Thoughts on life after the PhD
I think every grad student has their share of “crazy shit I’ve seen” stories. Conference panels that seem to exist in a parallel universe, seminars where no one bothered to create a syllabus or even a unifying theme, the undergrad whose mother attended class in his place for several weeks while he was playing minor league baseball (yes, that really happened). Most of the time the incidents in question are more annoying than horrifying, though plenty of them can make you question your sanity (and your decision to pursue an academic career).
Every now and then, though, crazy gets truly crazified.
My own most memorable story involves an auditorium full of around a thousand students and a moderating professor who was either a) drunk, b) high, or c) some combination of both.
A bit of background is in order. Every semester my university hosts a speakers’ series that I’ll call the College Lessons series, where influential people from various fields are invited to speak before the bulk of the freshman class, engage in a debate with another speaker or moderator, and then answer questions from the students in the audience.
That’s how it’s supposed to happen, anyway.
In reality, the College Lessons series is a bit of a joke. Speakers are usually found at the last minute and tend to be mediocre at best. There is no “debate”–the speaker just talks for twenty or thirty minutes and then fields softball questions from the moderator. If there are two speakers they might have a bit of friendly conversation. Technically the students are required to come, though they generally don’t want to be there and spend the whole time Facebooking or texting. Instructors like me are required to come mostly to make sure the students didn’t get out of hand.
Instructors and students alike tended to dread College Lessons–instructors because we found it to be an utter waste of time, students because, well, students hate being required to do anything after 5 pm (the events usually started at around 7 pm). To me, it was a typical example of university bureaucracy. The event could have been interesting and meaningful for everyone involved, but due to an unwillingness on the part of those in charge to listen to any constructive input, it remained a parade of lameness, semester after semester.
For my third College Lessons event I trudged into the large auditorium and sat among my class of seventeen students, all of whom had, at least, bothered to show up on time. I tried to act like there was actually a point to all of this and even pretended to take notes (the students have to write an essay on the College Lessons events at the end of the semester and are thus encouraged to take notes, though the essays never really get read and count for only a tiny percentage of their final grade).
Then the moderator came out, and I immediately got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
We’ll call her Jane Smith. She was, I later found out, a tenured professor in the philosophy department. From the minute she opened her mouth to introduce the speaker I suspected something was wrong. She paused in the wrong places, laughed in the wrong places. A couple of the students in that auditorium of nearly a thousand giggled, but the students around me didn’t seem to notice much.
The guest speaker came out and did his thing for about half an hour. He was actually pretty good–a psychologist speaking on the subject of decision-making and how we tend to stick with the same path for a long time even when we know it’s not the right one (heh, I related to that one). The students actually paid attention.
Then Jane Smith came back out, and everything fell apart.
She accidentally sat on her microphone, then looked around with a comically shocked expression when it made a loud noise. The students–nearly a thousand of them–laughed at that, and the mood in the auditorium immediately changed. Jane Smith’s questions didn’t make any sense. She kept taking the microphone from the speaker or pulling it away from him when he was in mid-sentence. She interrupted his answers with nonsensical comments.
All around me students alternated between laughing and whispering to each other. I felt ill. I wasn’t responsible for this, to be sure, but I still felt like my credibility as an instructor had been shot to hell–I had ordered them to come to this thing. I had told them that it was very important that they attend.
About fifteen minutes in, I wrote in large letters on my notepad, “If you leave now I will not stop you” and passed it along. About half of them thanked me and left.
The speaker, to his credit, did his best to make the most of the situation (thank goodness he was a psychologist). When students came up to the microphone to ask questions Jane Smith would often ignore them or cut them off, and to their credit they actually just kept going ahead with their questions.
There is something so sickening about watching a person implode in front of you, and feeling helpless to do anything about it. As I write about it now I suppose it might sound funny, but recalling it I just feel queasy, and remember how queasy and miserable I felt that night. I think that evening lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes in total. It felt like years.
During furious conversations with administrators and fellow teachers the next day, I learned that:
1. The administrators had been on the verge of cutting the power and asking everyone to evacuate the building.
2. Jane Smith had been disoriented and unstable at the dinner that the administrators and the speaker had hosted before the event, but no one had stepped in to say that maybe she shouldn’t be the moderator.
The saddest part? To my knowledge, nothing changed. Jane Smith didn’t even get reprimanded. The College Lessons series is the same as it always was–a waste of time that both students and instructors dread.
To me, this story reveals a couple of things. One: arbitrary university hierarchies mean that one person (not always the most qualified person) is often in charge of something. And even if the result of their effort sucks and everyone offers suggestions as to how it could be better, that one person can still turn a deaf ear and just continue to do things their way, with no real fear of consequences. Two: tenure can be a coat of armor that’s far too thick, making the untenured reluctant to criticize or question the tenured under any circumstances–even when they’re drunk or high on a stage in front of a thousand students. As some of my untenured co-workers angrily pointed out, they could easily have been fired for doing what Jane Smith had done. I’m not saying that Jane Smith’s tenured status was the only reason no one stepped in–anyone would have felt awkward and uncertain stepping into a situation like that–but I’m betting it played a role.
The moral? For me, at least, it’s to hold people accountable. Just because they’re tenured and you’re not doesn’t mean they should be able to get away with everything. Sure, your efforts may not lead to much (the post-Jane Smith Incident conversations with administrators don’t seem to have had much impact). But at least you’ll know that your voice has been heard.
The other moral? Don’t get drunk or high in front of impressionable undergrads. That’s what post-conference receptions are for.
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