Separate lives

How do you guys spend the time you’re not in my class?

At 5:00 pm the Allen Building goes dark. You can spot the administration building on any college campus because there is no one in it come happy hour. Their employees — your professors — may linger a bit at their desks and labs. The myth that we only work six hours a week (and that we get our summers "off") is a heinous lie. When do you think we learn the things that we’re teaching you? Look up and you’ll see lights sparkling in our offices.

Then they too go dark. 

And the campus is yours.

Some years ago, a local theater announced a one-day-only 8:00 p.m. premiere of a brand-new film based on a modern Russian novel.  It happened that my students were reading that very book! So I put on my best "faculty-student interaction" face and scarfed some free tickets from my boss. When I announced this thrilling — but, I emphasize, completely optional — event to my students, they were fully on board, but one of them said that she could come but only for half an hour; she had a commitment on campus later that evening. 

Anyway, everyone got into their vehicles, and we met at the cinema. After 30 minutes, the one student stood up discretely and left. And the rest of us watched the film. All as planned. 

But I’m bewildered. What’s the point of rushing to your automobile, driving 15 minutes, watching the beginning of a movie and then rushing off to something else? Is this typical for all your activities?

It reminded me that students have lives outside of class, which follow their own logic, incomprehensible on this side of the podium. 

Sometimes the veil lifts. A student asks for a paper-draft extension because her student dance group has scheduled a mandatory 20-hours of rehearsal this week. And of course there’s job season. A few years ago a senior in my seminar had to miss seven classes for out-of-town interviews, and was shocked that this meant he could not earn an A. 

There is a lot going on. You are starting businesses, writing musical comedies, inventing medical devices, discovering cures for diseases, volunteering for political campaigns, designing racecars, doing journalism and big-data research, participating in competitions — science, debate, sports, chess. Performing music, plays, dances. Representing Duke. Finding your partner for life.

You are also figuring out innovative ways of letting off steam. 

Do not tell me what these are.

And then there’s what might be going on covertly during actual class. In my world, speaking objectively, there’s nothing more exciting than what we’ve been reading:

A notorious lecher mates with a filthy swamp she-demon, spawning a creepy, cat-hanging psychopath who grows into a vicious killer and murders the old man, taking revenge for the very fact of his existence. And everyone in the whole book is guilty.

Riveting stuff. And one of the greatest novels ever written. So why am I hearing beeps? Whispers? Giggles? Crinkling? A student pounds her phone. Someone leaps up in the middle of a sentence and rushes out of the room. One of the @#$% mini-folding arm desk-things snaps down with a bang and a splat. And if I walked around to the back, what would I see on your laptop screens? 

Sometimes students fall asleep (or maybe pass out — who can tell?). One semester, the student fell asleep every single class. I did back flips, told jokes, played video clips, upped the group work — everything I could think of to wake her up. At the end-of-semester celebration, over drinks and snacks, she told me she suffered from narcolepsy. 

Sometimes my students come to class bedraggled, hair every which way, still in their sleep pants. Sometimes they’re off-the-charts fancy (suit and tie, say, or cocktail dress and shiny designer shoes). Sometimes they even come in uniforms. I love this; it spices everything up and energizes our discussions. 

I’m thinking that the scruffy ones were up all night reading literary criticism. And the elegant ones dressed up to show their love for Dostoevsky. 

But I will never know what is really going on. 

Professor Carol Apollonio has been teaching Russian literature at Duke for 40 years, and this is her final semester. Her column, "Final Rants from the Podium," typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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