Libby Gruner at Mama Ph.D. asks: “Do Professors Matter?,” with respect to (yet another) study confirming that “[d]espite the hand-wringing of cultural conservatives, it appears that most college students are not indeed blank slates on whom radical professors simply write their left-wing politics; rather, students self-select into disciplines that tend to confirm their political biases.” In other words, even if we saw our primary jobs as evangelists for a political worldview, it wouldn’t matter.
Her post got me thinking: which of my professors mattered? Maybe it’s because of my line of work, but all of the faculty members I knew in college still play a large role in my interior life. It’s striking to think of how much I remember about them–down to their clothing, hairstyles, hearing aids, eyeglasses, catchphrases, and nervous tics. I also remember a lot about what they taught me, both in terms of the subject matter we covered in their classes, but also about teaching (sometimes by good example, other times by showing me what NOT to do.) It’s amazing to think of all the different personal styles and pedagogies that I was exposed to in just four short years.
I attended a small college, and was taught by a cross-section of quirky, fusty, eccentric, and brilliant (and sometimes all of the above) scholars who together embodied every stereotype of college professor you’d ever want to run into: the brilliant archaeologist who hid his light under a bushel of timidity, and hair he must have cut himself and suits he must have stitched himself, too; the Iraqi Jewish linguist who wrote novels in Hebrew and Arabic, for fun; the cute little-old-lady language professor who was rumored to have had a wild life in her youth; the political scientist with the big, shaggy dogs in her office who was oddly unmoved by my obvious brilliance and apple-polishing; the “cool prof” in her early 30s who wore trousers and lived in an eighteenth-century townhouse in the city; the history professor who was reaaaally old and boring in class and whose hearing aid screeched unbearably when he cranked it up but who was a linguist who did top-secret work for the Allies in World War II; the hard-boiled middle-aged English prof who dished gossip along with suppers at her house on campus; the brilliant historian who was so brilliant and tortured by his perfectionism that he never managed to publish much of anything, and who held seminars in his on-campus house, cultivating gangs of upperclasswomen and men who hung on his every word and mannerism. (We’d do impressions of this guy for laughs. What a bunch of nerds we were! But happy nerds, natch.)
Professors matter–but often our students won’t know how much we mattered for years down the road. So, this is just my way of saying thanks to all of my old professors, and I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate you more when I had the good fortune to have taken your classes. I’m sorry we occasionally made fun of your hearing aids, your stuttering, your clothes, and the hair growing out of your ears. We were young and shallow–believe me, I’m sure that I’m on the receiveing end of some epic karma on that front now. And although I probably could have studied harder, you can see that I was paying attention.