By Darren Johnson
I found myself recently channeling that old crank political science professor I’d had back in the day. One day he yelled at the class and ended it abruptly, sending us on our way.
Coming from a family of dreamers and underachievers, I’d felt the need to study something practical, so double-majored in Pre-Law — which was largely composed of political science courses with this guy — at a small college that wasn’t really known for anything other than the Fine Arts and Marine Biology.
At least when I’d bump into people when home on break in my depressed hometown, I could simply say I was majoring in that, as opposed to English/Writing, which was my other, preferred major. But the kind of major people without degrees make fun of.
But, really, the Pre-Law major was a dumb move. First, my English degree would have been just as good a qualifier to get into law school, should I have chosen that path. Law schools look fondly at applicants with English degrees, as the major proves someone is a strong reader and writer – useful skills for a lawyer.
Second, that Pre-Law major, with the professors from the tiny, unheralded department that almost wholly gave C’s, killed my overall GPA, later hurting my graduate school opportunities.
The program was a real downer. This professor – who seemed ancient back then, but I think he’s still teaching, so won’t name him here – would regularly belittle us, saying he deserved better than our lot, that none of us were truly college material. None of us were as good as him. With the little books he’d published in his younger days, that no other university assigned.
But that one class he did a drop-the-mic. The class was mostly male, and, admittedly, because this was one of the least popular majors at this small college, it didn’t attract the academic cream of the crop.
The night before was full of parties. People passing overflowing, foaming, plastic cups under the glow of stars and Christmas lights outdoors — in February – and laughing, for hours – and, before we knew it, we were in that 10 a.m. class, and none of us had done the reading.
And we stared blankly at him as he kept asking questions. “Did anyone do the reading?”
Silence. We were only five minutes into this class. “Anyone?”
And the look of disgust he had for us. “Then leave. Get out of here.”
My classmates and I looked at each other, disappointed in ourselves. He made us feel that way. We slinked out of the class, grasping our unread political science books, with their perfectly crisp, unturned, bright white pages.
(In retrospect, I think the problem was we were just 19, and he was assigning us heady books that required a more mature mind. Granted, we should have tried harder, though.)
And I vowed not to be like him if I ever taught: Mean-spirited, out-of-touch, unapproachable. He once told the class, “If you don’t like the grade I give you, you can come and see me. I might raise it, or I might, after further examination of your work, lower your grade.”
Despite being dumb and 19, we got the message. Don’t bother him.
(Once from a distance, I saw him walking up the hill to the academic building, holding the hand of a little girl. It was his daughter; perhaps he had weekend custody of her. Another time I saw him sitting alone in a McDonald’s, eating and reading a New York Times – he’d once told the class that’s how he’d like to go out, with a Big Mac and that paper. Both times I didn’t feel I could approach him; even just to say hi. He didn’t raise his eyes from his reading. Neither sighting really humanized him for me.)
And that was a long time ago. I went and got a Master of Fine Arts in Writing instead of a law degree, and wrote thousands of things that were published – even once in his beloved New York Times. I also taught a lot of college courses, in a wide variety of subjects, for several different schools.
But it wasn’t until recently when I channeled my old professor and ended my class early with a drop-the-mic. There was some raising of voices, but today’s students don’t just sit there and take it. Some students ducked their heads, as if the verbal sparring back and forth were flying arrows.
And maybe this helped humanize me. Showed I have some emotions, and take it seriously when the class doesn’t come in prepared. I ended class curtly, grabbed my well-worn class book and left before them, as they wondered what was happening.
And they all were on-time and prepared next class. In fact, the class has run a lot smoother since then.
What I’ve realized is, most students appreciate a professor who is “tough but fair.” My old professor was tough, but unfair. I’m very fair, but rarely tough. Especially after my wife and I had a kid, I became a softie. Though I keep changing my teaching style, evolving, and maybe I’ll employ the drop-the-mic tactic again, if needed.
And that’s the last word … for now!
Darren Johnson has a Master of Fine Arts in Writing and Literature from Southampton College and currently teaches PR courses, when he isn’t running Campus News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or don’t.