Never Teach a Class Outdoors and Other Key Lessons I Have Learned

June 02, 2014

This spring Texas is hosting two perennial events: the blossoming of our wildflowers and the graduating of our college seniors. The great blaze of prairie paintbrushes and graduation gowns fills us with hope, but their evanescence prods us to reflection. As a historian, I cannot help but look for lessons in my quarter century of experience. In no particular order, here is a Decalogue of sorts I have learned as an academic.

Never give copies of your books to friends and family. Unless, that is, you wish to lose friends and alienate family. Always remember that monographs belong on library shelves, not bedside tables, and that they will not be read by tenure-and-promotion committees, much less by your neighbor. Forget this lesson and you will find that your neighbor, embarrassed to have never even opened your seminal work on the poetics of interwar French fascist literature, will start studying his rain gutter with particular care every time you catch sight of him while taking out the trash.

Never call students by their first names. This is for the same reason that farmers, I’m told, do not give names to their livestock. There is a corollary: Never invite students to call you by your first name. Otherwise, when the semester ends, final grades will undergo the same magical metamorphosis as caterpillars. C’s will ineluctably morph into bountiful B’s, even brilliantly colored A’s, fluttering into the sky as they leave behind the cocoon of a semester of mediocre work.

Never try to be cool (and it is never cool to remind students that the word’s history dates back to Chaucer). In the realm of dress, wearing fashionably distressed jeans will stress your students. As for sporting Converse sneakers, they are as hostile to your arches as they are to any effort to reappropriate a symbol that once belonged to our generation. As for hipster culture, it is best to think of it as the terra incognita of medieval mariners. Years ago I learned that making reference to, say, The Maltese Falcon or Catch-22 made even less sense than citing the Upanishads. But it was not until recently that I discovered that even relatively contemporary references were equally ancient, or obscure, to my students. Bruce Springsteen or Jon Stewart—names I had assumed were veritably Platonic in their universality—most often lead to furrowed brows, not knowing nods. Of course the students recognize these names, but in the way I recognize, when I flip through my baseball memorabilia, the names of the starting lineup from the 1964 Mets. This does not reflect the closing of the American mind so much as it does its fragmentation. Take comfort in the possibility that, in our brave new virtual world, all cultural references, past and present, are equally worthy (or worthless). For those who think this calls for a monograph, please see the first commandment.

Never lament the building of new football stadiums rather than new library wings. This venerable academic ritual brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s remark about another hoary tradition, fox hunting: It is the unspeakable chasing the uneatable. Not only is this lament unattractive, but it is also useless. The sheer emptiness of the existing stacks in the library serves as a reminder that the imperative "Build it and they will come" was launched in a movie about baseball players, not librarians.

Never become an administrator. No doubt there are many motivations that lead one to leave the teaching of the humanities for its administering, but rest assured that Dante has already covered them all in the Inferno. Second circle, the torment for those who lusted? Ninth circle, the frozen hell for those who betrayed? A new circle, or extension of limbo, for those who sincerely meant well?

Never allow the Internet in the classroom. This commandment has far less to do with those students buying or selling stocks or trawling dating sites than with students who are fact-checking your remarks. Until the advent of the Internet, professors had long benefited from the sort of immunity and impunity that Catholic priests once enjoyed and totalitarian rulers still savor. The origins of the French Revolution? Look no further than Marie Antoinette, the Freemasons, or both. The genesis of the Dust Bowl? The name James Agee gave to the first gridiron meeting between Oklahoma and Texas (and immortalized in a series of photos by Walker Evans). It is, on the other hand, reassuring to know that our wild claims will eventually filter onto the very sites our students read.

Never teach a class outdoors. Unless you are in the department of botany, there is no reason to succumb to the siren call of pleading student or azure skies. It’s Hobbesian, or at least pretty annoying, on the other side of the classroom window. For philosophy professors, this is a perfect opportunity to lecture on the difference between the ideal presented in university public-relations literature and the reality of the fire ants clambering over socks that fail to cover your calves and organic deodorants that are kind to nature but brutal on certain parts of your shirt.

Never refer to yourself by the title "Dr."—unless you are a real doctor. For this reason, we should always honor Thomas Jefferson as the founder of the University of Virginia, where he declared that faculty members be called "Mister" and not "Doctor." This will, of course, serve as an antidote to the hubris into which academics often fall. It will also save you from embarrassment when an airline stewardess, recalling the "Doctor" on your boarding pass when another passenger begins to experience chest pains, discovers that your knowledge of the heart begins and ends with Jane Austen.

Never confuse a syllabus with reality. One of the dirty secrets of the profession is that syllabi are less representations of the world, or predictions of the near future, than they are close relatives of New Year’s resolutions. They bespeak little more than our well-meant intentions (which often include books we have long meant to read and put on our syllabi as a prod, forgetting that the same prod failed over the previous five years).

Never turn down a plum administrative position. (Keeping in mind that Dante himself was no stranger to lust, hypocrisy, and treachery.)

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College.