My Short and Happy Life As a Distinguished Professor

An old hand at raking muck, the author balked at permitting that hand to be fingerprinted as the price of a job teaching her craft at one of California's giant campuses. Therein lay the rub; read on.
More
Notes from Journal: September 24

Arrived in a state of high nerves to take up lodgings in the Faculty Club-classes begin tomorrow. Checking in at Prof. Mitford's mailbox I found assorted sociological memoranda and announcements, copies of the student newspaper Spartan Daily full of wise sayings of deans and information about parking regulations, a penciled note from the secretary of the department saying "Miss Mitford, please go to personnel to take the loyalty oath and be fingerprinted," which I threw straight into the wastepaper basket, and—joy of unanticipated joys!—a letter from a local funeral director saying he had read in the papers that I was coming to teach in San Jose and would "be pleased to put my staff at your disposal to tell your students how we care for the dead." My class outlines are ready, all neatly ditto'd. To my annoyance, Somebody Up There had ordered the title Techniques of Muckraking deleted from the seminar outline and replaced with "Sociology 196H," which sounds boring as hell, so they all had to be redone with the title put back in.

Some women faculty members took me and Novelle out to lunch in San Jose's finest eatery—nerves much assuaged by their kindness and several preprandial drinks. In midlunch two men came over to our table, a dean, and a spruce young fellow looking something like a composite of the junior Watergate set we'd seen on television, who introduced himself as lawyer for the university trustees. I said, Oh good, I need a lawyer: I just got this absurd note about a loyalty oath and fingerprinting; there's not a word about either in my contract, so please tell your bosses, whoever they are, to cut out the one-line jokes as I don't intend to do any of that. He replied sternly that it's a rule, I would have to comply with these requirements. The dean, looking grave, concurred. "Then...see you in court!" said I gaily, and on this note we parted.

September 25

My first lecture—at last I've found my true vocation. There were more than two hundred students, ranging from fresh-faced late-teens to grizzled heads; I loved them on sight. All nerves vanished, I gave them a brief rundown on How I Came to Be a Distinguished Professor (throwing myself on their mercy), and a short intro, to funerals, throwing in all the jokes I could think of about different layaway plans and how one wouldn't be caught dead in one of the cheaper lines of caskets; showed samples of the Fit-a-Fut Oxford that I'd ordered from the Practical Burial Footwear Company of Columbus, Ohio; passed around copies of my favorite trade mags. Mortuary Management and Casket & Sunnyside; explained the uses of various embalmers' aids like the Natural Expression Former (a plastic device which, inserted into the mouth after rig-mo, as we call it in the trade, sets in, can produce a seraphic smile on the deceased face)...it all went off like gangbusters; they were in fits of laughter.

The university public relations office telephoned in the afternoon to say they would be having a press conference to announce my appointment as? Dist. Prof., which I thought incredibly cordial of them; and one of the deans called to warn me that the loyalty oath and fingerprinting are ironclad conditions of employment, so I'd better get along to personnel to comply with these. I stiffly replied that I should be consulting the American Civil Liberties Union about that.

September 26

My muckraking seminar, limited to twenty, is a very different cup of tea from the lecture course. Three of the students, it turns out, are not enrolled in the college, hence are attending illegally, which I find flattering. We've decided to meet in the Faculty Club, an oasis where we can have lunch and bring wine to enliven the three and a quarter hours of class time. My plan: to spend the first several sessions exploring methods of gathering information, which will give everyone time to figure out what particular muckraking project each wishes to pursue. Today, discussed techniques I've found useful in interviewing funeral directors, prison administrators, Famous Writers—how to get them to talk, how to assume various fictional identities to help loosen tongues: pre-need cemetery plot buyer? Nervous citizen anxious about crime control and prison security? Aspiring Writers School student? And how to double-check information thus adduced by seeking out those on the receiving end, so to speak: survivors who have had to foot the funeral bill, convicts, students actually enrolled in the Famous Writers School.

Another deanish telephone call: Had I gone down to personnel yet? I explained I hadn't had time to think about all that or to consult the ACLU; I'd been too busy preparing my classes and meeting with students, so the oath and fingerprint matters had rather slipped my mind. Professor Alvin Rudoff, head of the sociology department, called to say there is a big flurry going on in the administration about all this, and they've been after him to persuade me to comply. He agrees both requirements are absurd and demeaning. I said I'd be back in touch after talking with some Lawyers.

Notes from Journal: October 2

The two funeral directors came to address my lecture class-they were more than up to expectations. "We are in the business of serving people," one announced mournfully, and averred that all this talk of the high cost of dying is non-sense; they would furnish a funeral for as little as $119.50. This sounded like an odd price, and the students demanded a breakdown; the information that the actual price is $117 and the $2.50 for sales tax was greeted with gales of hilarity. A long wrangle ensued between students and guest lecturers about the wholesale cost of caskets—why is it a closely held trade secret? Our undertakers fumbled over and fudged this one, with students in hot pursuit. Novelle's Roarometer, a device she proposes to invent to measure decibels of laughter in my classroom, would have been wagging its head off during this interchange.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In