In the Halls of Academia

August 30, 2007

How do you do “How do you do?”?

When passing and greeting my colleagues at school, I usually smile and say, “Hey.” Or “How’s it going?” Sometimes, a Texas-bred “Howdy” will pop out. Other times, it’s a Canadian “How’s it going, eh?” Two years in Toronto will do that to a person.

Occasionally, it’s just a smile and a wave. But when my hands are filled with papers or books, it’s the “smile and nod” combo.

The greetings I give are important to me. My campus is fairly compact as campuses go. The main academic building is home to faculty and administrative offices, the main classroom wing, academic support services, the library, art gallery, computer and science labs, the registrar, accounting, and the cafeteria. Most professors, administrators, and staff rarely leave the building during the day. Hallway encounters are very often where first impressions are made and identities established.

Unfortunately, many people at my university mistake me for someone else. My English department chair and I are often confused with one another. We’re both tall white males in our early 50s with wire-rimmed glasses and short brown hair. We’re both from the south; he’s from Carolina, and I’m from Houston. I guess I understand how folks get us confused, even though I think it’s pretty clear who the handsome one is. Still, when I hear “Hey, Nelson” or he’s greeted with “Hey, Laurence,” we shrug our shoulders, smile, and give out our true monikers. We haven’t resorted to name tags yet.

I also get called “Hey, Larry” sometimes which is a clue that the speaker is not an intimate of mine. I’ve always been “Laurence,” and I’m usually quick to correct those who get it wrong. Nevertheless, I know there’s an endearing and affectionate quality to diminutives. During my undergraduate years, I never corrected my first English professor even as she corrected me. I still feel her presence over my shoulder as I write, saying “Larry, are you sure that word is the one you want for what you want to say?”

But “Larry” is better than nothing. As the saying goes, “I don’t care what you call me as long as you call me for dinner.” And honestly, I must admit that I’m pretty awful with names myself. At the beginning of each semester, it takes me entirely too long to learn the whole new crop of assistant professors’ names just as I’m trying to get the names of my students sorted out. And of course, each year resounds with new choruses of “Hey, Nelson.”

Then there are those exchanges I’d rather avoid, and two in particular I dread: the Bellyacher and the Hook. The Bellyacher is the tragic colleague, sad and tired, often with a cold or flu and always with a gripe ready to share. Poor fellow has students who don’t know anything, write miserably, and would be better off if they would just get a clue and drop his class. He’s also exhausted by committee meeting after committee meeting where no one seems to know what they’re doing and nothing ever seems to get done. And don’t get him started on the numbskulls in administration. No, really, please don’t get him started.

The Hook is the colleague who won’t let go. A short and simple “Hi” in the hallway can open the floodgates of a ten minute monologue on the most intimate details of his private life. The Hook is so skilled in oratory that he dispenses with pauses and would never think to pose a question himself. It’s just one long subordinate clause after another until he’s lost his train of thought or remembered that someone somewhere else needs to hear him talk about himself. Courteous listener that I am, I’ve yet to figure out how to interrupt the Hook’s performance and get on with my trip to the Men’s Room.

Another uncomfortable greeting is what I like to call the “Stuttering Hug.” When a female colleague approaches with intentions to hug, usually during some after school function, I’d rather run for the hills. I’m a wingless social butterfly, fairly awkward in the hugging game. Should it be a quick embrace? Will there be pats on the back? Is a peck on the cheek expected? Pour me another drink.

I’ve also noticed in the last year an addition to my own greeting repertoire. I don’t recall when this new gesture began, but I find when I’m empty-handed, I raise both hands to colleagues in a double wave. The right hand is a bit higher than the left, almost as if I’m adjusting two rather large knobs in front of me. It’s a new and curious, automatic motion as I greet colleagues in hallway. What can it mean?

Perhaps it’s some kind of unconscious surrender, as in “You can see I’m unarmed. Please don’t shoot.”

Or maybe it’s a claim of innocence: “Don’t blame me. I had nothing to do with it. I’ve been in my office grading papers all day.”

Then again, maybe it’s a cry for help, as in “Hey, over here! Send in the Marines!”

But I guess it could just as easily be read as an offer of help: “Here are two good hands. Tell me what you need.”

Or it could be arms raised in hallelujah: a “Praise the Lord” that we’ve made it one more day to greet each other face-to-face in the halls of academia.


Laurence Musgrove is an associate professor of English at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago, where he also directs the general education program.

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