“Sorry, I Got Nuthin’…..”

The Subject line of a recent “Teaching” column in the Chronicle of Higher Education reads, “How to Help Students Listen for the Key Idea” (February 17th online). 


The problem here is the implication that every lecture contains a key idea.

Most professors, even those at elite schools, are lucky if they are blessed with a key idea once or twice during an entire semester.  The notion that they would have such an idea to share with students at every class meeting is pretty funny.  Indeed, the core challenge in college teaching is how to handle the fact that the vast majority of class sessions contain NO key idea.

Here are five proven strategies that experienced faculty members routinely use in this situation: 

Turn the TablesPlace the burden on the student to discover whether a key idea is embedded in your lecture.  Emphasize that one of the critical cognitive skills to be developed in college is the ability to determine if something is present or absent.  Tell them that there might be a key idea in your lecture today, or there might not be.  It’s their job to figure out which is the case.  If they identify a key idea when none is present, express your disappointment and hurt.  This will make them defensive, which is good for learning.  

Be Transparent —  Acknowledge up-front that there will be no key idea communicated in class today.  Come clean by informing students that your lecture will basically consist of a lot of random crap strung together by several amusing anecdotes.  Students will appreciate your honesty, and you’ll sleep better.  

Go Postmodern —  Share with students your aggressive critique of the meritocratic, objectivist, bankrupt notion that some ideas are more “key” than others.  That’s just bullshit.  Who’s to say that the observation, “there is chewing gum stuck to the sole of my shoe,” is more or less key than the assertion, “Claude Monet was a founder of Impressionist painting”?  Context is everything.  

Pick an Idea.  ANY Idea. —  Before class, spread out a hard copy of your lecture notes on the kitchen table.  Close your eyes and place your forefinger on a random sentence.  That sentence will be your key idea for the day.  During class, say it louder than any other sentence.  You might wonder, “Doesn’t it make a difference which sentence I choose?”  No, it doesn’t.  When you walk into the classroom and gaze at those heavy-lidded eyes that are struggling to keep you in focus, you’ll know that.  

Turn the Tables II —  Impress upon students the following eternal truth: everything you say in class is key.  Every.  Single.  Utterance.  This was the preferred strategy of professors in the 1950s, and it served them well.  It’s the strategic gift that keeps on giving, as students develop obsessive-compulsive tendencies for note-taking that generalize to many other spheres of their lives.  These neurotic habits will be passed on to their children, ensuring your legacy as a professor “who made a difference” for generations to come.

Now that’s a key idea worth remembering.  


“Oops, Our Bad….”

True Fact:  In early February, 38 Harvard faculty members signed a letter criticizing the school’s misconduct-focused investigation of  John Comaroff, a professor of anthropology.  A week later, 34 of those signers wrote a second letter, retracting their support for the original letter.  They said that they had “failed to appreciate the impact” that their first letter would have (Harvard Crimson, February 10th online).  

This embarrassing episode proved to be just too much for Ina Howard-Hogan, First Justice of the Cambridge District Court in Massachusetts.  She has ordered Harvard to suspend all 34 retractors, “until such time that every one of them has taken either the SAT or ACT to demonstrate that they’re smart enough to remain at Harvard.”

According to Judge Howard-Hogan, “Harvard prides itself on being the pinnacle of the meritocracy.  Well, if you’re the smartest of the smart, how in the hell could you not anticipate the significant negative impact that your original letter would have?  Perhaps you’re all suffering from early-onset something or other, I don’t know.  But Harvard has a quality brand that it must protect, and you dunderheads have seriously threatened that brand.  Now you need to show that you still have the intellectual wherewithal to rock your ivy-draped La-Z-Boys in a bastion of unparalleled privilege.  For the love of God, you’re at Harvard, not the University of Phoenix or Dartmouth.”

As of February 24th, 31 of the 34 retractors indicated that they would comply with the judge’s order.  The remaining 3, claiming that they perform poorly on standardized tests, have requested permission to submit portfolios of their work that include non-rhyming poetry and supportive letters from neighbors.  

Odd Couples….

True Fact:  In Alabama, the university system’s Board of Trustees recently reversed its decision to rename a building on its Tuscaloosa campus as “Lucy-Graves Hall.”  Autherine Lucy was the first black student to enroll at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa; Bibb Graves was a KKK leader and former governor of the state.  Graves’s name will be dropped.  (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 11th online)  

This is not the first instance of a school making an abrupt U-turn after committing itself to a mind-numbingly stupid naming decision.  Two of the most famous cases:

— In 1958, the Cornell School of Hotel Administration opened its Himmler-Frank Bed & Breakfast in Ithaca, NY.  A firestorm of controversy ensued, and the structure was torn down three months later.  

In the words of a current marketing professor at the institution, “Who in the hell knows what Cornell decision-makers were thinking in 1958 when they did this?  I can appreciate the Anne Frank branding.  After all, her name evokes the cozy living quarters she occupied in Amsterdam, and one of the B&B’s rooms is in the attic.  But Heinrich Himmler???  The man was a monster.  Were they trying to attract deranged males who would eventually commit suicide?  The optics are all wrong.  It just doesn’t make any sense.”

—  A bit more understandable, perhaps, is the University of Tennessee’s decision to erect the Satanic Christian Chapel on its main quadrangle in 1996. 

“They wanted a place on campus where Goths and Evangelicals could come together in fellowship and worship,” explains the current University chaplain.  “But it didn’t work out, to put it mildly.  Pitched battles would break out as soon as the Goths started beheading live geese at Sunday services.  During these melees the Goths would routinely beat the crap out of the Evangelicals.  They wielded bicycle chains, studded dog collars, and chain saws, while the most the Evangelicals could do was speak in tongues.  It was never a fair fight.  In 1998 the building was converted to a Chick-fil-A, and it’s now the most popular gathering place on campus.  Go figure.  Tasty chicken is what brings people together in harmony, not religion.”


“Just Let Me Know If I’m Walking Too Fast….”

“Does your college offer a quirky tour for prospective students?”  The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked this question in its online Daily Briefing.  

At least 5 schools can answer the Chronicle with a resounding “YES.”  Behold:

Yale University:  Perhaps the quirkiest tour of them all.  Yale’s Beinecke Library is home to a copy of one the world’s rarest and most valuable books, the 1455 Gutenberg Bible.  

If your family’s net worth is at least $250 million, you and your child can participate in the little-known Gutenberg Scavenger Hunt.  Prior to the Hunt, Beinecke staff rip out 3 pages from the Bible and hide them throughout the Library.  You get to keep any pages you discover as you search the building on your own for up to an hour. 

According to Beinecke Director Michelle Light, “Mark Zuckerberg has already made a 2033 Hunt reservation for his daughter Maxima, who’s currently 6 years old.  Harvard, I’m so sorry.  Oops, did that sound insincere?”

Rutgers University:  The Reimbursement Trail Tour is a must for high school seniors who desire a career in customer service.  Visitors are given a request-for-reimbursement form filled out by a fictitious faculty member, then follow the route taken by the form until the request is finally approved (or denied). 

The tour includes visits to at least 15 University offices in 12 different buildings across the campus.  See what happens when a staff member mistakenly forwards the form to the wrong office, or forgets to sign it before transmission.  Please Note:  This tour cannot be completed in one day.  Set aside at least a week.  Prepare for intermittent rudeness and an attitude that screams, “this task is beneath me, even though it’s my job.”   

Texas A&M University:  The school’s enormously popular Guns N’ Roses Tour takes you to every location on campus where handguns and automatic weapons are legally stored in preparation for the nation’s coming race war.  “None of the firearms are loaded, so it’s OK for even young kids in the family to play with them,” boasts Texas A&M Police Chief Ned Thickett.  At the end of the tour every mom is given a single rose as the student guide sings ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’, which would be our state song if I had my way.”

Princeton University:  Princeton is the site of the only arboretum in the United States devoted to the cultivation of organic bow ties.  “We’re not a Southern school, but we like to think of ourselves as one,” notes arboretum director Cahill Van Arsdale.  “And what says ‘The South’ more vividly than a colorful bow tie worn with a crisp, white, short-sleeved shirt on a hot summer’s day?  Join us for an arboretum tour and a glass of ice-cold sweet tea!”

Bucknell University:  Every tour includes a quarter-mile stroll through Adjunct Alley.  This quiet wooded path on the outskirts of campus is lined with statues of deceased adjunct faculty members who, at various times, held the record for most consecutive number of incorrect payments received from the Business Office.  

“The Alley is a tribute to the dedication, perseverance, and desperate financial straits of folks who kept teaching part-time for us for so many years,” says Business Office Director Bex Tifton.  “I tear up whenever I walk down Adjunct Alley.  I really do.  The recorded chamber music coming from speakers hidden in the azaleas gets me every time.”

We’re sure it does, Bex.  We’re sure it does. 

Unsung, Unnamed….and Beloved

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked its readers, “Who are the unsung heroes on your campus….and what makes them special?” (Daily Briefing, January 31st online).  

Unfortunately, not all of these individuals can be publicly identified, due to the nature of their contributions.  Here are five such heroes, represented by their pseudonyms:

“Marlene” —  An assistant registrar at a university in the Southeastern Conference, Marlene has been changing grades on athletes’ transcripts for over 20 years.  “She’s a godsend,” says a coach at the school.  “Our football team would not have had a defensive line last year if it hadn’t been for Marlene.  What a sweet woman!  She can change a D+ to a faster than you can say ‘transfer portal’.  At graduation she gets more hugs than anyone else at the University.” 

“Dwayne” —  A sergeant on the campus police force at a major urban university in the Northeast, Dwayne provides selected faculty members with counterfeit parking stickers that allow them to access lots that are reserved for high-level administrators.  “Sergeant Dwayne is the Robin Hood of campus police,” asserts one associate professor.  “Last week I parked right next to the Provost.  I can’t tell you how good that felt, especially when I swung open my car door and dented hers.”

“Nadine” —  A 66-year-old cafeteria worker at a Bible college in the Midwest, Nadine sprinkles a bit of powdered cocaine on breakfast waffles or pancakes whenever a student gives her the ‘special wink’.”  As one grateful sophomore put it, “Nadine is so much better than my real mom.”

“Gavin” —  For a minor service charge, Gavin — an IT Help Desk staffer — will program a faculty member’s school computer so that it can access adult pornography sites in an untraceable manner.  Gavin notes that “a lot of people claim that IT jobs are sterile and meaningless.  You have no idea how much happiness I’ve been able to provide professors at my school.  Many of them tell me that I give them a reason for living.”

“Sal” —  A 30-year veteran of the Building and Grounds Department, Sal knows where the bodies are buried at his school — literally.  He is revered across campus as the “go-to” guy whenever fraternity hazing involving large amounts of alcohol and fire hoses takes a tragic turn.  Says one fraternity president, “you can call Sal in a panic at 3:00 in the morning, and he’ll come right over with a shovel and a kind word.  He’s never judgmental.  By 5:00 am it’s ‘mission accomplished’.  Thank God for that man.”

These heroes may not be named, but they can be honored.  


“Please Raise Your Hand When Your Name is Called…..”

A January 20th Chronicle of Higher Education online article notes that we should “add attendance policies to the list of higher-education practices coming under new scrutiny in the pandemic.”

Toward that end, University Life recently surveyed class-attendance expectations at a number of colleges and universities across the country.  The results, to put it mildly, are intriguing.  Consider: 

U. S. Military Academy —  According to Academy Superintendent, Lieutenant General Darryl A. Williams, “the only acceptable reason for missing class at West Point is death — your own.  The United States didn’t build a world-class fighting force by letting soldiers sit on the sidelines whenever they shattered a leg or suffered a gaping chest wound.  And as educational psychologists have shown us, you don’t need to be conscious in order to learn, so spare me all that whining about traumatic brain injury.  We’re talking here about WILLPOWER, boys and girls.”

Oral Roberts University —  This evangelical institution has no formal attendance requirements.  Page 17 of the Student Handbook states that “if you are an ORU student whose tuition payments are up to date, your spirit is present throughout our campus.  Although your body may not be in class on any given day, your SOUL certainly is.  Have a blessed day, wherever you are.”

Brigham Young University —  A male student is allowed to miss class if he needs to preside over a dormitory suite meeting in which 3 or more of his wives are scheduling evening conjugal visits.  

University of Maine at Fort Kent —  At this northernmost campus in the University of Maine system, students are permitted to be absent if they become encased in a glacier on the way to class.  “This happens more often than you might think,” says Fort Kent President Deborah Hedeen.  “That’s why all of our freshmen have a smartphone app that reminds them to zip up their tundra suits before venturing out in the morning.  We’ve lost more students to ‘glacier creep’ than I care to count.  Notifying the parents is the worst part of my job.”

Idaho State University  Only school in the nation where students can miss class in order to attend Q-Anon meetings.  

University of Miami —  No penalty for absences if you have something more interesting to do, or if it’s a good tanning day. 

University of Alabama —  No one (not even the instructor) is required to show up for class during the college football season, which runs from late August through early January.  Beginning in 2023, the University will close during this period every year, with only football operations taking place.  “Let’s be honest,” says President Stuart Bell, “when the Crimson Tide is playing, classes are a distraction.  I’m convinced that we lost the national championship game to Georgia in January for exactly that reason.  Never again.  Not on my watch.”

There’s leadership, and then there’s LEADERSHIP.

“And a Little Omicron Shall Lead Them….”

TRUE FACT:  “The University of Virginia will ban food and drink from sports events and other school and student activities to keep people in attendance from removing their masks” (The Daily Progress, January 14th online).  The policy will be in effect until February 4th. 

While some might view this prohibition as a serious inconvenience, the UVA chapter of the Zen-Foucault Society does not.  As chapter President Willow Ravenshire put it, “what we call ‘food’ and ‘drink’ are simply mental images that reflect a failed attempt on our part to fill the gaping hole in our soul generated by the meaninglessness of life in the dystopian patriarchy of 21st-century American society.”

Ravenshire, a junior majoring in semiotics, notes that “a hamburger or bottle of Bud Lite is not something ‘real’, in the sense that it exists independently of our conceptualization of it.  We may think that we eat or drink physical substances, but we don’t — not really.  Those ‘substances’ are just thought balloons.  They don’t satisfy our deep hunger for an authentic existence, one in which we would feel free to fully express our animosity toward our zombified extended family at holiday gatherings.  In fact, the University has probably done all of the UVA community a favor by hastening the day — February 4th, to be exact — when Michel Foucault and Bodhidharma will return in human form to Charlottesville to preside over the world’s first Post-Modernist Ideational Food Rapture, catered by Popeyes Imaginary Chicken.”

Mark your calendars now. 

Welcome, Harvard Class of 1922, to Your 100th-Anniversary Class Reunion!

Dear Bob –

As your home-health-care aide has informed you, you are the only surviving member of the Class of 1922.  Accordingly, our Alumni Affairs Office has prepared a very special program of activities for your June 17th to 19th reunion visit to campus.  We’ll be devoting all of our attention that weekend to you, and just you!

Here’s the schedule:


4:00 pm          Check in at Cabot House, followed by a power nap in your room

5:30 pm          Wine and cheese reception, substituting “Easy Digest” apple juice and unbuttered toast (no crust) for wine and cheese. You’ll be the sole attendee, but feel free to chat with The Ellingtons, Harvard’s student jazz combo, during their break.

7:00 pm          “Dinner with a Dean” (You will be dining with Dr. Gwen Freckly-Hoster, Dean of the Henry Kissinger School of Gerontology and Senior Studies; Menu: Broiled Chicken Breast à la Crimson, aged baby peas and carrot snips in raisin sauce, dinner roll, Charles River Sparkling Water)

8:30 pm          Cataract surgery on your left eye, courtesy of Harvard Health Services

10:00 pm        Lights out


6:30 am           Morning Fun Run with the Harvard Cross Country team.  Make sure to spray the wheels of your walker with a liberal dose of WD-40 so you can keep up!  Course length: 100 feet 

7:30 am           More unbuttered toast, accompanied by an H₂O sucking sponge

8:30 am           2022 Welcome Back Lecture – “Managing Your Prostate When It’s Larger Than a Throw Pillow: Lessons from Clinical Practice” 

10:00 am         Medication break (BYOPills), hosted by the Harvard Cannabis Dispensary

10:45 am         Flash Card Jeopardy; win cash prizes and cryptocurrency by distinguishing historical events that did happen from those that didn’t (e.g., World War II [did]; release of a gangsta rap album by Michael Feinstein in 1993 [didn’t])

11:30 am         Meeting with Harvard’s Director of Estate Bequests (no need to bring your paperwork; we’ll have it)

12:30 pm        Mini-Buffet Lunch: Lima Bean Surprise with unbuttered toast

1:30 pm          Bench-sitting in Harvard Yard; random staring

4:00 pm           Advances in Science lecture jointly sponsored by the Physics and Biology Departments: “I Can’t Feel My Feet, But That’s a Good Thing, Right?: New Developments in Incremental Cryonics (will be held in the basement meat locker of Widener Library)

5:30 pm           On Your Own: Free time for humming and picking lint from your sweater

7:00 pm           Dinner: Soft-serve energy bar (pineapple or refried bean)

8:00 pm           Lights out


9:00 am           Non-denominational liturgical service at Memorial Church (Sermon – “Sex Outside of Marriage When You’re Over 120: Physically Possible but Morally Hazardous?”)

11:00 am         Workshop on advanced muttering, sponsored by the Division of Continuing Education

1:00 pm           Special performance by the Harvard Lived Experience Student Collective: “White Privilege Doesn’t Go Away Just Because You’re Old” (Note: This musical revue will include starter-pistol gunshots and real tear gas)

2:30 pm          “What the Hell Is That Thing Growing on My Neck?”  Lecture sponsored by the Harvard Medical School Bedside Manner Clinic

3:30 pm          Closing ceremonies; Golden Walker Award presented to all reunion attendees (that would be you, Bob); signing of legal documents finalizing estate bequest agreement (once again, that would be you)   



“Professor, Diagnose Thyself….”

The cover story of the January 7th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education claims that “academic burnout is real — but difficult to diagnose” (p. 13).

Fortunately, this difficulty has been overcome.  On February 1st, a research team at Northwestern University will publish a 10-item survey instrument, validated in multiple pilot studies, that measures Faculty Emotional Exhaustion and Disengagement (FEED).  University Life has obtained a copy of the inventory, and we are pleased to share it now as a service to our readers.

FEED Inventory

Instructions:  Using a 5-point scale, indicate how likely it is that you would display each of the following behaviors (1 = not likely at all, 5 = extremely likely).

— In a department meeting, a discussion of whether to change the prefix for all History courses from “HIS” to “HST” is now entering its fourth hour.  Some of your colleagues maintain that “HIS” is sexist.  You take a live grenade out of your briefcase, pull the pin, and place it in the middle of the conference table.  You calmly announce that a decision must be made in the next 30 seconds. 

—  At the beginning of your lecture to a Zoom-based class right after lunch, you notice that there is a conspicuous piece of mustard-covered pastrami dangling from your chin.  You choose to leave it there.

—  During an in-person session of your Political Institutions course, a puzzled student remarks that she’s having a hard time distinguishing between oligarchy, autocracy, and totalitarianism.  You respond that “it doesn’t matter.  Death claims us all in the end.”

—  In a faculty workshop on how to deal with cheating, you defend plagiarism as a legitimate strategy for students to employ when they’re facing multiple pressing deadlines. 

—  When the Provost makes a surprise announcement at a campus-wide meeting that all faculty and staff will receive a full cost-of-living salary increase for the coming year, you stand up and scream, “you call this ‘LIVING’?”

—  In a faculty symposium devoted to the late bell hooks, you are asked to comment on the cultural and ideological implications of her decision not to capitalize her first or last name.  You respond “whatever” and walk off the stage.  

—  You propose an undergraduate Honors Seminar (Closeted Comics) devoted to overlooked humor in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, and Max Weber.

—  You notice that a student has repeatedly confused “it’s” and “its” in her term paper.  You circle the incorrect words in red and indicate that the correct spelling is ‘itz’.

— Your son, a high school junior, approaches you after dinner to ask for advice on choosing a college.  You hand him a recruiting brochure for the U. S. Army and leave the house to take the dog for a walk.  

—  You instruct your doctoral-student advisee to cite only Wikipedia references in her dissertation. 

A total score of 11 or above indicates clinical depression.  Self-medication is recommended.    




“Thank You for Your Service….”

In a decision yesterday that stunned everyone except those familiar with the organization, the NCAA announced that “nothing, not even COVID carnage, will stop the College Football Playoff from being held on December 31st and January 10th.”

According to NCAA President Mark Emmert, “there is simply too much TV money tied up in the Playoff to allow our fear of COVID to cancel it.  We’ve made a commitment to ESPN, and we’re going to honor it. 

“In World War II, we knew that our nation’s young men would be at risk when we sent them overseas to do battle.  But we did it anyway, because the future of the free world was at stake.  The same goes for the College Football Playoff.  I think all Americans would agree that a world without a National Champion that is determined on the gridiron is not a world worth living in.  The ‘Greatest Generation’ in the United States stepped up to the plate 70 years ago, and now a new generation — this time, of student-athlete gladiators — is being asked to take their place. 

“Some of them may fall to the virus as they serve our country, but they will fall in glory.  I’m proud to announce that any player who succumbs to COVID during the Playoff — or within two weeks following the National Championship game — will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, as a result of an agreement reached last night between the NCAA, ESPN, and the U. S. Department of the Army.

“When high-revenue college sports and a pandemic collide, they bring out the best in all of us.”