Letter to my students: Advice from a professor

‘Definitely leave the large Styrofoam plate filled with ham bones and pungent noodles at home’

Lynn Crosbie
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(Photograph by Kayla Chobotiuk)

Dear Student:

Welcome to university, and welcome to my class, which you have taken because “it’s a requirement?”

Yes, you did just ask me a question, more or less: Before buying your first course pack, please practise the annihilation of your upward inflections. It makes me feel I have to answer such penetrating remarks as, “There’s stuff in the library?”

And now! Let’s explore a few of my expectations and let me give you some damned good advice.

Do not walk in and sit in the back of the class. This is no longer a dope location, but a row very far away that tends to get ignored, wilfully. Sitting directly below where I stand is not recommended, either: Consider the 10 feet of air around me my personal property and, that way, I won’t become too accustomed to seeing you write BORING on your desk with a pen topped with a pom-pom.

Give a thought to arriving prepared, with the syllabus read, and the correct texts in hand.

Consider not telling the entire class the mesmerizing tale of the subway burning, the bus crashing, and Tribbles covering the entire campus as you raced, valiantly, toward us.

Definitely leave the large Styrofoam plate filled with ham bones and pungent noodles at home. Watching you eat is repugnant, and far too much like having a study party at your dorm. If you studied, that is. Ever.

And have your work done each week, if possible. Even if I don’t end up discussing some of the texts, I am counting on you to have or to cultivate intellectual curiosity, that remarkable quality that leads students to look up words they don’t understand, to go online and seek out larger frameworks and contexts for the work at hand, to hold court at parties with a stunning ability to extemporize about the trivial and the quadrivial in James Joyce.

You may find my elderly ways hilarious; you may hurl when I use Justin Bieber’s hair as an analogy, or demand that you go to YouTube to behold Miss Farrah Fawcett’s dramatic skills.

“That’s behind our time, miss,” a student once drawled about one of my film references. NEVER SAY THAT. We happened to be studying Shakespeare and Walter Benjamin in the same class, neither of whom walked our Earth, but being a scholar of anything necessitates a knowledge of the past.

RELATED: Letter to my professor: ‘Hello! I’m #GenerationNext. One day, I’m going to be running a gluten-free yogourt stand on Mars.’

Still, T.S. Eliot’s phrase “the pastness of the past” is germane. My flesh would crawl when, as a student, Professsor Coolio would bring in a horrifying Paul Simon song and hand out lyrics. My cultural life and yours are different and, ideally, we should teach each other a fair amount.

I am an unconventional professor. Just ask the wretched cowards on RateYourProfessor.com, a site where my “disorganization” is cited so often, I wonder if students expect me to spoon-feed them the curriculum and teach the building of cubbies.

I am disorganized because I like to teach what seems most capable of keeping you awake and off your phones on any given day.  Further, I loathe being locked into the prison that is an iron-clad outline. When my professors would announce, “And in an hour, I will speak at length about Karl Marx’s teapot collection,” I would feel a steel trap closing on my leg.

I like to roam the class, frightening students who have just pulled up something filthy on their laptops; I ask questions to the kids hiding in the back, and examine my nails as they stammer toward an answer.

And I actually want you to do well.

I have never failed a student who came to my class. And if you show up, listen and engage, I will go so far as to remember your name.

I also assign seminars in which “thematically appropriate snacks” must be made and served. This leads to a sugar rush (you try eating four Al Purdy-shaped maple cookies), which leads to a kind of controlled chaos.

During the student work, I sit in the back row, draw, mutter, and look irritated: How wonderfully frightened you all look from my place, at the head of a group of strangers I am pushing, slowly and cautiously, toward a unified, politicized and knowledgeable student body.

I may lose a few every class, but those who remain are flexible and creative enough to understand that this is their first sweet taste of moving out of mom and dad’s orbit, and they are feeling all of the joy that being very young, poor and free entails.

Dr. Lynn Crosbie

P.S. Laugh all you like: Being a doctor of philosophy is a thing!

Lynn Crosbie is a Toronto poet and novelist, whose latest book, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, was published by the House of Anansi Press earlier this year. She has taught—and terrified—many undergrads at the University of Toronto.

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