is for eccentricity to rise to the level of a disability that would have to be accommodated. Then these colorful people would have a fighting chance and colleges and universities would be presented with opportunities to become more interesting places again.
Robert Klose is professor of biological sciences at University College of Bangor. This essay is an excerpt from his new book, The Three-Legged Woman and Other Excursions in Teaching (University Press of New England).