What Do Profs Want?

The starving student

Photo by James BunoanWhat we college profs want, of course, are students whose minds are on fire. Students who can't get enough of anything. Who can't turn down the flame even when it means losing nights and nights of needed sleep. Who pick up the front page of the paper and sit there aghast as politicians attempt to spin us into a new war and insult what they've learned to call their critical intelligence. Who play the new Wilco CD and wish they were Jeff Tweedy. Who pile into dumpy cars bound for LA to see Fellini or Godard or Welles retrospectives and afterward can't believe their former idea of a great film was maybe Fargo. Who spend dizzying hours in used book stores inspecting all this amazing stuff by Plotinus, Adorno, Montaigne, Angela Carter ("Love is the matrix of the unprecedented," it says, tantalizingly, on the back cover of one of her books)—and believe, bless them, that life is long enough to read them all. Who use new words, sometimes incorrectly, as soon as they've learned them. Who spread their books and papers out on big, round tables they share with their friends on the campus quad, right next to the espresso bar, where for hours, for all day sometimes, they ingest caffeine and laugh about how sorry Eminem really is for his mama in "Cleaning Out My Closet," and discuss whether the Green party can possibly make a dent in 2004 and whether the brilliance of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is outweighed by its affectation, and whine about a lack of funds and their stupid part-time jobs, and pass along website addresses and tips about plays they've seen at 99-seat theaters in Santa Ana, and read aloud and brood over statements such as this one, by Camus, "There is the will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I honor most in the world," or this one, by Yeats, "Nothing can be sole or whole/that has not been rent," or this one, by Frederick Barthelme, "Purity of heart is to will several things, and not know which is the better, truer thing, and to worry about this, forever." And who tell one another to quit smoking and who sometimes get pretentious because they're growing into themselves as thinkers and it ain't an easy road, growing into Thought, but who, as the evening comes on, eventually, always, always end up talking (earnestly because they really want to understand) about God, sex, death and love. And who, amazingly enough, still have time to kick ass in their classes. And not just because they're smart, but also because they realize it's all connected: that, for instance, if one is going to smoke pot and listen to the Doors, the experience will be enhanced immeasurably if one realizes Blake and Huxley, from that British literature survey, were there before Jim Morrison. That all present phenomena come from somewhere, that the past is alive and encoded (if ever imperfectly, if ever ideologically) in a tradition that's available in books and music and statues and paintings. And that one will never be bored, ever, once one realizes that "the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backward and forward, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity" (A.N. Whitehead). Which means everything in college—even Slavic studies, even statistics—can be interesting. Which means to waste time is to damage eternity. And who realize that since everything is connected—past to present to future, the Americas to Europe to Asia and Africa—they can't possibly hold down that paper on the French Revolution to seven pages per their prof's instructions, and so start outlining the Fucking Ultimate French Revolution Paper, which will go way deep into Enlightenment thought (gonna have to dig into Locke and Voltaire, and the Voltaire should be in the original French), into the relationship between the clergy and the aristocracy, into class structure, the logic of history, the French tax system, that whole vexed thing called democracy, going back to the Greeks and forward to the Greens, and they can't do it in less than 30 pages, minimum, they realize, 50 pages, 100—this is a senior thesis, man, this is a book!—before reality sets in (i.e. deadlines, grades) and they end up writing an 11-page, shapeless, intermittently brilliant paper they're sheepish about turning in, and really want to apologize to their professor for writing, even though they end up getting an A-minus. And who, sheepishness about that French Revolution paper notwithstanding, argue with professors. Who while being generally respectful and collegial and all that to people like me, get pissed at us and make fun of us behind our backs. Who discover that Nietzsche said, "One repays a teacher badly if one always remains a pupil," and realize that there's some hidden principle operating in there, some Freudian kill-the-father thing having to do with the necessity of coming out from under the shadow of authority if one's ever going to do any real thinking. And who, frankly, when they really consider the matter, don't need to read an essay about what professors "want" from their students. Because, really, who the hell are these profs, anyway, these tenure-protected, real-world-avoiding, name-dropping bookworms who of course are the smartest people in the room because they're so damn old? Who are they to be saying how hot a student's mind ought to be and quoting supposedly provocative and resonant statements and imagining a whole exciting social life for students while leaving out the confusion, the depression, the poverty, the loneliness, the sexual anxiety, the stupid role-playing, the bottomless list of contingencies, the sheer fucking difficulty associated with being 20 years old on the planet? Why doesn't this guy just shut up?. Okay, okay, I will. Just one more thing: let me name-drop one more time, quote one more provocative resonant statement. This one's from Emerson, and it strikes me as truer now than it was in the mid-19th century, when he wrote it. He wrote it for Americans drowning from the "false wines"—read: the great pile of steaming horseshit that passed for solid American values—that pervaded the culture, and he knew the hunger in young people whose souls were dying, many without even knowing it, for something real, true and beautiful. "O, Bacchus," he said, "make them drunk, make them mad, this multitude of vagabonds, hungry for eloquence, hungry for poetry, starving for symbols, perishing from want of electricity to vitalize this too much pastime; and in this long delay, indemnifying themselves with the false wine of alcohol, of politics and of money. Pour for them, O, Bacchus, the wine of wine. Give them, at last, Poetry." You want to know what we professors want? We crave the starving student, the student willing to admit that starving is what he is. Come on. Apply now.

 
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