Recollections with Richard Bleil
Some students are more fun than others. The truth is that teaching can become redundant. After twenty years of teaching the same material, giving the same presentations, it can become more or less robotic. The material does not change, only the students, and the fun students make it all worth it.
Somewhere around the new millennium, cell phones were common, but not smart phones. The most advanced phones would show the phone number of the person calling, but that’s it. No social media, and texting was a nightmare, using a normal phone pad, it required up to four button clicks just to get some letters. My favorite phone is still one from that era.
It was a flip phone. It showed the phone number of the incoming call on the screen, but because it folded, it was more compact and easier to fit in pockets than other phones of the day. If you didn’t want to answer the call, you just kept the top closed. If you open the phone, you are connected to the caller. This last bit plays a role in this story.
I’ve had one student get a phone call one time in this story. See, I was lecturing in my general chemistry class when a cell phone started to ring. It was the first time, and last, this happened. I responded not with anger, but I just stopped, cold, mid-sentence. I stood there, as the phone rang a second time, just waiting. On the third ring, a young woman reached into her purse, with body language suggesting tension. She flipped the phone open, immediately showing tension in her shoulders (she later explained that she opened it to turn off the ringer but, as previously mentioned, answered instead). She sheepishly put the phone to her ear, and as the entire class listened in, she almost whispered, “Hello?” As soon as she did, as loudly as I could, I said, “HAVE YOU SEEN MY PANTS?”
Yeah, this should have gotten me in trouble, but I knew this young lady. Fortunately, she thought it was hilarious. As it turns out, her mother, on the other side of the call, didn’t. I continued my lecture from the very word at which I left off.
She was SO much fun. She had a great sense of humor and was okay with this joke recognizing that I really intended no harm. She could have gotten me into a lot of trouble if she had wanted to, and perhaps should have, but she laughed about it.
Some years later, I was teaching lab. As was my habit in lab, I wandered throughout the benches in a “flight pattern” to keep an eye on the students. If they had a question, or were about to do something wrong, it wasn’t long until I would be there. I was very irritated at one student for texting during lab. I’d warned him, and of course, he ignored my warnings. At one point, I was near his bench area when he was getting chemicals from the hood, and he had left his phone open. So, I took the opportunity to send the message “you have a hot body” to whoever it was that he was texting. A moment later, I heard him shout, “DUDE! THAT WAS MY SISTER!!”
I had no idea. The plan was to embarrass him and send a message to my other students that they need to be paying attention to what they are doing instead of texting in lab. The plan backfired, spectacularly, as the next thing I heard was a chorus from several students saying loudly, “DO MINE NEXT!!!” The lab was filled with open phones for the rest of the day.
You have to have fun, don’t you? Teachers are real people, and yes, I guess this humor could be labeled as “PG-13”, but it was all with good intention, and meant to keep thing lively in a subject that, for some reason that I will never understand, many students find dull. Of course, this kind of humor is strictly forbidden today, in an era where students will cry “foul” at the first chance they get, and with administrators ready to take anything the students say as pure gospel. But what have we, as a society, lost in such an environment? Yes, I’ve known professors who take it too far and deserve to have been admonished for it, such as when I was in graduate school and a professor promised a passing grade for one of my friends if she would work as his intern, and then proceeded to do things like smell her hair. And, yes, if any students come forward to say something makes them uncomfortable and the professor continues, that should be actionable as well, but doesn’t common courtesy dictate that a student should approach a professor with concerns first (short of something truly extreme)? And if professors are afraid to have fun, then what fun will there be?