The Old Professor


The Formal Eulogy for Prof. X.

By a long-standing academic protocol, when a certain Prof. X. is finally about to retire from his thirty five year tenured teaching position, inquiries are made among colleagues who are encouraged to send notes to the next ranking professor in his department, to be used in a formal Faculty Meeting announcement of the happy event of the good Professor's release from the conditions of his employment.

Now there are two very different situations in which such a pronouncement can be made. Some academic persons upon reaching the age of sixty two will energetically flee the coop and go on to another twenty years of some other activity, like golf, beach life in the Bahamas or the pleasures of a Cruise Ship on the Pacific oceans. Some will busy themselves building a new house, or going to another college as a Visiting Expert in whatever something or other is in fashionable demand. But there is the company of restless teachers who have long been considering throwing off the shackles of academic constraint, those who regard retirement as a long sought bit of Academic Freedom to which they are finally entitled. These people say they have no plans at all, other than mowing the lawn, putting up screens and painting some windows.

But others stick to their guns and inform the President that they have a legal right to continue whatever they were doing past the retirement age, until overtaken by advanced age or the grim reaper. It is no use arguing with them, so the Adminsitration will give them an office and a title as Associate or as recipient of the Kohler Sanitary Foundation's endowed Chair for Biological Studies, and wait for the end which modern medical aid may stave further off than previously anticipated.

If the Professor was amicable to his colleagues but a bore to the students, he will be cited as the author of dozens of articles in obscure Journals not found on microfiche or internet. If dear to his students, he will be known as a weak teacher who sought favor by giving easy tests and soft grades. If there is suspicion that he was an "idea man", then questions will be raised about mental frivolity, with courses possibly tailnted with leftist associations. If he is a bachelor, the usual embarrassing question will sooner or later surface; if a ladies' man, then it is which ladies of the married faculty did he know, or will it be in the student body. If he is known not to drink at parties, then probably a closet alcoholic, but if he drinks overly there will be speculation about what kind of problems he discusses Thursday afternoons with his shrink.

All these things, which are kept quiet for decades will begin to surface in the semester before the retirement is announced. Film scholars who are familiar with the psychological implications of the Japanese film IKIRU, will wonder privately if a summarizing wake with enough sake to loosen tight tongues, might not be a suitable ritual for the evening before a formal retirement. After all, nobody is perfect, and we all have bad memories of something thoughtless or wicked which the esteemed Professor did or said at some time in his thirty years at the podium. Wouldn't it be better for his close colleagues to get together of an evening and drink enough to overcome their academic firewalls, and thus let it all, in a manner of speaking, hang out?

Yes, he was a habitual philanderer, but forget that as a traditional part of the academic scene; forget the academic papers lifted from a colleague at another University and published under his name; forget him as the critic who wrote endlessly on foreign film but couldn't understand a word of French or Italian. But the fact that the students always stood up for him, isn't that an incrimination in itself? He didn't argue with colleagues or the administration at Faculty Meetings, isn't that a recommendation in terms of academic harmony?

In some of the things we do poorly, the Japanese have a tendency to excel. Following the custom of a Japanese wake, it would seem intelligent to count up the good items and balance them off with less savory traits, and end an ebriative evening just as the sun is about to rise, with a general statement that everything has in fact been sufficiently stated and spelled out, and the situation can rest in peace.

He was after all a human being, and as such had his good and his bad points. After balancing out the history of his life, it would seem that he was like most of us at the end. Listing his faults, we can at last dismiss them and leave the marks for the good points up on the posterboard for some future record, because in the long run nobody is much concerned with either the good or the bad twists of what actually happened.

A very few who have perception and nerve will ask that no mention of their retirement be made in the Faculty meeting, on the grounds that they do not want to hear their Obituary read in public. But this is not a gesture of modesty, it comes from a knowledge of the character of the Terminal Oration, which will be a heavily cosmetized version of what everyone knows to be the truth. Many think of this order for retirement sine nomine, while very few at this juncture will have the caution to think ahead.

But when it si all over, the record will be cleared and the Professor can go with an easy mind into an easy state of Retirement untroubled by regrets or by twinges of conscience, knowing that there are no secrets to be unfurled now. Isn't this the best formula for a comfortable peace of mind, far better than a weak applause before the Faculty crowd? Isn't it better than what an envious colleague reads in a few paragraphs of equivocal prose, which which the sharper faculty minds well know contains hidden meanings skillfully inserted between the lines? But now he sits there at his last faculty meeting in the front row, awaiting the Dean calling a colleague to the podium to speak, and this is what he hears:

"It is with sadness that I am called upon to say a few words on the occasion of the retirement of Professor X, who has been a member of this faculty for so many long years. He will be remembered by the faculty as a genial colleague, by the administration as a patient member of arduous committee meetings protracted late into the evening hours (hear, hear), and a helpful mentor to students, both those who aspired to excellence and those whose aspiration was mainly to graduate. His papers in a variety of Journals will bear witness to his razor sharp acumen, and we wish him many long years of . . . . . "

The carillon at the top of the Memorial Hall announces the hour with an assortment of deafening chimes. The faculty rise after a few efforts at applause and head eagerly for the door at the rear of the auditorium. Professor X. shakes a few hands but decides to remain there alone, wondering if the teaching profession had really been the right choice of a career. On the other hand, he lucubrated, what calling would have more been suitable in terms of his modest talents.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College