The Professor by Greg Coplans

For men are good in but one way, but bad in many
Aristotle


I was unaware of the innuendos murmured in low voices in the college staff common room at our North London campus or at late afternoon faculty events where inexpensive South African sherry, cheddar cheese, and last week’s crackers were on offer. I later learned that these had started after the vice-chancellor’s announcement.

“This university’s recent decline in the national and international rankings is of great concern.” the vice-chancellor had warned at the annual deans’ dinner. “In order to improve our ranking and starting this academic year, instead of each member college setting its own final exams, questions will be selected from submissions from all the colleges, so our students take a common exam, ensuring that degrees awarded by the university reflect the same standard of academic achievement regardless of the college attended.”

My colleagues muttered about standards in the Philosophy Department. “He’s simply not getting through the syllabus,” they apparently complained. “He cherry-picks the easiest sections and his lectures are just a naked attempt to ingratiate himself with his students. Of course, the students love his little intimate fireside chats, but how will they perform in the new examination system?” They agreed lower standards would reflect adversely on all of them.

On Monday, three weeks after the vice-chancellor’s announcement, I joined my friend, Robert Willoughby, our college arts faculty dean, for lunch in the wood-paneled senior faculty dining room. The dark maroon edge-to-edge carpet, once rich in color and thick under foot, was worn and almost threadbare in certain areas. Dusty portraits of forgotten academics hung from the dark brown wooden picture rails positioned on all the walls. The furnishings looked as if they could be stage decorations for a play set in a previous century. Although my experience was that the dining room’s cuisine only vaguely resembled the menu description, I ordered a medium rare sirloin. I was not entirely surprised that it arrived slightly charred on the outside and overdone on the inside. I wished, like Robert, I had ordered the Dover sole.

We discussed teaching methods.

“Robert, the secret of a successful lecture is quite simple.” I rested my knife and fork on my plate and lifted my glass of wine—Robert always ordered decent wines. “My lectures follow an infallible formula: I decide on three points I want them to remember. I talk to those, tell a story or two to reinforce them, and throw in a pertinent joke if I can think of one. All else is a waste of time—they won’t remember everything you tell them, and if you bombard them with information, they mindlessly try to capture your words on their laptops like little parrots instead of listening, absorbing and questioning. Anyway, details are what the reading materials are for.” I sat back and sipped more wine from the glass that Robert had just topped up.

“You make it sound so simple, James. I know it’s not as easy as you are suggesting, but your lecture technique sounds like an American baseball game—three outs and the inning is over. Perhaps you ought to model your lectures on the game of cricket—ten outs and the inning is over. A little more content, you know. Well, I must run along,” Robert said with a quick glance at his watch. “Senate meeting in five minutes. Daren’t be late. See you and Betty for dinner on Saturday. Jean’s making her famous roast duck, so we will have an older claret or perhaps a good Burgundy. I’ll try and surprise you. You and I can chat some more after dinner.” With that he was gone, leaving me to gnaw my way through the remainder of my steak.

Two days later, on Wednesday morning of the same week, I stood behind the lecture theatre podium and tugged my black academic gown gently until it was correctly aligned. Beneath the gown, I wore a dark blue pinstriped suit (Harrod’s sale), a light blue striped Egyptian cotton shirt that had a pleasantly soft comfortable feel (Jermyn Street sale), and a light pinkish silk tie with pale off-white spots (Simpson’s sale). I was trim, even for a 59-year old, and well-cut “off the rack” clothes hung elegantly on my body. Sartorial splendor on a budget—the best labels at the lowest prices—was my secret. “One must always dress to look the part,” I once explained to my colleagues, some of whom favored shirts, slacks and corduroy jackets purchased from who knows where.

Always aware of posture, I stood erect behind the lectern, although I still smarted from an exchange that had occurred at my recent annual physical. My doctor’s young female assistant had measured my height.

“Five foot ten inches,” she reported as I stepped away from the measurement device.

“Nonsense,” I replied, pulling myself up to what undeniably had to be five foot eleven inches in height. “I’ve always been five foot eleven. Measure me again.”

“As you get older, you grow shorter,” she replied without a smile. What annoyed me was her use of the verb “grow.” I informed her that grow means to increase in size, not to contract. Therefore, it was absurd to say I had grown shorter. She did not respond as she left the room, saying, “Dr. Short will be with you shortly.”

I turned to look at the clock set in the wall above the blackboard behind me. Three minutes to ten. I would begin my lecture precisely at ten o’clock, regardless of whether the students were ready. It was their responsibility to be prepared and seated on time. Students filed in and took their seats in the theatre. Those who couldn’t find vacant seats overflowed onto the stairs on either side where they sat down in breach of the fire regulations, laptops balanced on their knees. It was a singular pleasure for me that students squashed themselves into my lectures like canned sardines. The last thing I sought was popularity. I was not vainglorious, but I confess I habitually read the online student reviews posted on the college website to Betty, my wife. “GO to his class even if you are majoring in chemical engineering….” one read.

Lecture theaters, with their pitched floors and curved rows of seats, resemble Greek amphitheaters—apt settings for Aristotelian philosophy. Besides, the acoustics of lecture theaters suit my conversational style. I don’t have to shout. I simply project my voice to the students sitting in the highest row while making eye contact with everyone in the room. I do not lecture from notes. I know my material but never precisely what I am going to say. My symbiotic relationship with the class allows me to improvise, so my words flow easily, tumbling into sentences that extend into paragraphs, just as if I were participating in a dinner-table conversation. Because I don’t have a formal structure for each lecture, I never have to think about or try to remember my next point, and instead have the freedom to gauge the atmosphere in the room and engage directly with the students—holding a conversation with each of them while conversing with all of them.

It was now precisely ten o’clock. I briefly scanned the crowded and settled theatre, and began. “Today, we will discuss Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, specifically moral virtue and moral vice. I know you’ve all done the reading.” I smiled out at the room. Heads in the front rows nodded a little more vigorously than those in the middle. Heads in the back rows remained motionless—perhaps the place to start the discussion.

“Yesterday evening, I saw a play at the Adelphi Theater on Shaftsbury Avenue,” I began. “It was set in France in 1918 and was about Tommy Jones, an infantry private, who was court martialed and executed for cowardice.” Adopting the lush tones of a Welsh accent, I shifted into a ‘Tommy Jones’ Welsh coal miner’s voice and spoke briefly about the fighting at the Somme and other battles. Weary of the carnage and disillusioned about the war, Jones had refused to return to the trenches and continue fighting. He explained to his colonel that the conflict had evolved from an honorable defense against aggression into an immoral war of conquest, serving only the territorial ambitions of the Great Powers. He, for one, no longer wanted any part of it.

“Immoral war! Good grief, man!” I spluttered, quoting the play’s dialog and mimicking the clipped speech of the colonel’s upper-class accent. “Whatever are you talking about, Private? Are you out of your mind? Are you one of those white feather cowards?”

Having told my students that a court martial had taken ten minutes to sentence Jones to death, I turned and wrote the words “moral virtue” and “moral vice” on the blackboard.

“Right, let’s look through Aristotle’s eyes at the choices that were made. Was Jones’ decision not to fight virtuous or not? Was his execution by firing squad in fact murder, and therefore, a vice? What if he had changed his mind and recanted? Consider whether killing the enemy in battle is a moral virtue or a vice? This last question obviously poses a wide range of issues. Don’t assume there is one right answer, just express your point of view.”

During the energetic debate that followed, a woman sitting in the third row, suggested the discussion might be more relevant if framed in a contemporaneous context.

“Alright,” I responded. “I have another example. Let’s analyze something that occurred last night.”

I related how, after the play, I had walked down Shaftesbury Avenue, headed for Piccadilly Circus tube station and the Bakerloo line to St. Johns Wood where Betty and I owned a Georgian-style house. I was alone because Betty hadn’t wanted to see the play.

I paused as I slowly looked around the lecture theater to generate some tension and anticipation for what was to follow. Then I continued, “I heard a man shouting. Ahead of me were several shops selling tourist paraphernalia and sandwiched between them was the Slices of Heaven pizza kitchen. The man whose shouts had echoed down Shaftsbury Avenue, stood a few yards away from the pizza kitchen, his body taut with rage. Much taller than his slight female companion, he was leaning in close to her. His next words were loud, yelled for all to hear.

‘Who do you think you are, bitch?’

I watched his clenched fist rise in the air. The young woman flinched away but said nothing. Her slender body was turned away from me, but when I stepped closer, I had an unimpeded view of the man. I recognized the type—the kind of brute one sometimes encounters heaving weights with noisy grunts in the gym and then letting them clatter loudly on the floor. Obscenely large biceps protruded from his tee-shirt’s sleeves. His arms were heavily tattooed, his hair closely cropped, and his beard-framed mouth twisted with anger.”

I paused once more for a few moments for effect, then said, “I expected him to thump his chest.” Not a sound in the lecture theatre. Not even a laugh at my joke. I had their rapt attention.

“The woman spoke,” I continued. “I moved closer trying to hear but her words were inaudible. The echo of a slap followed. I saw her long hair twirl around, spinning in a wide arc, as if shaken vigorously in a circle. She went straight down. It was a punch, not a slap.

Hey, you can’t do that! Stop! Stop! You’re hurting her!

These words were spoken by a second woman. I hadn’t seen her until she stepped out of the pizza kitchen line. She moved forward, hands raised, fists clenched and appeared to walk straight into the next punch. Down she went. None of the bystanders on the street said a word. None moved.”

No one moved in the lecture theatre either. The students remained motionless, spellbound, perhaps horrified by my story.

I then summarized Aristotle’s view that a person who flees from danger because she or he fears everything is a coward, which is a vice. A person who acts courageously in the presence of danger is virtuous, but on the other hand, a person who meets every danger head on is rash, another vice.

“Here’s what happened next,” I told the class. “After he hit the second woman, I leapt forward and tackled him rugby-style, shouting something like, ‘Help me. Let’s all get him together!’ We crashed to the sidewalk. Other men piled on and subdued the man. The police arrived and I was interviewed by the press. My question is: was my conduct courageous and a virtue, or rash and a vice?”

The students enthusiastically embraced this challenge. The debate was passionate at times, and I could tell from the general tenor of their remarks that their already high opinion of me had been further enhanced by the account of my intervention.

Later, on Saturday evening of the same week, Betty and I had dinner with Robert and Jean Willoughby in their spacious Kensington flat. As Robert had promised, Jean’s roast duck was so delicious that I sat in front of my empty plate waiting to make eye contact with her so she would offer me seconds. Since no such invitation appeared to be forthcoming, I consoled myself with Robert’s excellent Burgundy. I discussed the play about the First World War private soldier and the questions I had embroidered into my Wednesday morning lecture.

“The class discussion was energetic,” I told them, “but a student thought my example of the private in 1918 was too extreme, and suggested we should discuss an everyday scenario—something they could better relate to. So, I told them about the Shaftesbury Avenue incident.”

“Oh, what was that?” Jean wanted to know.

I related the story about the thug who had punched the two women but omitted the part about my intercession. “There was a short report about it in Wednesday morning’s Guardian.” I looked at Betty. “Remember, Betty, you read the article aloud at breakfast, just before I set off for my Wednesday lecture.”

“When was that, darling?”

“Wednesday morning. The play was on Tuesday night.”

“I think you’ve forgotten, dear. I was at Mother’s in Norfolk and I only returned to St. John’s Wood on Wednesday afternoon, and anyway, you were at college when I returned home. I don’t remember reading anything in the newspaper about an assault on Shaftesbury Avenue.”

“I think we still have our copy of Wednesday’s Guardian.” Jean said. “Hold on a moment, I’ll just grab it from the kitchen.” She returned to the dining table a few minutes later, newspaper in hand. “No, I don’t see a report about an assault.”

“Strange, there must be some kind of mistake,” I said. “I remember everything so clearly. I’m positive the assault was reported in The Guardian.” No one seemed to know what to say in response to this. I looked at the others. It was if they were strangers, all staring at me. My usually alert and active mind seemed dull and fuzzy, and for a moment it seemed everything in the room was blurred.

“Ladies, please excuse us,” Robert rescued me. “James and I will have a brandy in the study. We have some college business to discuss.”

Robert and I arose from the table. Before he closed his study door Robert began speaking.

“James,” he said, “with this new exam system, we will all have to step up, especially you –”

***

A persistent, rhythmic rat-tat-tat roused me from a deep and pleasantly peaceful sleep. The absence of curtains in my room meant there was no filter to block the daylight that entered through the single large window that was guarded by a latticed iron grill. A pigeon, perched on the grill, was clearly silhouetted against the morning light and threw a shadow on the floor of my room. It was the tap of its beak against the glass that awakened me.

I slid out of bed and moved towards the window, but the bird flew away as I approached.

The wall-mounted clock above my door indicated that it was already half past nine. Always punctual, I had to get going to avoid being late for an important meeting. In one corner of my room was a wash basin with a medicine chest above it, and a white cupboard was in the opposite corner. I would wear my favorite olive-green corduroy jacket and my recently acquired Marks & Spencer blue button-down shirt. My ancient and frequently worn paisley cravat would complete the job. But before I could move over to the cupboard and change out of my loose-fitting pajamas, a few soft taps broke the silence. The door opened and two men wearing white coats entered. I immediately turned to greet them even though I was still barefoot and dressed in my pajamas. One wore a name tag that read “Dr. John Davidson, Consulting Psychiatrist.” The other man did not wear a name tag, but a stethoscope hung around his neck.

“Charles,” said Dr. Davidson to the other man, “Meet James. He has a severe psychotic grandiose delusional disorder and a fantasy-prone personality. He’s on the usual medications and is undergoing psychotherapy under my supervision.” Dr. Davidson opened a manila file he had been carrying and started reading.

“James is a bachelor who for many years rented a single-room bedsitter studio apartment from a Mrs. Jean Willoughby. He was employed by British Rail at Victoria Station where he helped compile time-tables and maintenance schedules. Mrs. Willoughby described James as a ‘loner’ who seldom left his room. She never saw anyone visit him at the bedsit. About three months ago, she noticed that he stopped going to work. Then, when his rent payments dried up, she became concerned. She contacted Social Services because she is elderly and was reluctant to climb the two flights of stairs for fear she might fall and injure herself. The social worker, when she entered his room, found him lying on his bed, gaunt and unshaven.”

Dr. Davidson closed the file and turning to his colleague said, “James is clearly not competent to look after himself, but we don’t believe he’s at risk of hurting himself. His narcissistic delusions are sequential with no intervening lucid periods. Each lasts approximately one month and then seamlessly evolves into an entirely different delusion. What is very interesting, and most unusual, is that James appears to challenge each delusion by unconsciously deconstructing its foundational constructs. This generates an unacceptable level of tension and stress, resulting in a crisis that causes the current delusion to terminate and immediately be replaced by his next delusion. Currently, James believes he’s a professor of philosophy.

“James, this is my colleague, Dr. Brooks.”

“Good morning James, how are you today?” Dr. Brooks asked. “Are you still lecturing philosophy?”

“No, whatever gave you that impression?”

“How is Betty?”

“Who? I don’t know anyone named Betty.”

The two men spoke to each other in low tones but neither addressed me. I was impatient to dress and leave, but had to be polite. My attention focused on the wall clock and I fidgeted with my pajamas, wondering if it would be rude to open the cupboard and start dressing. I heard the words “alienated from others,” “fantasy-prone personality,” and “depression,” but they had no context or significance for me.

“Gentlemen,” I interrupted.

Their conversation ceased and they looked at me expectantly.

“I do not wish to be rude, but perhaps you could return this evening?” I gestured at the wall clock, “It’s been a pleasure to talk to you both, but I must dress and leave immediately or I’ll be late for my meeting.”

“James, what meeting is that?”

“I’m sure you’re aware I recently retired as The Times and Sunday Times literary critic–it was in all the papers. Now I’m the literary consultant and mentor to the owner of The Forgotten Read, the antiquarian bookshop on Camden Lock—it’s quite famous you know. Why, just the other day, Ian McEwan came in. He wanted my advice on the new novel he’s writing. That’s why you must excuse me. I must dash. Ian’s coming back to meet me this morning.”


Greg Coplans is a retired lawyer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is married and has two adult children. He is a member of the California Writers Club and read The Professor at the Lamorinda Arts Council “Art Embraces Words” events in September and November 2019.

 

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