The Old Professor

A 'Theophrastan Character'

"Professorship is a state of activity characterized by endless talk to a captive audience without consideration of hourly pay, and the professor is such a one as will insist on accuracy, punctuality, and the documentation of each footnote and reference, while he himself at the podium searches in vain through his aged notes for a reference that constantly eludes him. His lectures are punctuated by "It would seem...." and "one might perhaps suspect.....",as well as "a possible point of view might be.... ", all this interspersed with expressions like "Hmmmrr" and "Errrrrrrr" while his mind gropes for the precise word, the exact expression.

"He comes late to lectures, but rewards the students by keeping them quarter of an hour past the bell, with great lines of the next class crowding around the door and the next professor thumping on it uselessly. He amiably asks unanswerable questions, which after a slight pause he proceeds to answer himself. His four reasons for the fall of Charlemagne's empire are set forth as his own research, his own insight, but every student knows there are five reasons in the textbook from which he cribbed the lecture, and they give all five on the final exam, to the good professor's puzzlement. He turns up at an examination with papers for an entirely different class and has to go back to his office as it were on a secret mission. Yet he docks students two points per day for late papers, "For these little things, small as they seem, come to a great deal when they are all taken together".

"He cordially invites all his students to his home around midterm time, tells incomprehensibly bad jokes, his wife is attentive, unattractive and nervous, his house is tasteless and tawdry, his sherry is cheap and poured into incredibly small glasses, half full. At office hours he is lordly in an archaic mode, the master of a very small domain, whereas in the Dean's office he is subservient and groveling even to the point of disgusting the Dean, who insists on subservience.

"Aging he first loses his vision and has students look up the fine print in texts for him, then his hearing, with the tacit assumption that this generation of students feigns low pitched conversation, then, all too apparently he loses control over his mind. "I think you should read, I think it was something like Ethics and the Social...., or perhaps Economic.... or was it...? Anyway the author was Smythe, or Smithson? published at one of the University Presses, perhaps Yale, back in the fifties.. It's in the library...............I believe...."

Historical Footnote: Theophrastus, a leading student of Aristotle, was a prolific scientific author, from whom we have a detailed History of Plants complete, as well as parts of what seems to have been a survey of Social Types in the Athenian world. This second class of writings consists of short studies, virtually caricatures, of a wide range of Greek personalities, including the Boor, the Loquacious Man, the Social Parasite, the Miser, and three dozen more. The text was gradually assembled in the l6th c. as more Characters were discovered, and soon overflowed into a separate genre in English with thousands of personality sketches modeled on Theophrastus, many still unread in MSS form. There is a sharp edge to the Theophrastan Characters which leans toward satire, but the original aim may have been descriptive rather than satirical.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College