On One Hand

November 14, 2007

Discussion is about Something Else

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 8:39 pm

“In that case, that’s a little out of line,” my roommate laughs. “If there’s only ten people in the class, that can piss a professor off.”

I had been telling my roommate about how I got in trouble in a graduate-level class for doing sudoku during discussion. There were three other students doing the exact same thing, but I was the one who got caught since my newspaper clipping wasn’t buried under notebook paper like the others’ were. I didn’t see her coming, but suddenly the professor was kneeling at my side, glaring with deep anger in her voice.

“You need to put that away now or leave the room,” she said to me, her face hovering six inches from mine. “Have respect for the classroom environment.”

“Oh, uh… sorry,” I said and put the sheet of newspaper away. The other nine students in the class were watching awkwardly, looking away quickly if I made eye contact with any of them.

“Dude, that was fucking crazy,” one of them laughed to me later, outside the classroom. “She totally made a scene.” The professor is young – 35 at most – and pretty, soft-spoken and gentile. She normally lets class discussion drift off course and students spend more time telling jokes about the material than they do discussing it. It is one of the first classes she has taught as a professor and some of the students have complained that the readings are boring and that the professor doesn’t take an active teaching role. The classroom is small, on the third story of a building with big windows that let sunlight stream in. Everyone sits around a single, big rectangular wooden table that spans the length of the room.

A week goes by. I have a meeting in another professor’s office and forget to check the time. We talk on for forty minutes or so – twenty minutes longer than I had expected – so I’m late for the same Wednesday class I got in trouble in a week before. When I come in, the students are watching a video. I apologize to the professor for coming in late but she seems as though she didn’t hear me.

Halfway through class the professor calles me into the hall for a “two minute talk” about “my behavior.” She lauches into a diatribe about how disrespectful it is to come in late or do crossword puzzles during class, and then she says, “I don’t think you even do the readings,” to which I can only answer “well… I dunno, I’m sorry, I do most of them.” She’s angry at me for seeming distracted, but way she talks about it makes it seem as though I flung shit at someone. The truth is, no one in the three-hour, once-a-week class does all the readings, which they confess to each other during the break every Wednesday. The professor says the comments I make have nothing to do with the readings so she can tell I don’t read at all. She pauses for my response, but there isn’t much I can say before she starts speaking again. I don’t tell her things have been difficult since I have ADHD but stopped taking the drugs because they were making me lose weight, that trying to control my focus or hold on to a thought when put on the spot is one of the greatest challenges of my life, which makes it hard to respond to readings relevantly in a class discussion but I’m much better at written responses, that it’s intimidating being an undergraduate student in a class full of graduates who can reference scholars like they’re tabloid celebrities, that sitting through a three-hour class that almost never remains on topic is painful for someone who can rarely sit still for even half an hour, or that it makes me feel insecure when my comments would be so far off in left-field that I’d rather not make them at all. Her face is about two and a half feet from my face, head cocked to her left, and she tells me again that I am disrespectful because it seems like I don’t even care, which is “disruptive to all the other students.”

I try to pay attention to the professor’s accusations, but all I can think about is that one of her pupils is drastically more dialated than the other. The iris on the left must have had at least twice the surface area that the other had. Her glare could have cut glass, but the focus of her eyes seems to drift in two directions, giving her a cocked cartoonish look. She says something about my grades, something about how she doesn’t know if I’ll be able to make it up because it’s so close to the end of the semester, but that I’d better show “drastic improvement” if I want to pass the course. I’m not sure how I can do that, because, besides getting caught doing sudoku, I don’t think I was that unreasonable in the first place, not sure how I can suddenly pull off an exemplary performance in something that is already difficult for me, but I’m still watching her pupils, noticing that not only are they different sizes, but that the larger one is visibly growing and shrinking like an automatic camera lens struggling to focus through fog, first huge, then collapsing to a pinprick before expanding again until it seems her entire eye will be swallowed by blackness. There were other professors and passers-by peering around the corner to watch, but all I was looking at was her eyes, thinking of a cat from cartoons I kid as a kid whose eyes turned black and popped out after a mischevious mouse hit it over the head with a mallet.

The professor stays out in the hall after I return to the classroom.

“You OK man?” one student asks me.

“Uh.” I laugh. “I dunno.” I shake my head. “I don’t know what just happened.”

The professor comes in. Everyone is quiet. She asks me, by name, to talk about what I think of the readings from the night before. I stammer an awkward response, “oh, I liked the reading about Oprah’s religion and talking about supernatural phoenomena on TV, I think it says a lot about the reason people are involved in religion; they are interested in ghosts and psychics and things because it gives them comfort about what will happen when they die.” There isn’t much else I can say, and I’m basically stating the obvious, but other students chime in to help me out. I’m not sure if they are coming to my aide as an act of friendship or if they think I had it coming and only pity me.

The professor looks calm now, wistful even, and runs her fingers gracefully through her hair to pull it back over her shoulder. Her head is again cocked to the side, and her lips are pursed into an unthreatening smile, or maybe a smirk. Both her irises are the same size. She leans forward over the table to follow the discussion.

I have been here before. A year earlier, a teacher called me out for arriving late to class and for seeming to skip the readings; she was angry and let me know by email, halfway through the semester, that things weren’t looking so hot for my participation grade. It was easier then because it was a class based on writing memoirs, so I could communicate, through the assignments I turned in, how hard I try to stay focused even when it looks like I can’t. We eventually resolved the issue, I got an A in the class and that instructor eventually helped me get published.



  1. I know this story really well…been there many times.

    For two years of college I had this one lecturer that always called me out on everything all the time…being a minute late for class, quickly glancing at the clock, looking distracted…every little thing that I usually couldn’t help seemed to drive him crazy.

    And every time he started to talk with me in that angry voice, I froze up. I wanted so badly to explain, but usually all I could muster was “Uh…sorry”.

    Comment by brian33 — November 15, 2007 @ 10:14 am | Reply

  2. I had a similar issue with a professor in a graduate level English Novel class. She assumed that I didn’t do the readings because of the style of my writing, which can be somewhat lofty and prone to pop cultural references. I was receiving Cs on my response papers and decided that I better confront her to explain my position. During the meeting I explained how I felt the pop cultural references and the stream of thought compositions (but edited well) were appropriate in modernizing the readers, which most people in the class only know because of sparknotes. I also explained my ADD and how I have been struggling with my doctor to find the appropriate dosage and reasonably side-effect profile. She seemed to understand, and in my following papers I received As and high Bs.

    It’s incredibly difficult to reveal that sort of information. Especially in a competitive academic environment that shuns novelty in thinking. However, it can humanize you and make you stop feeling that that awful “disruptive” kid. I think you should go on the meds just for the class hours and perhaps take protein with milk drinks to compensate for the weight loss. It seems to maintain my weight.

    Comment by Anonymous — November 15, 2007 @ 6:33 pm | Reply

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