What the Professor Is Really Thinking

Illustrations by Josh Rosborough

That might be a bad title, actually.

It should be, “What This Professor Is Really Thinking.”

Although, to be fair, even that could sometimes just be a very short and concise piece — a concept piece, if you will — the entirety of which would read, “About lunch.”

I do a lot of thinking while I’m not professing (and sometimes, even when I am), and it often has nothing at all to do with high intellect: about my colleagues, my students, the ivory tower as a place that, quite frankly, looks less like its Tolkienesque name suggests when one considers that it’s located between two of Toronto’s most famous strip clubs and a place that was long known as Hooker Harvey’s.

I am a professor at a downtown Toronto university. This was never my intention, but like most things in my life, I stumbled in, luckily, gleefully, and then hung on for dear life, fearing that I might otherwise end up wandering the shoulder of a 400-series highway with only an inch of water in an Evian bottle and a bruised plum in my bag. And truth is, I had the good fortune of falling upon a faculty that a) wanted me, b) kept me, and c) occasionally orders lunches from a good sandwich place.

My time in academia has taught me a number of things about the modern student.  My own time in university — where I was the terrible combination of opinionated, stoned and quite lazy — has often come back to bite me in the ass with similar students, but is also proof that even someone who is a complete goof at school can eventually pull up their socks and get it right. Students today are more organized, better life planners, and more talented than I was. They’re largely likeable people: energetic,enthusiastic, fresh-faced, and, when the stars are aligned, have the good sense and wisdom to dress completely insanely while they can get away with it.

Frosh Week this year: the campus was overtaken as always by the hoarse screams of young men and women who missed their callings as camp counsellors, shepherding wide-eyed teens around the city in a systematic and drunken zigzag towards aseries of games, events and parties. The first-year students arrived in my class the first week like jaded veterans of ’Nam.

But then it didn’t go away, Frosh Week. The vendors of Red Bull and credit cards,the purveyors of anything that could be sold via a bouncy castle, they remained for far too long. I walked by a mariachi band the other day. No one is leaving. It’s the university version of “Hotel California,” with worse music (and I’m not even counting the mariachi band). It’s enough to put anyone on edge.

Early in the year, I received a very rude and demanding email from a student. No salutations, just the punctuation-less ramblings of a furious graduate student  (who later apologized in person). It rattled me, bothering me well into the evening. My husband waved off my concern, his eyes still on the cycling on TV.

“Why do you care?”

To which I heard myself whimper, “Because it hurts my feelings.”

“Bah! Tell them to fuck off to another school.”

I watch all of my work in gender studies crash around me in moments like these. I vow to be tough. Head upstairs and have a bath, with a glass of wine on the edge of the tub and Netflix playing on the laptop resting on the counter. I wonder what it would be like to tell a student to fuck off to another school —not that I very often have that impulse.

I once met a high-school teacher at a party. I asked what he taught.

“Idiots!” he barked, laughing. Then, quietly, “Don’t tell my wife I said that. She doesn’t think that joke’s funny.”

I try and imagine what my husband would be like as a professor. Probably not unlike my dad, who was a principal in a time when you could get away with pouring a bucket of water on two kids making out under your office window, or putting a kid in a garbage can and then somehow convincing his mother that he had it coming.

Work work work work work work. It follows me home and hums in my ears. I think about my committees, my classes, my students. Work work work work work work. The word immediately brings to mind the catchy Rihanna song that I heard probably much too late, and to which any future references will elicit the same eye-rolling from my students that my classmates and I once gave our Latin teacher, Mr. Maybee, when he referred to Burt Reynolds as a heart throb while talking about Cupid and Psyche.

In his case, as a classicist, I suppose we ought to have been impressed that he had any grasp on popular culture, the fact of it being a generation out of touch notwithstanding. In my case, I’ve never been much in touch. Not like my oldest and dearest friend, who describes herself as “the white-hot centre of mainstream.” I am unabashedly square, and have been for most of my life, even though I went to art school, had the short-lived nickname Laurissey because of my penchant for moody music, and still have the hole from a belly-button ring. I have two sisters-in-law who have, at different times, referred to me as “the cool aunt.” I pity my nieces and nephews, should the time come that they want to run away from home and find themselves watching Gilmore Girls whilst eating homemade granola bars with someone who uses the word whilst.

Professors are not known for being cool, though, so there’s that. I remember the cast of faculty characters from my undergrad: an alcoholic painter who poured a bottle of rum into the cake we were given on our welcoming day; another alcoholic painter who cut the elastics out of his socks to make them more comfortable; a strict Parisian painter who forced us to do hundreds of two-second life drawings of the elderly man who was our perpetual nude model and whose body always appeared to be leaking from somewhere; and finally, a wonderful, thoughtful, talented artist who inspired us to think creatively and critically, and who routinely invited us to her home. We remain in contact. The last I heard from her, she said the art studio was overrun with mice. I’m not sure if that was a euphemism.

Academia is a funny cosmic loop of a place where on one hand one can encounter tireless researchers and educators, formidable writers and artists, and on the otherhand, read the same meeting agendas over and over, infinitely, and where some people hide in the hovels of their expertise for an entire career without ever peeking outside to notice that the Apocalypse has arrived in the form of a flying cow. There is a legend of a person who once took off all of their clothes in a faculty meeting, and then went on to become the director of a graduate program. Now that I think of it, it’s not so much a legend as an anecdote that really typifies a place. No one bats an eye to crazy here. I am now the director of our graduate program, and yes, sometimes my clothes get itchy.

Today I commuted two hours in, had one meeting, got locked in the meeting room, escaped, tried to use the photocopier and ended up with a pile of blank sheets, fell into a gap in time, and almost missed my bus home. Days like this, I prefer to work and write and research at my local coffee shop to avoid the trappings of the academic time suck.

Naturally, I suffer from “imposter syndrome”; many, many women know what this is and feel it keenly. I’ve yet to meet a man who uses this term. Maybe they feel it, but not from what I can tell. Not any of the men I know. Most of them appear to be waiting for someone to ask them how to repair a rocket ship. I don’t know what is wrong with me and the women I know; all of us are quite accomplished. We seem to think that we are one short email away from carrying all our belongings out of our offices on a stick tied to a sack like in an old-timey cartoon. Apparently when we were told we could be anything we wanted when we grew up, we also heard, whispered, “except that.” I have a friend who recently said dramatically, and so quietly as to almost mouth it, to me over cocktails, “I have the worst, worst imposter syndrome,” like she was sharing a federal secret. This was ironic given that every article she writes sends me looking up all the things she is referencing immediately after reading it.

What is the connection between those people on the edge of grown-up life, and those who hope to teach them? What connects us to them?

At our incoming students’ orientation, our chair told the students that theyshould come out of the program feeling “nimble,” that no matter what the job,they should be able to look at it and think, “Yeah, I can do that.” I believe many of us are missing this nimble gene. I rarely look at any other job and think I could do it. In fact, in the event of a zombie apocalypse, I would be useless, complete zombie fodder. I have a Ph.D. in the humanities, a terrible sense of direction, regularly forget how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit (let alone how to spell it, which I just tried three times to do, and even spell check wouldn’t make any suggestions, I was so far off), prefer novels to real life, and only just learned how to use my lawn mower this past summer. The sum of the parts, from what little I remember about math, adds up to someone who would be voted most likely to start a zombie book club. (For the zombies, not aboutthem.)

But I am, I think, perfectly suited for this place. A perpetual motion machine of learning and making and thinking, of struggling and falling, and getting up again. I will continue to try and inspire my students to become more than I was, more than I am. I will spread my arms wide when speaking about imagination, and grin idiotically whilst teaching them that your mind, well,it’s just a wonderful place to live.

Cut the elastics off my socks, pour rum in the cake. It’s all in a day’s work. 

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