The Absent-Minded Professor

Lindroth The Absent-minded Professor

By Per Lindroth (1878-1933), via Wikimedia Commons

You know the stereotype: the professor with crooked glasses, bumping into doors, unable to remember his own name?

I actually taught for weeks with broken glasses one semester, because I didn’t have time to replace them until the break. And while I have no explanation for it, there does seem to be a correlation between professors and klutzes. I haven’t bumped into a door (in front of a class) yet, but I do have a tendency to inadvertently break pens in a way that causes pieces to go flying in every direction.

I suppose the myth goes that we’re so involved in the lofty life of the mind that we just can’t be brought to notice such mundane details as doors or our own names. In my experience, there’s no choice or preference involved, and it doesn’t feel at all lofty. The reason I am often genuinely, appallingly absent-minded on a regular basis has to do with the peculiarly scattered schedule of my job. There are lots of kinds of jobs that demand a lot of recall, and thinking on your feet, but I think there are few others that ask for so much variety of recall and thinking on your feet all at once.

Here’s a sample ordinary day for me to illustrate the point.

On a given day during the semester, I probably get woken up by my small daughter around 7, spend the morning wrestling her into presentable clothes and getting her to eat something other than bread for breakfast, then getting her to school. I get to campus around 9, and need to turn off my Parent Brain that just answered 100 questions about mermaids and dinosaurs and transition into Work Brain to try to remember the 1000 things I need to finish before the day is done. I might spend my first hour-and-15-min class time lecturing to freshman in a general education survey course about modern Europe. I lecture without notes, so I’ll need to recall the relevant concepts, their definitions, and all the context around, say, the unifications of Italy and Germany, and also remember the content and where to find the key passages in the couple of primary source texts the students read that day, which I’ll ask them about, and try to get them to connect to some of the concepts from lecture. I’ve been reading about these subjects for many years, so it’s no great task to know them well enough for this lecture, but since my main field is Russian history, and I lecture on a lot of different subjects, teaching the modern Europe survey only off-and-on, and since this survey blasts through 200 years of the most major events of western civilization in more than 2 dozen countries, there is a lot to keep on the top of my head. History is very detail-intensive. But, at the same time, my goal with my lecture is to convey just a few key concepts, so I also need to keep all those details organized in my head in such a way that I can explain these concepts to students cogently—it can’t be a barrage of details. So my brain is very busy sorting information as well as recalling and articulating it.

After class, a scrum of 5 or 6 students will gather with questions. I try to master all my students’ names (which means every day in every class some part of my brain is busily trying to remember that Miguel-in-the-hat sits in the corner while guy-in-hat in front row is Raveen). But then they come one-by-one with questions. One student has a family crisis and needs a makeup exam. I have different policies in an intro freshman survey than in an upper-level seminar course, so I recall my policy, try to find out the student’s situation, and explain the policy, which the student may not like. Usually, there’s paperwork and follow-up involved in any little situation like that, and these things come up dozens of times for every class. Another student may have a question about the content of the lecture—and on the fly I’ll recall some details about, say, Otto von Bismarck’s memoirs, to answer her question. Then another student asks for a recommendation letter. I quickly think through what I would be able to say about this student, and whether it adds up to a good enough letter, to make a decision about whether to do it—then give the student my spiel about what info they need to give me and when, so the letter will get done on time. And it goes on.

Then, oops, I have to run to my next class. Another hour and 15 minutes, this time in a higher level survey course for history majors. Maybe we’re on Ivan the Terrible this week. I don’t need as much concentration to recall and organize material in my own field, as I know it in my sleep, but I do concentrate hard on how to present it effectively. Sometimes it’s harder to think through what to present and what to leave out on a subject you know really well. I would have prepared a bunch of materials—readings and visual materials—ahead of time, so I have to recall the details of them and what I need students to take from one given set of materials for this point in the semester. Again I’m trying to master everyone’s names, respond encouragingly to their input in class, gauge how much they’re understanding, all while being articulate about the civil war Ivan waged on his own people, what evidence our knowledge is based on, and how historians argue about it, plus how to convey all that intelligibly to students who didn’t previously know anything about Ivan, while also walking them through the mechanics of being a historian—what kinds of questions we ask about primary sources, how to find the thesis in a scholarly article, etc. These things are second nature to me after years of training and teaching, but it’s a lot of mental effort to bring the right information to the fore at the right time, in a way that’s clear to students.

After the usual swarm of student questions and all the separate recall issues that brings up, it’s lunch time. Except I have a meeting. Perhaps I spend the next hour and a half discussing the college’s general education requirements, and how we will implement changes in, say, lab requirements. I don’t have any idea how labs even work, so I need to learn new things, process that with the goals of my committee and what we did last time, which was probably at least a month ago. And then think through my chaotic schedule over the next few months to see how I’ll fit in the ongoing committee work.

Then—class time again! Now it’s a master’s-level class on the collapse of the Soviet Union. Students read 3 or so scholarly articles on some topic. I haven’t had a chance to look over them before class, so I’m recalling what I read months or years ago, synthesizing it with my knowledge of related historiography, while devoting most of my concentration to listening to what students are saying—which is often not quite coherent yet, so this requires very close listening—and managing the discussion—keeping it on track, helping students to articulate their points and make connections between each others’ points, and keeping the discussion grounded in the evidence from the readings. This is slightly less exhausting than lecturing, just because I can sit and don’t have to talk nearly non-stop, but it’s very taxing mentally. It’s also been a long day already, and I’ve mentally played hop-scotch through three totally unrelated centuries of history. After the grad class there are usually fewer logistical student problems to wade through, but I’ll often get asked really good, nuanced questions about the material. This is great fun, but again, mentally exhausting.

On my way back to my office, I’ll start mentally going through the rest of my to-do list for the day. I need to prep materials (handouts, going over readings, preparing illustrations or examples) for the next day’s classes, I need to write a recommendation letter, I need to see about rescheduling a midterm and contact the affected students, I need to ask the department secretary about proctoring the rescheduled exam, I need to contact the student whose paper was an ungradeable mess and ask him to come see me about possibly failing the course, which I dread doing. I need to submit a proposal for a conference that’s due that day, putting my head in a whole other mental space the requires the recall of vast detail of still another unrelated subject, which I don’t yet know well. But I get to my office and my email inbox is already full: more student problems, requests, questions. By the time I wade through them all, I have to go pick up my daughter from school. A quick chat with two or three colleagues on my way out—perhaps I update one on what happened in the committee meeting, I hear from another about some other department issue, and have to think through how it applies to me, maybe my chair asks for a form I forgot to fill out. More mental gymnastics, leaping from one unrelated world of knowledge to another.

My brain shifts back to mermaids and dinosaurs while I pick up my daughter and feed her supper. I may get to see my husband in passing, but I doubt the kiddo will let us exchange many words that aren’t mermaid-related. Then the frantic bedtime period of wrestling kiddo into pajamas, reading stories. She’s finally out, and then I can begin to think about the rest of that to-do list I never got to. The proposal must go out, so I finish it, my mind feeling like it’s been through a tumble dryer at this point. But I still have to throw together an assignment sheet for the primary source essays in one class, not forgetting anything because if I do forget, I’ll get a pile of awful papers and not know what to do about it. Then I need to look for portraits of Ivan the Terrible for a class session about his legacy. I stumble into bed much too late, then can’t sleep because I can’t turn off my spinning brain, which keeps churning up tasks I forgot to do.

Then, the next day, my “off” non-teaching day, I’ll hope to spend all of it immersed in an entirely other detail-rich subject that I am just beginning to master well enough to write on it, but chances are an hour will be swallowed up by student emails, another hour by a last-minute funding application, plus I have to do that form I forgot yesterday and go over the readings for the grad class (burying myself in yet another completely unrelated but detail-rich subject I need to be able to explain effectively at a high level of complexity).

And so it goes on, day after day. Breaks and summers aren’t “off” time—I almost want to cry when people say that—they’re time to catch up on everything that couldn’t get done during the semester, though they are slightly less frantic in that I can group my tasks in ways that require less mental gymnastics.

It’s not that professors work harder than anyone else—though I do think most of us work as hard as anybody!—it’s that there’s an unusually high amount of variety, detail, conceptual complexity, and newness (all at the same time!) to the kind of knowledge we have to have swimming around our heads in a given day, with a lot of switching from one mental world to another moment by moment and hour by hour. Because our job is actually explicitly defined as three separate jobs—teaching, research, and service. So yes, sometimes I’m lucky if I can remember my own name. I memorize my students’ names, but one semester later I may barely recognize their faces let alone recall their names, because I’ve had to get to know a whole new set of students in the meantime.

There are a lot of things I don’t do well, and things I can’t do at all because I just can’t fit it in. But I can explain the differences between a dozen different kinds of socialism, theoretical and practical, in the same day I tell a cool story about how Rasputin brought down the Russian empire that forces students to ask important questions about the role of personality in history, the same day that I take a roomful of people who can’t make out a given text and send them out an hour later with an accurate understanding and an articulate response of their own to it, while also maintaining my original research project and contributing to the running of my college. That is not harder than a lot of other things people do, and I’m not trying to argue that it is. Faculty have a lot of advantages, too, most notably a partially flexible schedule, usually a fair amount of independence/authority, and very few physical or social demands—let alone a dress code. But the kind of work we do does leave very little active RAM space in any given moment.

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2 Responses to The Absent-Minded Professor

  1. Mike Taubman says:

    Well, I finally have time to check my RSS feed (for, apparently, the first time this semester) and look who should pop up, but my favorite history professor.

    I guess I don’t have to ask why you haven’t been blogging as much lately. I’m exhausted just reading that! Then again, my girlfriend teaches HS (across several different divisions and departments) and I’m quite aware of both the number and kind of “context switches” she goes through on any given day. It’s dizzying.

    But I’m glad you found some time to blog. Hope your semester is going well!

  2. elijah says:

    I just came for the Scrivener template, but found myself reading blog entries that sound exactly like my life right now. Thanks for the laughs!

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