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General

The problem with Olin hall is that it has the most, and I must emphasize most, comfy seats of the whole campus. In my undergrad I could barely help myself from falling asleep every time I went to a physics lecture. It wasn’t so much the dryness of the content that brought about my slumber, but the plush, tweed seat that I sunk into, and in its warm embrace could dream about the phenomena the professor was talking about. I dreamt about space and great orbiting bodies. I put myself in the position of the lecturer’s space-traveler, approaching the speed of light and undergoing time-dilation. I embodied the wave-interference and imagined myself governed by quantum interactions. I’m almost certain that this daydreaming enabled me to be so passionate about physics, and eventually make me into the person I am today, a Professor. The same kind of Professor that lectures to students and tries to spin theory and story together, to ignite the passion for physics inside at least one of them so that the fire doesn’t go out, but continues for generations. And while I may count the coziness of Olin hall as an advantage to a special, certain, unknown daydreamer, I don’t consider it to my advantage today, what with the auditor sitting in on my class. 

My teaching here at university has been fantastic so far. My fellow academics are all so kind and passionate about their fields. It makes conversation difficult sometimes, all the minutiae and the dialectics of esoteric interests, but we do find common ground. I’m hoping that I can continue to teach here for a long time, which is why I was overjoyed to find out I was up for tenure this month. Part of the process is a fellow professor auditing my classes. The board tries to pick from people outside my known circle to achieve an impartial judgement. My circle was rather large, and I pride myself on my ability to reach out and make friends, so it was no surprise that as I entered Olin hall today and started to arrange my notes I found Professor Philips sitting in the back with a clipboard on his spindly, crossed legs. His bulbous nose and frilly white hair that stuck out like wings attached to the side of his head were unmistakable. He was easily the most hated professor on campus. The students that came to my office hours complained about his harsh grading and the way in which he glared at them over his small, round glasses. He was an antique, a leftover part of the old ways of thought. Somewhere the consensus had switched from Professors as the most important asset of a university to students being the most important, and it seemed that he was still quietly fuming over this transition. Which is, of course, why I looked down quickly, and continued to professionally cycle through my notes, skipping the informal wave which I used to greet all my other peers. 

I was overjoyed though to find out that the topic of my lecture today was theoretical physics, and an introduction to strange attractors. The implications in my mind of this chaotic topic ran circles and loops, but the mainstream literature heavily implied that the ideas I had were fanciful, and so I kept them to myself. I have a manuscript somewhere that I started, but it will have to wait for when I have tenure and can devote myself to their study. I can’t believe that the topic slipped my mind, being my favorite. It must be all the stress surrounding the lecture. I must have thought more about how I was going to present myself, rather than what I was to present. A blunder, of course. Both are very important. I personally think that we should care slightly more about content than the way it’s presented, but I’m certain that Prof. Philips thinks otherwise. So perhaps it was fortuitous that I forgot the topic. Or perhaps it isn’t. The visiting professor may care more about the content than what I look like. Afterall, he doesn’t keep himself in a very kempt state. These circles in my mind keep racing around, and the information I gather does nothing in the way of helping me plot my course. Implications run on and on, each one leading another route, their net effect though circling around, making no progress. I break out of this ineffectual loop and start to speak. 

Of course the first sentence ends with a voice crack, and it becomes obvious to the students that I’m flustered. My cheeks must be red. It isn’t so bad though, as I now have their rapt attention. All eyes on me. Much better than speaking to daydreamers. Phillips would be sure to note that on his clipboard. Or is he focused on me? No, I cull that idea. He must think holistically. Everything matters in this game I’m playing. Every chalk mark, every student, each word spoken and unfilled seat. It does seem as if more students than usual are missing today. Shame, I really enjoy this topic. I usually look forward to the discussion after my classes with students who come to my office hours. I try to talk up the interesting points of theoretical physics to the sparse crowd. The effect of my initial flub has weaned and I can see many of them sitting comfortably in their seats, playing or texting on their phones. Why, of all the days in the semester, do my students have to be uncooperative on this day? I give each and every one of them eye contact while lecturing, hoping that my physiognomy expresses a sort of muted pleading to pay attention, but my facial muscles tell me that all I’ve done is furrow my brows. I have no idea what I look like, and the blank stares that the students give me help nonesoever. 

I change tactics after the introduction and move to draw some diagrams. I deftly trace out the axes of a graph on the blackboard. I begin to draw the path of a particle and the chalk splinters into fragments. It doesn’t shear like one would expect it to, leaving two usable, but smaller, chunks. No, it crumbles in my hand and against the board leaving a large cloud of dust and an awful mess. It’s understandable though, chalk is an archaic form of writing. I could have predicted its failure. I was only using the blackboard to impress Phillips. I ask for the forgiveness of the class as I lower the whiteboard. I push the button for it to automatically descend. It does so agonizingly slow. Usually I prepare to use it before class so I don’t waste the valuable class time. Today it couldn’t be helped. When it had almost reached the bottom I picked up two markers that were sitting in the podium. I had forgotten to bring mine. I trace out the axes of the graph and then explain to the class the motion of the particle, and I draw it. The markers smell different than dry-erase markers though. They’re more pungent. They stink of solvent, like toluene and xylene. I turn one over in my hand and read the ‘permanent marker’ subtext. I subtly lick my finger and rub it on the line I’ve drawn, and the insolubility of the mark confirms my fear. My marks have become permanent. I can remove the ink after class, with some specialized chemicals, but for now I must ration the space that’s left. My diagrams get smaller and smaller as the class goes on as I try to fill every square inch of the board. 

I did not enjoy today’s topic. After the botched display I made in class, or at least I viewed it as botched, I went to one member I knew on the board and in no uncertain terms called in every favor I had to have another audit. I told her that I was not feeling well, some sort of illness. I know that there’s one going around on campus. Many of my well-to-do students were missing today, the ones that would never skip a class. The ones I knew personally. She asked me what I would do differently tomorrow that I didn’t do today, and flustered I answered something to the effect of lecturing on my favorite topic, strange attractors. She looked narrow-eyed at me, as if questioning whether I was serious about my words. I wonder if she knew something I didn’t. 

I got up in the morning, spent what I would normally consider a ludicrous amount of time getting myself ready, and headed off to class. I thought that I forgot my notes back at my apartment and nearly had a palpitation, but after turning around and walking a few paces I realized I had staged my notes in the podium the night before, to make sure everything went smoothly. I turned about again, and started back in the direction I was heading. I must have looked like a fool, what with making a move like that. Like a man who doesn’t know where he’s going. But I do know! The problem is that today it seems I can only plot my course ten paces ahead. I start thinking about what I’m going to lecture on today. It’s the most important part of the audit, I’m certain, but still I’ve forgotten. Truly foolish. It’s a good thing I enjoy physics so much. I arrive at the building and open the doors to the entryway. I walk down the hall to room 105, my favorite. It’s Olin hall. Something always draws me back to this place. But, the problem with Olin hall is that it has the most, and I must emphasize most, comfortable seats of the whole campus.


May 19, 2020 14:48

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2 comments

Laurentz Baker
10:18 May 25, 2020

Well done, Joseph. Well written to the point I felt I was teaching the class trying to get through the evaluation and the attempt, the process was crashing down around me with every move.

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Jhumki R Vincent
03:01 May 28, 2020

The detailed description has made it picturesque and has a wonderful nostalgic feeling woven into it.

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