Three old guys: I

Oy! It’s getting to be that time of the semester, and last week I was buried under grading – and then I had to deal with a student who plagiarized. It was a messy week. But we’re back, this time with a story that was so long I’ve broken it in two.

In my department, there are three old guys. The first is Hank, the classic “deadwood.” His last article was published in 1987, although he tells us he’s working on something new. Hank’s an easy teacher, if not inspiring, and the undergraduates think he is “cute.”

The second is Red. Red is the center of a perpetual-motion machine turning out dozens of multi-authored scholarly articles a year. He does a lot of work, no one can deny that, but he’s too busy administering his graduate students and administrative assistants and research assistants and grants to do the actual scholarship himself. The dean recently negotiated with him to stay in the face of an offer to be a department chair at a top-ten program, and no one who knows will tell the rest of us how much that cost.

The third is Miller. Miller is an odd combination, a reserved WASP who takes on maybe one graduate student at a time and is a recluse – at least, he doesn’t socialize with the rest of the faculty. He has a steady stream of output, not like Red’s, but very solid stuff. Even though he never talks to anyone, his reputation is for impeccable work. I’ve been here ten years, and I still can’t figure out if he’s shy or a snob.

As an associate professor who hopes to some day be an old guy – and full professor – I’m not sure which of these three models is preferable. They’re like a Chinese menu: I’ll take Hank’s affability, Red’s productivity, and Miller’s reputation.

At some places, these three guys would form a ruling triumverate, but not these three, not here. It took me years after I got here to fully understand the politics between all of them.

First, Hank and Red despise each other. Now visibly, they seem to get along just fine, and after hearing stories from my colleagues at other institutions, I appreciate what that is worth. There are no screaming matches in faculty meetings. Even when you get one of them alone, they never directly say anything about each other.

You might think Red would have all the power there. But Hank used to be the department chair, and he brought in several big hires, our strongest associate profs, and they’re loyal to him. That includes our current chair. I don’t think Red wants to be a chair, except as a counter-offer; he likes being the head of a pyramid rather than having to deal with his ostensible equals. He never, ever collaborates with tenured faculty members – all of his legion co-authors are graduate students, research assistants, post-docs, and the occasional assistant prof. When his interests are threatened, though, his vast operation and the money that it brings in are somehow brought to our attention.

Second, Hank is a bigot. He does not like our young gay scholar at all, and he got downright nasty when we had a job candidate in a wheelchair.

Third, Red is a lady’s man. Which might not impact his work, except that his ex-wife was a student in our department. Both exes, actually. The one thing I can say in his defense is that, as far as I’m aware, he’s never dated his own student. He dated the ex-wives before our code of conduct expressly forbade such relationships; after all, even though he wasn’t their advisor, he still taught them and had power over them. Now he is dating another former student. Curiously enough, they began dating a week after she graduated.

Finally, Miller doesn’t do service. At all. He must have done enough back in the day to get promoted to full, but that was just before I arrived. He won’t advise undergrads, sit on search committees, or even go to job talks. Don’t think of mentioning university or college-wide committees.

I am rambling on too long already; I haven’t even gotten to my main point yet. Classroom time management was a serious problem when I first started teaching. I would get distracted by an interesting tangent and never get to the main point of my lecture before class ended. I’m better now, mostly. But the point of all this is that it was rare for the three men to agree on anything. If they did, it was something too trivial to bother discussing, like “cheating is bad.” Except for one time.

This happened a few years back, not long after I was promoted to associate. At the time, there was one guy even older than them in the department: Maxwell, who mostly snoozed in his office and looked confused when he came out. He’s emeritus now. I think this incident may have been what drove him to retirement, realizing he had no idea what was going on around him.

The chair then, a guy named Bill, wanted the department to revisit our masters and doctoral curricula. Actually, the entire department was okay with that, although the extent of the changes they were willing to countenance varied widely. At the very least, what was on paper should be updated to match what we were actually teaching, so that, for example, every student wouldn’t have to register for “special topics” instead of 526, a supposed core course that everyone agreed was dated. A committee was formed; Hank was on it. So was Linda.

Linda was about as far as you could get from Hank, politically speaking. I like to think I’m open-minded, but she went too far for me – one of those feminists who thinks it’s still the 1950s and women are being oppressed at every turn. According to her, the number of men in our department was by itself enough to convict all of us. Like I said, Hank is a bigot, so I’d grant that she was right on his count. Otherwise, the department was just the way it was through a series of historical accidents.

I should mention that I was on the committee, too, although I mostly kept my mouth shut, and there was another member, Jim, but he isn’t really important to this story.

Anyway, in our first meeting, Linda pushed for some reforms that went much further than anyone thought was necessary. She pretty much wanted the entire curriculum to be diversity and the latest postmodern trendy “everything is relative” stuff. Hank went into reactionary mode and started defending the entire Western canon and the scientific method and I can’t remember what else. I made some sort of pabulum speech about compromise that no one listened to. Outside of our official meetings, the emails got acrimonious.

From a practical standpoint, Linda’s reforms would never go over with the department, so she was just wasting her time. But she had just gotten tenure, so I guess she figured it was time to make her mark. (Her tenure bid is a story in and of itself. No one thought she would actually make it.) She sent a rather strongly worded email not just to the committee but to the entire department, basically accusing everyone of being racist.

That’s when Red stepped in.

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About almosttruetales

The stories contained herein are entirely fictional. Any resemblances to persons living or dead are entirely coincidental. Anyway, what seems like a unique story probably plays out dozens of times in other academic departments each year. I don't know if that's consoling or depressing.
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