Did I ever tell you about the upside down pyramid guy? No? I thought not. Well, here goes--it's a bit mean spirited but he has been did for years and I doubt there is anybody within light years of this blog who will be able to identify him.
So this is the deal: he taught medieval history in a night school. Actually, he had a regular tenured appointment; why exactly he kept on handling night classes, I have no idea. It may (or may not) have had something to do with the fact that he was a drunk. Or so I was told, and it never occurred to me to doubt it it, until, perhaps this moment.
I never saw him drunk or even the least bit giggly except once at a party when a lot of us were giggly. What I did see was that he was scandalously unprepared. I mean in the narrow sense of going over his class notes before class. This I do know because he would begin each evening session the same way: where were we last time? A tentative voice would say: uh, you left Charles Martel on the battlefield at Tours, sir.He would say: oh yes!
But get this part: then he'd be off and running. He'd lecture for a straight 75 minutes. And they were some of the most entertaining and informative lectures I ever heard. Insightful and anecdotal in balance, funny and wry with a bleak but gentle irony. And more important, all tightly morticed at the joints. It was like there was one of those old fashioned reel-to-reel tape jobbies (this was about 1962), and once you got it rolling, you could marvel over the fact that there wasn't a scratch on it.
Discussion? Hah in your dreams. Questions? Well, he didn't like it, but he he would field them if necessary. But in class only: eager beaver that I was, I once tried to pester him out of class for some followup. After two or three sentences, he simply turned his back on me and disappeared into his office. I guess that might have been a time when I suspected that the drunk stories had something to them.
Aside from the not-many-questions stuff, there was one giveaway to the heart of his routine. Every so often he would say "along about 1923, there was a terrific controversy among scholars on this point. Two or three episodes of this and it sank into you: he hadn't read anything new in his field in more than 40 years--which is to say, since just about the time he would have finished his coursework for his PhD.
Was he a good teacher? Surely not by most standards. All passive learning, all critically slack. I remember another history course around the same time where we had to work with original documents, make judgments, offer supporting arguments, yikes. The thing is, you can't really say he was a bad teacher either. Otherwise, would I be telling his story after 40 years?