With membership come privileges and powers; that’s why it feels like success. But these pose perils of their own. If power corrupts, privilege can desensitize, and the process occurs so subtly and naturally that we may not even notice the loss of our capacity for empathy and compassion.
I remember one English Department colleague who had a reputation for tough teaching. He was blunt, even scornful of shoddy work, maintained a lofty magisterial air, and wielded a sharp, ironic wit in lectures and department meetings. He always wore a tweed jacket, white shirt, and tie. After department meetings he would serve sherry in his office and hold forth, making no secret of his belief that Jane Austen had been the last great writer in English. Everyone on campus, from the president on down, thought of him as the classic English professor. When the student paper profiled him, they photoshopped his head into a Roman bust.
His students feared and adored him. “I’m so grateful to Professor J___,” one gushed to me. “He convinced me I would never be able to write. It was so freeing! Now I’m a geo major.” Another, who became an English professor herself, told me about taking his class. She was terrified, like everyone else, but she appreciated his passion and depth of learning. She worked hard to finish her final paper on time, but when he called for them in class, she was the only one ready. He raised a fierce eyebrow, “Anyone else?” When no one spoke, he scrawled an A on the title page and handed it back. She was flustered, delighted, embarrassed, confused. A precious A! But he hadn’t even read it. Finally, she screwed up her courage and went to see him. “I suppose you want comments?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. He later returned the paper with comments and a grade of B+. “It was as close as he came to apologizing,” she said ruefully. This was thirty years later.
In department meetings, he would sit with arms folded, scowling amusedly. Most of our ideas had already been tried and found wanting back in the 60s or 70s. The students were so much smarter then, and better prepared. The profession cared more about quality and good taste; admin listened to the faculty; the department had a reputation. Now we were sliding into mediocrity. One year, when we were discussing merit and promotion, he quipped that they should give us all “injured merit” raises. It was a great line, straight out of Paradise Lost. But think of who speaks it there!
Over the years I’ve come to suspect that Professor J____ must have been damaged in some way. He loved his material, his department, and his students but could not show it in the usual ways. He did not know how to spare the rod. He took refuge in irony. He never published or went to meetings, and so missed out on the fellowship of his peers. Inside, I sensed a temperament that was proud, sensitive and even shy. He may have felt crippled by his own high standards, fearing that his own work could never measure up. Why take the risk? How much easier and safer to wrap oneself in the cloak of an elite institution and the cocooning comfort of the classroom, where one could set one’s own standards and dispense salutary judgments at will.
Professor J____ was a fixture at the college, even a sort of legend. No one doubted that he was a man of principle. But was he a good citizen?