It’s been a little more than a year since I was supposed to show up for my first day of grad school. Had I gone down that road, I would have endured by now a waiting period of one year, then I’d be up for another; then however many years it took to put together a substantial reflection on reflections on the work of William of Ockham (d. 1347) to get my PhD. After all that, I could finally decide what kind of professor I’d want to be. In my experience, there are basically three types of professors.

The first type, who often teaches something funky (by 80’s standards), is an exhibitionist. She’s bored by the “classroom experience,” and knows—in some sterile academic way—that it does no favors to her subject, so she dances and yells in front of her students. She plays tricks on their minds. Her goal is to teach a memorable class, meaning to get her students to remember her, so really, she teaches nothing. She might even say, out loud, that she learns just as much from her students as they learn from her.

A young man in her class is disgusted by this infantilization. What are his parents paying for? 20 years old, strong, with an on-and-off girlfriend he’d like to pin down, here he is, watching an old woman dance and yell. He’s never heard of Deleuze and wouldn’t like him if he had. So he skips class when he can, sits still when he can’t, and calculates the bare minimum of effort needed to get the grade he wants. Looking at him, you might say he’s depressed, but he does his best to avoid that diagnosis, unless, of course, it’s convenient for his truancy. His depression, or whatever it is, gets worse every time he writes a heartfelt letter of apology.

The second type is a reactionary. The New Waves of the previous century didn’t impress him (or don’t impress him, if he’s young enough to only have read about them), and so he’s regressing more and more to Victorian standards of pedagogy. He stands at the front of the class, trained gestures and all, and dictates a preposterous amount of information to supplement the preposterous amount of reading he’s assigned. If the students can’t keep up, or don’t want to, too bad; survival of the fittest! The words come first; the interpretation can come later, when the kids get a grip on themselves.

A pretty brunette in his class is shocked by this brutality. What are her parents paying for? There’s nothing she can change here, nothing she can do, except impress the professor, who seems to have impossibly high standards, and anyway isn’t that impressive himself. So, in pursuit of a higher purpose, she grubs for grades. This class is just a means to an end, after all, so she’ll put up with his degrading rituals and visit him during office hours to beg for mercy. If that doesn’t work at first, she has the institution behind her, all the more so because she genuinely does “feel uncomfortable” in her professor’s presence, since the professor knows, in the back of his mind, that this pretty young brunette is asking him for something without offering anything in return.

The third type of professor is the most sympathetic. Younger than the other two, or more perceptive, he’s come to accept the decline of teaching and the growth of the institution as a fact of life. He doesn’t look for ways of getting around it; he’ll do what he wants, pedagogy be damned, and offer up the subject he’s supposed to love to anyone, student or colleague, who might take a passing interest in it. This is by far the easiest type to blow off or to grub grades from. I myself, without knowing, counted some real coups on professors like that in my day! Their consciousness comes at a price—their conscience—and so they sink deeper and deeper into a non-clinical depression of their own, as each new generation of students proves worse than the last. What are their parents paying for?

This was my experience in the social sciences. I don’t claim to know what happens in the hard sciences, with their massive auditorium classes, or in whatever the humanities are supposed to be nowadays, though I’d be interested to learn how students and professors disappoint each other there, too.

Disappointment: that’s the prevailing emotion on campus today (or it was yesterday, before the campus closed; all of this is an anachronism; the present situation is actually much worse). Every word and picture of propaganda, whether made to beg parents and alumni for money or to pat academics on the back for their noble sacrifice, is devoted to maintaining the illusion of a collegiate atmosphere that no longer exists. The few marks of its historical existence—plaques, mottos, common buildings, songs and so on—are converted into museum pieces, managed either by the institution or by ad hoc groups of the worst kind of students: the kind with 4.0s and three-page resumés, who don’t even need depression or anxiety to function. The content of such symbols never grows, only shrinks, but the authority the institution invests in them, and so the manufacturing of a “college experience,” grows perpetually. This is the academic bubble that sensitive people, whom nobody would have called Philistines fifty years ago, have been waiting to burst. Then after it does: what? Trade schools? Go to Hell!

Yes, I am pessimistic. You can’t be anything else when your scope is as narrow as mine is here. The simultaneous infantilization and brutalization of young people—who find themselves utterly superfluous in an institution whose primary concerns seem to be rape, suicide, and preservation of historic monuments—is a process inherent to the university, not even “as we know it.”  There’s no way out but down. As temporary measures, I could suggest that professors become guerilla nepotists, assigning grades on force of personality (or, preferably, at random); I could suggest that students, who see the unspeakable void of the future opening underneath them, realize that their professors also see that void, indeed live in it, and expect nothing more or less from them than they would from a personal friend, or else a personal enemy. I can suggest these things because I no longer stake my career on preventing them from happening, and—barring an unforeseeable capitulation—will never get the chance to. But I can understand not being able to suggest these things, or even to imagine them, and I can see no obvious way for them to become imaginable.

That’s why I never did show up for grad school, even if I didn’t know that then. Instead, I spend my time literally flipping burgers (is this what I was so afraid of?!) and reading the sentence “the material basis of communism now exists” over and over again. It’s a better use of my time, I think, than to be a hopeless eminence, looking out the window and saying “but with the kids these days…”