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  • Writer's pictureWilliam I. Atkinson

Please Stand for the Stufessor

I was enjoying life, winding down to mornings reading the paper and afternoons reading books, when my wife gently suggested I was too young to retire. I saw she was right (actually this process took months, though the conclusion was never in doubt) and so explored three options to occupy me: teaching writing, getting a master’s degree, and writing a book.

Wouldn’t you know it, all three worked out. The first hit [in both senses of the word] came from a friend, a chair of English at a local college. He’d been casting sheep’s eyes on me to teach for him, and when I said I might be interested, he struck like a Panzerkorps. For the first time in years I would again be a professor.

Within days I got a surprise E-mail: a university I’d investigated had accepted me into their science and technology program, the next semester of which began in six weeks. I was wondering how I could possibly go from semi-retirement to tackling all this when the phone rang. A publisher liked my book proposal and wanted text within the year. Talk about mixed feelings! I was flattered, energized, inspired, and above all terrified. Sleep brought stress dreams. Christmas was my last deep breath before the big wave broke.

I’ve had four months of my new life now, and I love it – both the individual elements and the wild variety. I’ve coined a word: stufessor. I’m not sure which is my superhero role and which my secret identity, but each working day I stand behind one podium for three hours and then go sit before another for another three. There are times when it’s hard to adjust. I make a joke in my writing class and the room cracks up. The same joke in one of my science classes is met by my own professor’s stony stare. Woops, I forgot: no power here. Ha ha. Sorry.

Lectures are things I prepare for now, as well as prepare. I think it’s made me a better prof and a better student. I feel for my kids: I know a student’s terror when I’m asked to comment on something about which I have no clue. I feel for my own profs for exactly the same reason.

I’ve told the kids I teach about my dual life. They sympathize to see me sweat a midterm or a troublesome essay (of course they enjoy my discomfort too). I’m gentler when I mark them; I walk in their shoes. But I’ve kept my CV out of my university classes: the last thing I want to do is make my profs think I think I’m too good for them. I’m just the crank from the elderhostel who asks odd questions (and no longer attempts jokes).

Still, word leaks out. Last week we workshopped essays in our biology class, reading one another’s drafts and making suggestions. And a strange thing happened. No one would touch my text: not a comma, colon, jot, or tittle [note the serial comma]. In vain I asked them: Is my thesis clear and up front? Are my arguments watertight? Have I followed Chicago note protocol? No one said.

Then, student by student, I was shyly approached. Could you, um, look something over? Read this hard copy? Scan an E-mail attachment? I was late getting home – an unpaid teaching assistant, my wife called me. But I enjoyed feeling useful. There are long months when a writer doesn’t feel that a lot.

Maybe the suits gave it away. The college course I give is business English, and in business people judge not just your speaking and writing but also your appearance. To emphasize my point I dress better than your average prof. That swans me into my science courses looking more like an investment banker than Professor Hmmm... Now and then my prof asks a question and the responder addresses her answer to me. More stony stares.

The worst of it is doing an essay that I consider (in my professional opinion) fit for a refereed journal and having it marked B-plus instead of my own assessment, viz. low three digits. I mean, how many undergrads’ notes and bibliographies cite their own books? How many students reference personal communications from Governors-General and Nobel laureates? How many academic articles have my text’s dazzling glow?

At such times I sulk, too proud to grub for marks and too steamed to shrug my shoulders and move on. Research long, think hard, make copious notes, come up with new ideas, embody them in elegant and well-documented prose, rewrite it all to a gloss, take pride in the result – and have it undervalued or dismissed: It’s a physical insult, a slap in the face. At such times I understand at last why academics can nurse lifelong grudges over tiny slights.

But overall, my life is terrific. My hunter’s thrill at a new idea; a day’s oblivion immersed in work; the times when a face – student’s or professor’s – lights at my words: I wouldn’t leave that for my old leisured life. Hurt feelings and all.

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