Student Evals

Administering student evaluations is very tricky and requires the kind of athletic prowess I don’t really possess. The professor’s body is supposed to be completely out of the classroom by the time students begin to write. So I leave the forms on the table and sprint towards the door. And of course, there are always people who want to ask me one last question, hand something in, or strike up a conversation.

So I yell, “Don’t write! Don’t write! Out of my way!” as I negotiate my way around desks and students, trying to leave the room.

You’ll laugh but a colleague got into serious trouble because a student wrote on the evaluations that the prof was still partially in the classrom when he or she started writing the evaluation. Then the colleague had to undergo a humiliating reenactment of the situation in the Provost’s office, showing which percentage of her body was still inside the classroom when students started writing.

I’m putting in for tenure and promotion this summer, so I can’t take any risks.

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Another professor who influenced me back in Ukraine was Irina Mykolaivna (I forgot her last name.) She was the most beautiful and stylish professor of all and was known for being principled and never accepting bribes. The rumor was that she had a rich husband, and that allowed her to be as principled as she wanted.

I discovered, though, that there was no rich husband in the picture. Irina Mykolaivna worked on the side, selling vegetables at the market. She didn’t run the risk of students catching her at what was considered a very shameful job because fresh vegetables were expensive and students never came to the market. Except me who was rich. Of course, I never told anybody about her secret.

Irina Mykolaivna taught Ukrainian history and shocked us all during her first lecture by speaking perfect Ukrainian and telling us, “I wake up every morning, listen to the national anthem on the radio, discover that “Ukraine isn’t dead yet”* and that gives me the energy to go on.”

She was a passionate Ukrainian patriot, and her lectures were mesmerizing. She was also the only professor ever to give me a B in her course. After I got my grade, I showed up in her office with a huge bouquet of white roses.

“What do you want?” Irina Mykolaivna asked in Ukrainian. “I’m not changing your grade, so you can keep the flowers.”

“No, the bouquet is not for the grade,” I babbled. “It’s for you. You are such an inspiration, you changed my life. Thank you, thank you.”

I shoved the bouquet in her hands and ran away.

I spent the next year in the archives, learning about the history of my country. It was the most emotionally ravaging intellectual adventure in  my life. Every time I worked in the archives, I’d have to make efforts to avoid destroying the documents with the tears that were streaming down my face. The workers of the archives thought I was trying to trace relatives who’d disappeared during Stalinist purges. But I wasn’t looking for relatives. I was looking for an entire civilization that had been stolen from me.

* This is the first line of Ukraine’s national anthem.

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There were 3 professors at Kharkov State University who influenced me, all women. One was a seasoned old professor of pedagogy whose name I unfortunately don’t remember. We had to take 5 years of Methodology of Teaching courses, and I hated them all.

Once we had to do a teaching demonstration in class.

“Who’s a teacher in your family?” the professor asked once I was done with my demonstration.

“Everybody,” I said.

“Figures,” the professor responded. “What you do can’t be learned. It has to be passed down on the level of genetics.”

I couldn’t care less since I wasn’t planning to dedicate my life to teaching. When it was time to take the final exam, I forgot all about it and only remembered 3 days after the exam.

I showed up at the professor’s office and confessed to her that I’d forgotten about the exam.

“So what do you want?” she asked. “Do you want to take the exam now?”

“No,” I said. “I didn’t prepare.”

“What then?”

“I want you to give me a grade,” I explained.

The professor looked at me with her tired eyes.

“Will a B work?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I want an A.”

“I remember you,” the professor told me. “You are a teacher.”

“No, I’m not,” I said with indignation. “I will never be a teacher. Teachers don’t make any money.”

“You can’t escape from this,” the prof said. “Teaching is who you are. No matter how hard you resist, you will find yourself drawn into the classroom. Give me your grade book, I’ll give you an A.”

“What a silly old fool,” I thought, leaving the prof’s office and not even having the slightest suspicion that not only will I become drawn to the classroom, just as she predicted, but that her lectures, which I did my hardest not to hear, would inform everything I will do in the classroom years later.

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At the university, I was initially excited to find out that I’d have to take 4 years of World Literature and even attended lectures (which was a highly unusual thing for me to do). It turned out, though, that literature courses consisted of an old, inarticulate woman reading aloud from a tattered textbook. We were supposed to take notes and also copy long passages from Bakhtin into our notebooks. The exams consisted in presenting your notebook with quotes from Bakhtin to the professor. People with the prettiest, most organized notebooks got the best grades.

As you can imagine, I soon lost interest in this course. I was working a lot at that time and my time was expensive, so wasting it on lectures that explained the deeply Communist nature of Euripides and Rabelais would be a strange thing for me to do.

In my fourth year, there was to be a real exam in World Literature. We were supposed to come to the exam and talk to the professor face to face about what we’d learned. I hadn’t been to any lectures for years and didn’t even know that we now had a new professor who was young and very enthusiastic.

The exam was to start at 9 am. I had been working on an urgent translation all night long and arrived at the university at 1 pm only to discover that my entire group was hovering by the professor’s office, looking terrorized. It turned out that nobody had dared to enter because there was a rumor that the professor was an animal and liked failing everybody.

Every ten minutes the angry professor would come out of her office and implore people to enter and take the exam, promising to fail everybody on the spot if they continued wasting her time. The students shook their heads with the steely resolve of a Ukrainian WWII partisan interrogated by the Nazis.

I had two more urgent translations waiting for me at home, so I volunteered to be the first to take the exam.

“Don’t!” everybody whispered. “Stay here with us, it’s safer not to go in.”

I shook everybody off and entered the professor’s office.

“Who are you?” she asked. “Have you been to a single lecture of mine?”

“No,” I said. “I hate literature, it’s completely useless.” Then I delivered a passionate monologue about Balzac, Zola, and the Impressionists.

For the next hour, the professor and I yelled at each other, quoting, interrupting, waving our hands, and arguing about pretty much the entirety of Western literature.

“OK, I have to let you go now. Tell the people outside that you get the highest grade and I’m not angry any longer, so they can start coming in,” she finally said. Of course, it couldn’t have occurred to me at that point that I would soon start to dream of becoming a professor of literature myself.

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I spent my childhood and adolescence in a daze, reading everything I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much. Good books were hard to access in the USSR. Party apparatchiks were given “white lists”, which were lists of good books published in tiny numbers and distributed among the important people.

Everybody else had to make do with the idiotic propaganda books sold in bookstores. The only way for regular people to get books was by collecting used paper and bringing it to recycling stations. In return for enormous quantities of used paper, you’d get a voucher that allowed you to wait in a queue for months and finally get a book or two worth reading in exchange for the voucher. There were people who amassed great libraries this way but my parents were too overworked to be able to invest the time and the effort.

I read the entire collected works of Tolstoy, Chekhov and other Russian classics. Books in English were extremely hard to get and for years I had to make do with endless nautical adventures my father had managed to rescue from somewhere.