The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"In universities and intellectual circles, academics can guarantee themselves popularity -- or, which is just as satisfying, unpopularity -- by being opinionated rather than by being learned."...  ....A.N. Wilson.

Commentary of the Day - October 7, 2004:  Name That Loon.  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

Those of a certain age will remember a television show called "Name That Tune."  Contestants were asked to identify a song title after a few bars were played.  "Name That Loon" is something of the same thing, except that faculty members are asked to name the loon -- or loons -- on their campus from a snippet of wacky behavior.  How did this parlor game begin?  I suppose it started on the day I woke up to the startling realization that some of my colleagues are just -- well, loony.  For example, at my school there were three old codgers who enjoyed nothing so much as disagreeing with the president about virtually anything he proposed.  Their rule of thumb was simple: if it came out of his lips, they were dead set against it.

At faculty meetings I began to equate their frantically waving hands with the tirades of mean spirited criticism that would inevitably follow.  Why so?  Because this is largely what they did -- they were neither productive scholars nor effective teachers.  They got a "pass" from the rest of the faculty.  They may have been eccentrics of the prickly sort, but they were our eccentrics.

I went along with my colleagues during the day but at night I hatched up a delicious dream.  In it, the president tells the faculty that he has an announcement of such magnitude that he knows he will not do it full justice.  But, he went on, he would try: It seems that the Coca-Cola foundation, after years of hearing criticism that their largesse funds only Emory University, decided to give an unrestricted gift of 120 million dollars to a small liberal arts college.  I am pleased to announce that ours is the college they chose.  Not surprisingly, the room breaks out in applause.

"As you might imagine," the president continued, "a sum this large requires a good deal of thought as to the best way to use it.  So, the officers of the College and the board of trustees met last week to discuss the matter.  There were a number of fine suggestions but in the end we agreed that the best way to increase faculty morale would be to divide the money among the permanent faculty members.  The college treasurer tells me that this turns out to be one million dollars for each of you."  At that point three hands wave
frantically in the air.  This time, however, their colleagues do not sit passively in their seats.  Instead, they rise as one body, yank their seats from the floor, and heave them at the professional curmudgeons who just might screw up a free million-dollar lunch.

I've asked professors at other small colleges if they could name the three loons at their school who would act similarly.  They have no trouble ("I'd be happy to cast the first chair," one professor told me), and the same thing is true for those who teach at large universities.  Apparently, at least three loons come with the territory of faculty governance.

There are, of course, other ways that an individual faculty member can be loony.  Campus-wide e-mail systems can buck along important announcements, postings of smaller matters ("Has anybody seen a gray tabby wandering around the campus?  It's mine! , and it's lost!); and, a chance for loons  to berate those boobs in the community who are not as self-righteous or clear thinking  as they are.  On September 13, 2001, while the rubble that was once the World Trade Center still smoldered, an email appeared taking to task those on the faculty and staff who displayed the American flag.  Such acts of patriotism were repugnant, jingoistic, and just plain wrong.  Many faculty wrote this person privately to express their strong displeasure, only to find that their correspondence reproduced -- and sharply critiqued -- in the next email sent out to the entire faculty.

There are several email cranks on my campus who can be counted on to clog the email waves with long-winded missives, and I am told that many, many more hang out on cutting-edge campuses where there are always PC pots to stir.

A friend tells me that I'll run into even more loons in that place folks call "the real world."  Possibly, but I'm sure that however loony they might be, they are not treated with the deference and tolerance that academic loons receive from their colleagues.

©2004 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is recently retired from Franklin and Marshall College, where he was Shadeck Professor of Humanities.

The IP comments: Oh no!  For all these years the IP has been trying to make the world safe for curmudgeons.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.