The first night of class I want to bring them candy.
I want them to be surprised at my generosity and impressed by how cool I am.
Instead I bring copies of my syllabus, a bio, and a little survey for them to complete. “What would make this the best college class you’ve ever taken,” I ask in the survey.
“Dinner,” one student responds.
Wouldn’t that be fine? We could all sit around a table, eat dinner, and talk about this week’s reading. Someone could pass the pie and we could review the next assignment. We could be comfortable and collegial. Instead, they are sitting in the same plastic molded chairs with the wooden writing table that folds down that I sat in when I was a student. They sit slouched waiting to see what I’m going to be like as an instructor. I have five minutes to make them mine.
When I was in graduate school, I had a course taught by a very famous professor. He would talk for an hour and then abruptly tamp out his pipe, put it in the breast pocket of his tweed jacket, and announce that it was time for a break. Those students who would like to accompany him across the quad for a bit of refreshment in the campus bar were quite welcome.
And off we would go, two or three of us and the professor. We would sit in the dim light of the bar, each of us with a beer, the professor with a Scotch, and we would talk about that week’s reading. We’d banter back and forth. He would relight his pipe, tell long, involved stories, and laugh. When he laughed, he’d throw his head back and really laugh as if we were the most amusing and wonderful people he had ever met. The glow of education on those nights was incandescent.
Of course, when we remembered that the rest of the students were back in the classroom, waiting for the break to be over, we collected ourselves and walked back to suffer their sour, scolding looks. “You should come along,” I whispered to the woman sitting next to me. “Professors shouldn’t be drinking with students,” she hissed.
I guess she was right. It was irregular for sure. But more was learned on those breaks than in the classroom. The most important thing learned was that we, two or three, lowly graduate students had the potential to be considered worthy of an intellectual discussion with a nationally known scholar. For a minute, I was going to say we could possibly be intellectual equals with this man but no, that wasn’t possible then or now.
Drinking with the professor elevated us, soothed away the stress of competition, and made alluring the life of the mind.
In my other classes, I sat, much like my students the other night, waiting in my seat to see the professor’s stuff. I was a member of the audience, hoping not to be bored out of my mind. There was a wall of credentials and experience separating us and that’s just how the professors liked it. They only talked to each other. Us, they lectured.
So I met my new students the other night and part of me wanted to adjourn to the bar, have a wide-ranging conversation, hold court, tell stories, and laugh. Wouldn’t that just be the finest. But I can’t do that. You know, “professors shouldn’t be drinking with students.”
But I can bring them candy. Next time.