Going back to get a teaching certificate has pointed out the many shortcomings of my liberal arts education – particularly in the math and science department. I am happy to return for the science (although I will repeat ad-nauseam that I do not appreciate having to take advanced mathematics in order to teach fifth graders how to divide a pizza into fractions.) Despite my literary leanings, Biology has always whispered her siren song from the horizon.

Last semester I was excited to take an Environmental Science course at our local community college in Pennsylvania. I was horrified that first evening to find the professor, an elderly semi-retired man, not only spewing shockingly derogatory untruths about the third world (my blood begins to boil, here) but that his experience in noted countries where he claimed “expertise” added up to hardly more that a couple of extended working vacations thirty years before. Although he took one class session to “introduce” us obviously culturally deprived Community College students to Thai culture by a visit to a local strip-mall restaurant (yum!) his shamefully bigoted treatment of the staff and owners ruined the experience. Our dear professor could not communicate to save his soul. After a few abortive attempts to clarify the tangle of information on his syllabus, during which he became enraged that we might insinuate any shortcomings therein and proceeded to blame our corporate confusion on our own inadequecy as students and humans, nobody dared ask questions. The second week, one poor girl answered a question correctly, but without including an obscure vocabulary word that he had, ten minutes before, defined so poorly I was actually embarrassed for him. He pointed and screamed, “PITIFUL! PITIFUL!!” until she left the room crying and did not return to class that evening, or the next. The situation only deteriorated from there. I would leave class so worked up I could hardly breathe. I felt awful for my classmates, mostly working mothers going to school at night for their associates degree, to have to struggle through his enigmatic quiz questions and incomprehensible lectures. One woman lost her scholarship. He threatened to fail a woman who’s baby was due on the day of the final exam – after allowing another to take it early because of a sports team commitment.

I was so happy to be rid of that class, and that horrible man. We moved to Alaska, and I enrolled in a few more required courses at UAF. One such class was an evening course on Geography. After some initial confusion, I found that this class did not take place on campus, but on the Air Force base south of town. I spent hours on the phone with the university and Air Force personnel, trying to ascertain the location of the class on base (nobody knew) and my own ability to get on the base at all (Your name needs to be on a list. No, I’m not sure who you need to talk to … ) It was with some relief that I showed up on base, was allowed past the imposing concrete blockades and lines of armed soldiers at the gate, and found my way to the correct building, the correct floor, and finally the correct room.

I walked into a room of four young enlisted men, three young army wives, and an old, should-be-retired looking professor. He was giving a lecture on Adam and Eve. Let me pause here to remind you that UAF is not only a public university, but a Science School. After ushering me to a seat in the front row, he continued his lecture, explaining excitedly how Eve had populated the entire earth by having one baby every year for a thousand years. “You never thought of that, did you? You never thought it was possible! Ha!” We moved on to Abraham, who’s father was a idol worshiping heathen worthy of damnation, Abraham, who was schooled in the faith by Ham the Prophet and Son of Noah, Abraham who’s antics with Sarah’s handmaiden was what caused all these “A-Rabs” to think they had some kind of right over a middle east that had clearly been given to Israel. They do not! They are Illegitimate Sons! They are Not The First Born! They created Islam to control the minds of terrorists, to blow up your friends, our young men! To destroy your families! To tear apart our country! Why else would they pray so many times a day! They are Illegitimate Sons! They are Not The First Born!

Geography Indeed. And I thought my blood had been boiling in Pennsylvania.

I managed to keep my seat, and a blank face, as he sputtered and ranted to the small crowd. After awhile he paused, adjusted his hearing aide, and began a second stream of thought. This one was on the importance of getting an education. How are you going to support your children on a McDonald’s Salary if (God forbid) something happens to your husband? he gesticulated at me. You must think about these things! I tried not to duck. I looked around me. The women were nodding and smiling and taking notes. He told us how he was on our side – he would make sure we passed the class, he would be sure we got through! He begain a convoluted insinuation that Global Warming was a scam, put on a video about the Northern Lights “so you can tell your family back home about it, so they won’t think poorly of you,” fell asleep and snored loudly until the credits rolled.

The next morning I went straight to the registrar’s office and switched to the day-time geography class on campus. Two days later, after sitting through a fascinating (I am not exaggerating for effect here, I was truly sad when it was over) lecture on earth’s seasons, solar radiation, map projections and UTM grids, I got a call. It was the Air Force Base Professor. He wanted to know where I was, why I had skipped his class, didn’t I know how important education was, that he was on my side? I carefully explained that I hadn’t realized how far the base was from us, that we only had one car, that my husband’s new job caused transportation conflicts, how the UAF campus was biking distance. All true. He cut me off. He reminded me that the professors at the university did not have my best interests at heart. He told me transportation could be worked out. He told me to come back to his class. He lectured me on McDonald’s salaries. He offered me several study from home options. He offered to let me attend class once a week, and still pass me. “They don’t have your education at heart. I am on your side!” I pulled my new “gotta’ clear this with the husband” trump card, and hung up.

I was conflicted. Not about which class to attend, but about the professor. Our telephone interaction was strange. He exuded concern. He really did, in his mind, have my best interests at heart. He was going to bat for me! Yet he had not asked a single question about me, or what I needed, or why I hadn’t returned. He hadn’t even let me finish my diplomatic explanation for switching out on him. As far as he knew or cared, I was a maybe-high-school-graduate military wife in desperate need of his care and encouragement to make it through an associates degree. And on behalf of those women, I was glad of him, of his obsessive concern. But I am none of those things, and for myself, I saw the well-meaning and yet insidious and manipulative jargon's other side. I didn’t – and don’t - know how to feel about him. He continued to call our house for a week. I stopped answering the phone.

The following week, two ROTC men came and sat in Geography right in front of me. As our professor began explaining the physical dynamics of the greenhouse effect, research and projections about global warming, they peppered him with confusing and unrelated political quandaries and science channel inconsistencies until he had completely lost the train of his lecture. They argued and hedged. The professor became more and more flustered. The session ended with almost no lecture notes. The ROTC students have not returned.

I wonder about polarity I see in this country, and in the microcosm of this strangle little town so evenly divided between the Academic and the Military, the Democratic and the Republican.

I wonder, but I don’t know what to think.


beholdhowfree said...

OMG this is so interesting. I can't believe your professors: both in PA and on the military base. Unbelievable! I think you must but exaggerating, but then I realize it's you.....you don't do that. So WOW. I am currently teaching 2 sections of a class at a community college. I know what you mean about education being such an odd place. There are so many things to think about, observe, take note of, etc etc just to teach a simple class.

At A Hen's Pace said...

Personally, I think the root problem with so many in "the academy" is pride--certainly both of these men had it in spades. It's sad to hear how sure they both were that they were RIGHT--no matter whether one agreed with them or not! It seems like so often the point of getting an MA or PhD is just to get narrower and narrower in your opinions rather than to really become more educated.

I love your last line: "I wonder, but I don't know what to think." Form your opinions as you can, with God's help, but keep that humility!!