Thursday, July 21, 2005

Nutty professor

In so many ways he's like the Jerry Lewis/Eddie Murphy character -- before the transformation by elixir, o' course. Every campus has one. At least one. Maybe every department has one. Maybe I was the one in my department. I don't know.

The one I'm thinking of has been on this campus for at least a quarter century. He's tenured, a Ph.D. For many years he wrote serious arts criticism for local newspapers and magazines. He published in the right journals and hosted film festivals at the student union. His lectures were witty and insightful, very James Wolcott-without-the-self-referential-twaddle.

Around about 1992, I saw this professor change. He started showing up on campus dressed in enormous faded overalls over T-shirts. On his feet, rubber shower sandals, no socks. He grew a scraggly beard and started doing the combover hair-nest with what was left of his greasy salt-and-pepper strands. Sometimes he wore a straw cowboy hat. His trifocals looked like he'd dipped them in mucilage. His nose erupted into shiny red gin flowers.

After gaining a great deal of weight -- maybe 100 lbs., maybe more -- he started listing to one side, as if melting westward under his avoirdupois. The overalls just got bigger and baggier.

His classes, once among the toughest courses for undergrads, began to become known as "guts," easy A's. He grew sloppy about assignments and forgot to give exams.

"He fell asleep in class again today," a student told me one day. "His head just sort of dropped over and at first we thought he was reading his notes or something. Then we were afraid he'd had a heart attack, but he started snoring. Finally, people just sort of tiptoed out of the room." She went up to the desk and said, "Is class over for today?" He looked confused, she said. So she left, too.

Just today I saw Dr. "Oshkosh" standing at the bus stop near the shopping center. He looked overly sweaty and rather agitated. If you didn't know he was a college professor, you'd think he was a homeless guy catching a ride down to the Stew Pot for a free meal.

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