My teaching career has come to an end. From now on, my lectures will be confined to this blog and my to long-suffering wife, The Doc. This brings my career full circle, since when I started teaching history, my first classes were two and a half hour sessions on Saturday. To practice, i used to try out these lectures on the birds in the back yard or on The Doc. As I remember it, the birds did not flee as rapidly as my wife did.
In total, I think my teaching career was pretty good. All my classes “made," my evaluations were pretty good, and, in over two decades, I did not miss one single class due to illness. In that time, I taught 29 course titles—everything from the History of Technology, to the History of Naval Warfare. Over half of those classes were taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. It was a hell of a lot of fun, and in every class, I learned far more than my students did. Frankly, if I had known how much more you learn preparing to stand at the front of a classroom—as opposed to sitting in one of the desks—I would have skipped the student phase of my education and just started as a professor.
Still, not everything that happened in those classrooms went as planned. There were days that I just could not get things to go right, and, here, I’m not talking about power failures, or fire drills during exams, or similar accidents. I mean the times when I—all by myself—totally screwed up a lecture.
For years, I taught the same, exact class, twice a day. For reasons that escaped me, the university preferred to have two classes of 35 students instead of one class of 70 students. Usually, before every class, I would spend about an hour reviewing my lecture notes, making certain that the PowerPoint slides—if any—were synced with the lecture, and generally making sure I was ready. You would think that giving the same lecture twice in a row would be a no-brainer and, at the very least, the second class would be a home run; it should go flawlessly.
Nope—It rarely seemed to work out that way. Usually, both classes would go well, but not always. Sometimes, despite having a well-prepared lecture, it felt like I was speaking an unknown language: I simply could not reach the students (And it seemed to happen in the second class about as often as in the first). I’m still not sure what went wrong in those classes.
Then there were classes where the problem was obvious and the fault was clearly mine. On an exam, I once wrote a question that asked the students to explain the dichotomy involving the Aztecs' fascination with poetry or delicate, beautiful art, and their incredibly violent religious sacrifices and their methods of fighting wars. Unfortunately, the test answers did not reveal the students' knowledge of the Aztec empire, as I had intended. What the test answers did reveal was that the students believed that the word, ‘dichotomy,’ was the first step in a male-to-female sex change. Several students even graphically described this gruesome form of religious sacrifice!
In total, I’ve given about 5,000 history lectures, and while I’m sure a lot of them were examples of deathless prose, I’m also sure that a few of them were, well….total shit. While talking about the Greek Hoplite Phalanx, I described how the front ranks of soldiers held their spears horizontally as they moved forward. The rear ranks however, held their spears vertically and as they moved forward, would drive their spears down into the bodies of fallen enemies to finish them off. The rear ends of their spears had brass pointed butt spikes designed for this purpose. Well, that’s what I should have said. What I actually said was: “As the phalanx moved forward over the bodies of their enemies, with all their might, the hoplites drove their spears downward, each spear equipped with a butt plug…”
Boy, those Greeks were mean…
I’m not the only professor whose mouth has operated faster than his brain. A friend of mine has told me about a few of his "verbal adventures" in class. He once told an auditorium full of students that “the Jurassic Period was a long period noted for their giant orgasms.” He meant to say, “giant organisms”, but I’m sure the students preferred the former.
This same professor, during a lecture on climatology, once accidentally substituted “giant warm wet air mass” with “giant warm wet hairy ass”. Only now are we beginning to recognize the true dangers of global warming.
One of my favorite students came to me just before class started one day and asked if his father, who was visiting from Australia, could observe my class. Of course, I said "yes" and proceeded to give my lecture on Argentina's Juan Peron. Only after class was over did my students tell me that for the entire lecture, my brain had never once come up with the word “Argentina” but had substituted “Australia” at least a dozen times. The students hadn’t said anything, because “we knew what you meant.” Somewhere there is one father who wishes he hadn’t paid so much tuition to send his child to a school where they think Buenos Aires is located in Australia.
While discussing the Mexican underground newspapers during the Mexican Revolution, I could tell that several students were unfamiliar with the term. “Underground newspapers are unofficial papers that the authorities frown on and would like to suppress.” I explained. “This campus, for example usually has one or more unofficial newspapers that are critical of the administration. I’ve lost track, what is the name of the current underground paper?”
One of the seniors promptly said, “Lately, it’s called Random Thoughts by Mark Milliorn.”
In spite of our best efforts, it sometimes hits us hard that we certainly can’t reach every student. When I started teaching, I was assigned lots of survey courses. These are introductory history classes usually taken by freshmen and sophomores with the average class size between 75 and 100 students. It was final exam time, and a student came to my office practically in tears because he had overslept and missed the exam. I agreed to let him take the test, but he couldn’t remember the course number of his class.
“No problem,” I said. “If the course was about Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, you are in Western Civilization. If the course was about Pilgrims, George Washington, and the Revolutionary War, you are in Early American History.”
“The Egyptians,” he said and I handed him the appropriate test.
An hour later, he handed the test back to me, and I was a little surprised to see that he had scored phenomenally low. The reason, of course, was that it turned out he was actually enrolled in the American History class. After thinking about this situation for a while, I finally gave him a failing grade in both classes.
The above examples are bad enough, but without a doubt, the worst verbal adventure that ever happened in my classroom was done by a student. We were in an American Military History class, and the class was deep in discussion about the French and Indian War. Several students were passionate about their point of view and defending it vigorously. One non-traditional student (that’s educational code for an older student—probably retired) suddenly referred to the war with such an obscene and racist label that it stunned the class into absolute silence. Luckily the class was about over and I let the students escape so they (and I) could recover our sensibilities.
However, that was neither the end of it nor was that the truly horrible part of the problem: the phrase the student had used had branded itself into my brain! Now this was a phrase so vile and so hateful, that I wouldn’t run five miles out into the desert and whisper it to a jackrabbit. Simply speaking these words out loud would end anyone’s career immediately. If some poor soul on the International Space Station muttered it in his sleep, he would probably never be permitted to land on Earth again.
But I knew the phrase, it was in my head and refused to leave. I was terrified that at some point, those words might escape. I discussed the problem with a colleague who laughed at me initially, but a week later told me he was having nightmares where he had used the phrase in one of his classes. To this day, he cannot get the words out of his brain. For years, I still lectured about the French and Indian War, but I always spoke very carefully...and slowly.
Now that my teaching career is over, I can probably relax. And my friend has announced his imminent retirement, so he is probably safe as well. I’m fairly sure the curse will die with us, unless….I receive a certain amount of hate mail each week. Maybe I should email each of those senders back. (At least one of them has to be a teacher.)