Graduate school was more than becoming involved in the peace movement, protesting the Vietnam War, and having two students take over a history classroom. In the midst of all this I took three classes a quarter. One of these was a literature course in which I studied the works of Hermann Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The professor who taught this class was in a publish-or-perish mode. To receive tenure he needed to publish a scholarly work the following year. As the class progressed, it became clear he was writing on the “heart of darkness” delineated by Hawthorne in his short stories and novels.
His teaching revealed his philosophy of education, and I didn’t agree with it. He would laugh at students’ responses, belittling them with a snide remark. Soon many students ceased responding to his questions.
However, three female students in the second row seemed to have psyched out what he was looking for in a response. When they answered, he’d frequently wave them to a halt. “Wait! Wait a minute,” he’d implore, “while I write this down.”
Then he’d pick up his notebook and transcribe their answers. This was, we all knew, the notebook in which he kept the jottings that would ultimately become part of his proposed book.
The favored student would complete the convoluted answer. The professor would tap his pencil against the notepad and proclaim, “That’s the kind of answer that leads us deeper into the darkness of Hawthorne!”
As weeks passed, I became more disillusioned with his teaching. I was learning about two great American authors, but this learning was happening in a classroom in which the professor displayed no respect for his students. He built no community among us.
One day the professor told us that a student had complained about his teaching methods. “So what do you think?” he asked us. “Do you think I’m a good teacher?” Immediately, the favored ones assured him that he made learning interesting. He was brilliant. Articulate. Truly gifted. He beamed. They continued with their accolades. The other students looked down at their textbooks, awaiting the bell’s release.
Finally, I’d heard enough. When I raised my hand, he called on me. I said something like the following, “Professor XX, it’s clear you know your subject matter. But when students respond to questions, you frequently laugh at their answers.”
“Laugh? I don’t do that.” Then, glancing at the second row, he laughed aloud. When he looked beyond those three females, however, he saw that many other students had turned toward me with the thumbs up of approval.
He looked confused. Bewildered. “I don’t do that!” he insisted. “What you say is ridiculous. Silly.” One again he laughed at the absurdity of my claim.
“You’re doing it now. You’re laughing at what I said.”
“That’s because it’s ridiculous,” he sniggered.
The bell rang. All the students, I among them, rose to leave the room. Several thanked me for expressing their own concerns. Together, we observed the professor leave the building. He looked beaten.
Studying at the library later that morning, I considered what I’d said. I hadn’t wanted to attack him personally. I’d wanted only to suggest that he consider his teaching style. I walked across campus to his office, knocked, and was told to enter.
I opened the door. The professor sat behind a desk in the corner of the room. He looked up, rose abruptly, scuttled behind his chair, and backed into the shadowed corner.
“Please don’t shoot me,” he begged. “I’m sorry I laughed. Don’t hurt me!”
The light bulb went off in my brain. Just a few days before two protesters had brandished guns and taken over a history classroom. Now, as the literature professor cowered before me, I witnessed the reverberations of that incident.
“Professor XX, I don’t have a gun.” I held out my gun-less hands toward him.
He shook his head back and forth, clearly distraught. His eyes pleaded with me.
“I want you to know,” I said, “that I wasn’t talking about you personally today. I was talking about your style of teaching. It’s hurtful.”
“I’ll give you an A,” he muttered. “Just don’t shoot me.” He reached for his grade book.
“Listen to me! I don’t have a gun. I just want you to think about how you treat students. That’s all. Just think about what we feel like when you laugh.”
He laughed then. Somewhat manically. And I left.
As to his subsequent teaching . . . during the next week, he was somewhat obsequious in the classroom. The following week, less so. The third week, he was back to laughing at our answers. In the long run, nothing changed.
As to my grade . . . I got a B.