Josna Rege

137. A Victorian Frame of Mind

In 1970s, Books, Education, Politics, Stories, United States on February 1, 2012 at 12:36 am

Sever Hall (photo © AntyDiluvian)

Student engagement? Active learning? Office hours? Pshaw!

In the Spring semester of my freshman year of college I took a course on British intellectual history of the Victorian period. I knew nothing at all about the subject but it looked interesting, so despite the Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday (you heard right—Saturday) schedule I signed up for it. A couple of the books I bought for that course still gather dust on my shelves—The Victorian Frame of Mind (which I have consulted since) and The Utilitarians (which I have not). No selling back textbooks at the end of the semester in those days, let alone renting them.

Our professor was impossibly old—or so he seemed to me—and utterly inaccessible. I’m quite sure that I never exchanged a single word with him in the entire semester. Neither did anyone else; there was no class discussion, even though the enrollment couldn’t have been more than thirty.

This was his modus operandi: he swept into the classroom just  before the period was to begin, raised his head so that it angled up at some invisible point just over our heads, clasped his hands behind his back, took off his spectacles (without which he was almost completely blind), closed his eyes, and began to speak in an uninterrupted sonorous drone. He lectured nonstop for the entire class period, at which point he gathered up his things, restored his specs to his nose, and hurried out of the room without looking to left or right. I’m certain he never even made eye contact with me.

For my part, I never sat in the front of the class or ventured to raise my hand during any of the split seconds when he must have had to pause to catch his breath. Did his syllabus list office hours? He was probably required to keep them, but I wouldn’t have known. Not in my wildest dreams would it have occurred to me to make an appointment to meet with him outside of class.

I had only the haziest idea of the content of the course, most of it going right over my head. To be fair to him, the professor was probably brilliant, and no doubt I was a callow youth with only a fraction of my attention on the work at hand. Still, looking back at the experience through the lens of contemporary pedagogy, I’m appalled at what passed for teaching forty years ago. I don’t remember having to write a paper for the course, and so didn’t get any written feedback beside the marginal notes on the mid-term and final exams that served to evaluate the sum total of what we had absorbed; which, in my case, was precious little.

Harvard Student Strike. Apr 9, 1969 (dipity.com)

In my freshman Spring of 1972 my friend (and now my sister-in-law) Eve, a graduating senior, complained about having to sit for the final exams. Each of the previous three springs, starting with the student strike of 1969, had been so turbulent that finals had been cancelled. I bemoaned my belatedness. Having immigrated to the States in February, 1970, I had missed the Summer of Woodstock. Just a few months after we arrived, both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died. On those somnolent Saturday mornings it seemed as if the Sixties had never taken place. We might as well have been in the Victorian era.

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  1. Hi Jojo,

    In an even more repressive era, when I was at college (1965-1970) taking my first English course (I was going to be a journalism major, probably because of reading I.F. Stone’s weekly) I came across an English professor so arrogant he had the gall to tell the class to just “accept what I tell you as gospel” and just absorb! I of course, could not take this affront meekly, after all this was the 60’s. I raised my hand at every lecture, challenging every one of his “truths”. This became a contest of wills and got me my lowest marks even in school. In frustration, I abandoned my journalism career and took up psychology, I had to discover why he acted in such a bizarre manner. I never got an answer though. I am always surprised at what small encounters in the past can lead to such dramatic future paths!

    • Dear Vincent, Good for you for speaking up and for daring to question the professor! Your story makes me so angry. I don’t think teachers realize how much power they wield, for good or ill, and how much damage they can do all unawares. I spoke up once in college when I got so thoroughly squashed—by other students, as I recall— that I was effectively silenced for the rest of my undergraduate career. My father-in-law had a similar—and similarly life-changing—experience to yours. As a senior in college, he wanted to go on to do a Master’s degree in English and had an idea for an original thesis topic that he was very excited about. But when he presented it to the head of the department the professor told him in no uncertain terms that his idea was untenable and strongly discouraged him from applying to the program. Deeply hurt, he became a science writer instead, though he continued to read widely and prolifically, and to write poetry on the side.
      What I want to know is, what did you learn in your psychology studies about that horrible professor’s motivations? x J

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