On professors, or Paying it forward (at least some of the interest)

This post is written with a lot of respect and admiration for Professors and what they represent in academia… and their PhD students (the reasonable ones, who do their homework instead of writing irrelevant posts).

Never start your day by meeting a professor. Ask for an appointment after lunch, but first thing in morning – no-no.

What can possibly be a problem with that?

Don’t you want a pep talk and some inspiration for the rest of your day?

Yes. But the problem is the books.

There are books everywhere. On the desk, on the chairs. Precarious towers of books. The worst part is not their quantity. My office also has a disproportionate number of books – disproportionate to my ability to read them before the library sends me the sixth call and a warning to charge me six hundred crowns. The worst part is that you realise that the Professor has read them. And not only that – he actually remembers what they said.

And not only that. He seems to have smelted their content into his intellectual landscape: like a piece of wetlands, a little ecosystem with dragonflies of concepts, springs of ideas, marshes of thick tacit knowledge gained from years in the field. He has the synthetic ability: continuously critically processing and creatively transforming massive amounts of ideas and information, which he needed to demonstrate when he applied for his professorship.

So it all fits. I am meeting a Professor, who, by definition, has the synthetic ability and has read and creatively transformed the content of a few thousand books.

What is the problem, exactly?

Perhaps that I am sinking deeper and deeper into the nice, soft, boggy armchair of ignorance and incompetence, while the Professor is towering in the middle of the room, presiding over the army of books and powerpoint slides and course papers (his students’ course papers… our students’ course papers… Am I allowed to say ‘our’?), rolling back and forth between me and his desk on his office chair.

There are two dialogues going on simultaneously. One, between Professor and me. The other, between me and me, in my head.

Dialogue 1:

Professor: …and I also check the referencing (waving a sample paper in the air). Here, they put the links to the papers, but these are wrong links. They need to be DOI links with https.

I (wide-eyed): With https?

Professor: That’s right. And here, here, and here: this is not Harvard.

I: Not Harvard, right. Yes, it should be Harvard. (I have no idea what Harvard reference style looks like. I mean, how would I. I have outsourced my referencing to Zotero. And I don’t use Harvard. I use Chicago 17th edition author-date because it shows authors’ first names and doesn’t have that stupid comma between surname and year. Does he ACTUALLY mean I need to check how they reference??? What, the dots and the brackets??? And the italics??? And the pages??? It’s getting hard to breathe.)

Professor: Precisely. I also tell them to mention theory in the introduction, so that it doesn’t come as a surprise later. And, you know, they don’t really need to use these subsections in the introduction. It is important, however, that the introduction contains problem, relevance, purpose, questions, theory and methodology.

I: Theory and methodology. Right. (I have to re-read the papers I already have read to check this. I thought I was done… Let alone Harvard.)

Professor: Yes. And now (rolling back towards his computer and clicking) they have sent their comments to each other. I will read them and see what they are missing. We can tell them the things that their classmates missed. The goal is to trigger some discussion. It’s not always easy. Most say, thank you for your comments, everything was nice, I agree with everything. We need to make sure they actually discuss. Ten minutes per paper.

I: Discuss. Ensure discussion. (I will need to ensure ten minutes of discussion multiplied sixteen times tomorrow among students who are sweet, polite and think that everything is great and there’s nothing to discuss. Sixteen times. One hundred and sixty minutes of torture for me and the students.)

Professor: Exactly. So, shall we talk about your own first paper presentation? I was just thinking about this author (Name). But you have surely read her.

I: Erm… No, I don’t think so.

Professor: No? Well. But you know, yes, I think that you have perhaps made a strategic choice of using the social constructionist approach. I understand. I feel you could have gone along the poststructuralist line. You are a critical researcher, Tatiana.

I: (Laugh.)

Professor: Anyway. I was thinking about Name and Name. You surely have read them.

I: (Cough.)

Professor: I don’t know if their approach to discourse can be useful to you. But perhaps you have already thought about it.

I: Erm… Yes, I have. I haven’t read so deeply either of them, but when I did read… a bit… I didn’t find their frameworks useful. (Blabbering on.)

Ok, you get the idea. The soft boggy chair isn’t that comfortable at all. It is a rather hot chair, in fact. Not that soft and boggy, after all.

Dialogue 2:

Me 1 (irrational): He has just done that. He has just synthesised these two completely unrelated things, pulled a fluffy white rabbit of synthesis out of his Synthesising Hat.

Me 2 (reasonable, a product of three cognitive behavioural therapy sessions paid by the taxpayers): He is a professor.

Me 1: I know he is a professor. It’s written on his door. I will never, ever be able to do that.

Me 2: Yes you will. He has been working on it for some time now. Just add twenty years.

Me 1: I will not be able to do this in twenty years. I will not be able to do this in a thousand years.

Me 2: You get your extrapolation function wrong. Remember what your cognitive behavioural therapist said (Patrik)? Compare yourself with yourself. Think of yourself two years ago, think of where you are now, and then extrapolate. Don’t compare yourself to a professor.

Me 1: I will not be able to do it in this incarnation, nor in the next three hundred million incarnations.

Me 2:  You are not listening. This is a limiting belief. Besides, you don’t believe in incarnations. Think of Patrik. What did Patrik say?

Me 1: He said: I am living the life of my dreams. Why do I feel so ***y?

Me 2: No, not that part. Although ok, fine, even this is a place to start. You are living the life of your dreams. You wanted to do a PhD, you are doing it! You wanted to do research and to teach, you are doing it! The professor is a medium, an oracle. He’s not some kind of a measuring stick to beat yourself up with. He is the archetype. He is like the Buddha. You are meditating on the qualities of the abstract Buddha, not beating yourself up with your Buddhalessness.

Me 1: Yeah. In other words, there is no spoon.

Me 2: I give up.

Me 1: Go on. I have already given up on myself.

Me 2: You always want to have the last word.

Me 1: You bet.

The Professor has held impeccably to his part of the deal. He has supported me unconditionally. He has put my name on every piece of instructions related to the course, in every common message sent out to students (‘Best regards, Professor and Tatiana’). He has forwarded me every email ‘my’ students wrote to him, asking me for my ‘opinion’. He asked my ‘opinion’ about things I don’t think I am entitled to have an ‘opinion’ about. He answered every email I sent to him. Including the daft ones. Including the ones which do not require answering. He chatted patiently with me in the kitchen and on the staircase when he clearly was in a rush. He allowed me to promote my event unrelated to the course in the course web. He was impeccably supportive, encouraging, generous and never raised an eyebrow, even though I clearly saw it nearly go up a couple of times.

I returned him no favours. I borrowed and stole. I plundered and looted. Just like in my dance class I stand behind my teacher, repeating her every move, so I stood behind the Professor, repeating his. I told the students to talk about their theories in the introduction and scrap the subsections and cite it the Harvard way (hardly knowing what it is). I absorbed like a sponge – and gave back little. I admit: I stayed at work till 10 pm a few days in a row, and I got up at 4 am on two weekends to read the most ‘ambitious’ (Professor’s word) students’ papers. I re-read them on the train from Oslo to Stockholm after organising one and attending another conference, sleep deprivation off the charts three weeks in a row. (I wondered, how AM I actually able not only to stay awake, but comment half-intelligibly on the particularly (un)successful attempt at combining decoloniality with feminism?) But this is part of the self-indulgence and has little to nothing to do with the ‘common good’.

Me 2: This is part of the research education. This is what professors are for. They teach, and you learn.

Me 1: This is part of the contemporary piracy. This is what PhD students are for. They loot.

I hope in a few incarnations from now I will be able to start at least paying forward some of the interest which will have accumulated by then by shiploads.

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