In Praise of Eccentric Professors

March 01, 2004

"Is he dead?" someone shouted.

"No," I said, "he lives." And I helped Jeremy, my co-teacher, to his feet. He bowed, only slightly embarrassed. Applause and half-ironic cheers skittered around the large lecture hall.

The electric shock hadn't hurt Jeremy very much, but he had bumped his head on a metal leg of the auditorium seats which he fell into. I had told him to ham it up when I applied the electrode of my violet-ray machine to his outstretched hand, but this was much more than I expected.

I was using the machine in a lecture on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. (Many of the Romantics thought of themselves as "natural philosophers" and employed such devices to experiment with electricity, which they thought had rejuvenating powers.) I was so flustered by Jeremy's feigned collapse (and twitching) that for another five minutes into my lecture, I forgot to remove my black rubber gloves. But I'll bet that was one of a handful of lectures those students will remember for a long time; maybe they'll even retain an intuitive appreciation for the complementary relationship of science and literature. And the necessity of multiple perspectives.

Somehow, I think, the experience of teaching large audiences of first- and second-year college students is turning me into one of those professors who used to be called, politely, "eccentric."

And maybe that's not a bad thing.

Small liberal-arts colleges can be incubators for academic eccentrics, who often have a tough time fitting into the cultures of big research universities. Eccentrics are given to undisciplined enthusiasms; their work doesn't always fit into established categories. Their contributions are hard to quantify, and, as a result, their achievements are often unrecognized by everyone except their undergraduates.

Most graduates of doctoral programs are trained to think of themselves as potential university professors. Nevertheless, among those who eventually find jobs, the majority are destined to teach undergraduates, most of whom will never consider graduate school or even read a book published by a university press.

A recent Ph.D. recipient who lands in a teaching-oriented institution is usually ill equipped to reach the average undergraduate. Even to the seasoned faculty members, new assistant professors often sound like refugees from a fanatical cult. For all their frequent claims of "speaking from the margins" and "shaking the paradigms," new doctorates usually seem as identical (and interesting) as a bucket load of ball bearings.

If you want to understand academic eccentricity, the best people to consider are the older, tenured college professors. Fortunately for me, there are a good number of them available locally.

Just down the hall resides our local expert on Dante and the cult of medievalism. She has a penchant for Gothic furniture, mysterious bric-a-brac, and enormous eyeglasses. Her office is piled high with ancient papers, any of which, selected at random, is of great historical significance. Sitting in her office, flecked by the colors of stained glass, students imbibe the lingering culture of monastic scholarship.

Another of my senior colleagues asks his students to produce art works related to literature, and his office is packed with paintings, papier-mâché sculptures, carvings, collages, and mobiles. He curates an unofficial museum of the changing aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities of students he's nurtured for nearly four decades.

Our director of women's studies is a warrior of '70s feminism who dresses in denim, macramé, and beads, radiates universal love, and has persuaded generations of students -- male and female -- toward a vision of gender equality based on shared values instead of antagonism.

Perhaps most eccentric of all, a professor in our math department taught his dog the essentials of calculus. The dog, named Elvis, has become world famous. And the professor's undergraduates can't complain that calculus is too hard for them to learn. It must also prove that there is no one whom he cannot teach.

When I reflect on the teachers who made me want to study literature and history, they were almost all eccentrics.

I remember one undergraduate professor who loved to recite, in a booming voice, the soliloquies of Captain Ahab while swaying back and forth on a creaking, rickety, rocking chair:

"He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. The inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.

He said the chair mimicked the rolling of the Pequod's deck, but in my memory it has become a metaphor for the ability of great literature (and great teachers) to ride out wave after wave of intellectual fashion and snobbery. Even though my grad-school superego might mock his antics, this eccentric represented a big part of what I wanted to be when I became a professor.

What do eccentric professors have in common?

Eccentrics are never "professional" types, the sort who demand theoretical rigor, narrow specialization, or political orthodoxy. Eccentrics do research and teach because they are fascinated, even obsessed, with something they want to know everything about. Eccentric professors say, "Look at how amazingly interesting this is" instead of "my choices are the only ethical ones."

If their behavior sometimes seems bizarre, their obsessions are often magnificent. Eccentrics represent an approach to knowledge that is not disciplined, or even interdisciplinary. It is based on pleasure, love, wisdom, and other humane qualities that don't translate easily into productivity charts or black-and-white parables of good and evil, progressive and conservative.

The eccentric professor is sometimes sneered at by more "professional" colleagues. He or she will seldom get tenure at a research university, or be lionized by the Modern Language Association. But you will often see him or her walking with a cluster of students, who are not seeking patronage, but who actually enjoy being around their professor.

Eccentric professors are genuinely loved, and they are a glue that holds together the culture of an institution over time. They are not highly paid, transient "superstars"; but they are the professors to whom former students send their own college-age children.

Academic eccentrics are not yet dead as a species, but they require freedom and security. The ruthlessness of the current academic job system tends to enforce conformity. And, even if closet eccentrics are hired on the tenure track, it probably takes 20 years to develop their hidden talents. Good eccentrics need administrators who recognize that not all contributions can be quantified over the short term, if at all. Perhaps most of all, eccentrics need genuinely tolerant colleagues, who can see beyond the shifting tides of their home disciplines.

The last few years I've been assembling a collection of unusual artifacts of my own. My office is slowly becoming a cabinet of curiosities. In addition to a violet-ray machine, I now have an 18th-century lap desk, a bronze bust of Walt Whitman, a stereotype plate and compositor's tray, and a stone from the banks of Walden Pond. Last fall, I acquired a phrenological head that helps my students assess their "lobe of ideality," considered an essential faculty by romantic poets such as Edgar Allan Poe.

And, beginning today, I am on the lookout for an old rocking chair.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at