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Is your professor real?

rants from the podium

This past summer, at the Dostoevsky State University in Omsk, Siberia, one of my most cherished dreams came true. A dean escorted me into an auditorium, and seventy students leapt to their feet. The dean waved her hand in the air and said something, and they all sat down. There was no food, crinkling cellophane, open laptops, or whispering in the room.  An hour passed, then the students leapt to their feet once more and applauded. Later, after it was over, I learned that that’s basically the way class is in Russia—though of course it was cooler not to know that. It’s the leaping I recall, and the noise of clapping, but I know that the main thing is what we talked about. 

I’ve always craved glory. My dream is to become a meme, or, better, to have someone make a hologram of me performing a duet with someone unspeakably famous. Like Tupac. Unfortunately the package I come in (mousy, bookish, bespectacled, haloed in gray) forestalls this level of fame. 

Still, live long enough and you’ll have your moments.  A couple of years ago I had the distinct honor of chairing an invisible Duke faculty committee known as “Classroom Space and Infrastructure,” aka Cool TV-Show Acronym or The Space Committee. Our task was to explore the ways Duke’s physical spaces serve our teaching mission. Our earth-shattering 85-page report listed vital needs like: make sure the lights don’t buzz; stock the trays with dry-erase markers and chalk (btw your professors are passionate about their chalkboards); install technology that doesn’t make your professor look like a moron (hints: (a) limit controls to “on” “off” and “play”; (b) don’t upgrade everything over the summer and expect us to master it on the first day of class; and (c) station tech-savvy, soft-spoken human beings next to every control box 24-7); provide nimble furniture with wheels; consult with professors before equipping their classrooms—that kind of obvious stuff that you sometimes need a committee to prove. After feverish debate it was determined that all clocks need to be hung not at the front of the room, but at the back. A couple of voices called for better podiums, a request I happily reiterate from behind mine. 

One thing you learn with time is that your dreams do come true, but usually not in the form you had imagined (so please wait this out, Dukies. Time and patience, we learn in War and Peace). Classrooms were better this year and the technology provoked less flailing about and whining. As the semester progressed, things got easier and the tide of frantic calls to Josiah at OIT ebbed. Then one day we got an email; salvage necessary items from your buildings and vacate the premises, STAT. And the doors slammed shut. Those spaces with their perfect furniture and glistening technology now stand vacant like a time capsule that thousands of years from now cavemen or aliens will stumble into and wonder what the hell all that indigestible stuff was for.  

The spaces compressed and mutated into the little cages where we now live. And amazingly, it came to pass, the thing I had always wanted: I became a hologram! Click a couple of times, and there I’ll be in that shiny box in your bedroom, batting ideas around with our mutual idol, a dead Russian writer. You can even sing along. It’s kind of fun. While it lasts. 

Out there, the actual news does not feel real. There are episodes of staggering stupidity. Hospital administrators have fired doctors for wearing protective masks. In New York, one Bronx hospital provided its haggard, unprotected medical personnel with PPE in the form of 2500 New York Yankees plastic rain ponchos, an act that predictably provoked a scandal, which hastily deployed PR shills attempted to quell by recharacterizing the garish items as “a gift intended for their personal use.” Gun shops have been declared “essential businesses,” and two million guns were sold in March. A condo board on the Upper West side voted to refuse to let an infectious disease specialist live in his brother’s empty condo while volunteering on the front lines. A much ballyhooed military hospital ship sent to New York stands vacant as tiers of administrators shuffle lackadaisically through piles of paperwork. In the darker pockets of our country, feeble-minded yahoos lick items in the grocery store, spit at passersby on the street and physically assault people who look different, as though this would protect them from the invisible enemy lurking inside. 

Meanwhile, here we are trapped in our cubicles, gazing at holograms. Let us shed stupid things and count little miracles. I’ll start: on Friday (not April Fool’s Day, which was Wednesday—I checked) I received an astonishing email from the loathed Duke Parking and Transportation “Services”: “Duke will suspend all faculty and staff parking permit fee deductions from paychecks issued April through June.” Translation: Duke is not charging us to park our non-existent cars! I’m still wondering whether this is some kind of trick but will try to believe. Maybe there is a good side to this war we’re in—a war in which every human being is on the same side. Maybe this lull in our routines will let us see what is truly important in our lives: the people who take care of us, the planet that we depend on for life. In this crazy limbo, I am clinging to things that I know are real:  you; the books that we are reading together; the people in the convenience store and behind the plexiglass shield in the Food Lion; the guy who delivers your pizza; the mail carrier; the UPS, Amazon, long-haul, and FedEx drivers bringing things you need; the EMT-ers awaiting your call; the medical professionals in their ludicrous improvised ponchos; your dear ones: parents, friends, neighbors (heard if not seen), your dog, who had been wondering where you’d been all that time, and was ecstatic to see you home at last; your professor; and in New Orleans on Friday, my cousin in a hazmat suit—the one visitor allowed in—reading Psalms to his mother Carol, hoping that through all those layers she could hear. 

Those things are real. 

As for the realities of our imaginary classroom, admittedly our power relationship hasn’t changed. If you want to pass my class, you still have to do what I (or that thing that sort of looks like me) tell you to. But honestly, you have superpowers too. Whatever I am over here behind the podium, in this weird zoom space I am your personal hologram, kind of like a higher-order Neopet. I’m told that I can be turned into a talking potato or a cartoon figure. You can change my voice into Donald Duck’s or even mute me using some secret button I can’t see. 

On second thought, no, show me some respect. Let us unite against a common danger: after all, how can you be sure that Russian bots haven’t switched me out for something even scarier? On the surface, this new, even more finely calibrated hologram continues sharing wisdom about Chekhov and giving you daily quizzes, while secretly it’s actually channeling a relentless stream of subliminal messages from Omsk directly into your brain: subversive ideas about the failure of our entire economy, the corruption of our political leaders, the greed of the 1%; and the right of every human being to health care, housing, education, and a living wage.  

Uh, just give me a minute, let me jab at some of these buttons…

Carol Apollonio is Professor of the Practice of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke. Her column, “rants from the podium,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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