Code of Silence

A wonderful British prof is teaching the animal physiology unit of the intro bio course I TA for.  Unfortunately, he is away for the first week of classes; as such, one our coordinators is covering lecture for him until he returns. Now, the prof has a highly effective policy about cell phones in lecture.  If yours goes off, you stand up and sing.  For the whole class.
He has an old English song about crows on a wall that he teaches people, but our coordinator figured she’d leave that particular ditty to him.  But she was adamant about upholding the cell phone policy (and warned our 100 plus students about it on day one).  She said that until our prof returns, she’d let them choose what song they wanted to sing.  If they were unable to think of something suitable, she humbly suggested “My Milkshake.”
I figured that threat would be enough to instill proper cell phone etiquette in our undergraduate populous – but I was very wrong.  On Friday, a girl in the front row had her cell ring and god bless our coordintor who, without missing a beat, turned right around from the blackboard and said, “OK, stand up!”
So the girl gets up.  Pauses.
Coordinator (encouragingly): …. my milkshake….
Mortified Undergraduate: …brings all the boys to the yard…
Coordinator (gesturing for her to go on): … and they’re like…?
Mortified Undergraduate: It’s better than yours?
Coordinator: Damn right, it’s better than yours.
And she went right back to teaching.  It was pretty great 🙂

The Peanut Gallery

Today was my first day of the semester attending lecture as a TA.  This will be the fourth time I’ve taught discussion for this introductory biology course, and it’s always an adventure.  The class is huge, and growing by the year.  Walking into the lecture hall today, it was already chock full of pre-meds with a GPA blood lust and sophomores already exemplifying their title.

I was lucky enough to sit down right in front of a choice specimen.  This lad was a classic cocksure Bro, providing almost unceasing commentary to his companion as the course faculty and coordinators made their introductory remarks.  It seems that he had taken the first half of this two-semester biology sequence last Fall, and was helping to… orient… his friend, apparently one of those rogue students who join up only for part two.  As one of the lecture faculty stood up front reviewing course policies, the speaker – let’s call him The Scientist, since he has clearly already absorbed so much delicate wisdom from his first fifteen weeks of biology education – the Scientist distilled this nugget of insight for his friend:

“The thing you’ll learn pretty quick about this course is that the people who run it SUCK.”

Eloquently put, sir.  I’m sure you speak with all the unbiased authority and carefully considered interpretation with which your scientific training has equipped you.

And, like any good researcher, he did provide evidence to support his claims:

“That guy – he sends the most annoying emails. They all end in ‘cheers’. What the hell does that even mean?”

Now, I had to furrow my brown at that one.  Given that “Cheers” is frequently uttered when consuming alcohol, may easily be listened to on YouTube, and is clearly disambiguated on Wikipedia – all contexts and sources with which I’m sure our erudite Scientist is quite familiar – I struggled to believe his confusion.  Though perhaps in his complexity I misunderstood him.

Or perhaps he was merely employing what the social linguists call “sarcasm.”  For his remarks soon began to stray from the “informative” to the “entertaining”.  For instance, when the lecturer remarked on surprising genetic evidence that suggests early humans and Neanderthals interbred, our Lab-Tech-in-Motley snorted, nudged his friend and said,

“Oh right, like HE’S never had sex in a cave!”

Indeed.  And so it was that the witty ripostes from just behind my head turned from summative remarks about course dynamics to insightful suggestions about human behavioral ecology.  Obviously invoking echoic rhetoric for dramatic effect, the Scientist later remarked in response to a coordinator’s plea for lecture-hall civility,

“Hahaha, like he’s never jerked off in class.  This is a joke.”

Surprised by that one?  It’s not a behavior I’ve ever documented.  We’ll have to trust the Scientist’s own meticulous notes on such practices in indigenous undergraduate lecture halls.

I certainly did not have a chance to inquire further.  Because not long after that remark, it was time to introduce the teaching assistants.  And one by one, they each stood up and said their name and their section, gave a wave to the room and sat back down.  I was the last to stand up – and it was well worth the wait.  The look of horror plastered over the face of the next great mind of our generation as I identified  myself as a discussion TA was well worth it.  As I sat down I turned to smile at him.  His poor friend looked mortified.

The last remark I heard him make as I turned back around to my notes was a hushed, disgruntled, “Next time we shouldn’t sit so close to the TAs…”

Cheers, I’ll drink to that.

The Commute

My father is a man of the cloth – at least, that’s his day job.  By night, he’s an Eddie-Izzard-quoting, transcendentalist-reading, philosophical omnivore who would never be caught dead in any characterization of earnest Christianity.  But this is neither here nor there.  Only three things are relevant: First, that the church is crazy, always has been, always will be. Second, our nation’s economy ain’t so hot, and at least where dad’s working, Jesus doesn’t have deep pockets.  Third, commuting sucks, especially for people who aren’t, shall we say, morning persons. 

Interlude: The Waking Dichotomy

Throughout the years, I have found that with regard to waking up in the morning, there are two kinds of people (and, like Ken Robinson, I am the one of Bentham’s two types who divide the world into two types of people. 2:50 in the video).  

First there are the Switch People, who turn on like light bulbs when morning happens and getting up is what’s on the schedule.  They live in a very simple pattern of states: on, off, on, off, repeat.  I’ve spent time with these curious creatures, and even saw one romping around a hotel room singing show tunes at the top of her lungs despite the obscene pre-6-oclock hour and the previous night’s 10 hour bus ride from our high school in Connecticut to Toronto, Canada.  It was time to wake up, so she was awake.  Baffling. 

Then there are the people like me.  We do not wake up with the flick of a switch.  We’re more what you’d call Old Lawn Mower People.  First you have to tug the chain and listen to the ugh-gh-gh-gh sound for a while.  Then the motor will die.  And you have to tug the chain again, this time enduring the ungent grinding of some inconceivable mechanism plundering away in the beast’s rusty innards.  There will inevitably be cursing, erratic spasms, groaning and finally – grudgingly – movement.  Coffee will be required.  That’s more my style. 

And, to return to my story, I come by that style quite honestly. So my dear father, valiantly pushing through this AM ritual, trying desperately to mow the lawn of his early morning professional life, fought his way through the phases of daybreak.  Shower, quick breakfast, suit, tie, car keys.  And so, blearily, he began the trek to an institution rife with financial angst and spiritual strangeness.

I tell you all of this to frame one simple, delightful fact: He made it a full half hour before realizing the reason the gas pedal felt odd was that he was still wearing his bedroom slippers.  

And may God bless all ye Switch folk and ye Old Lawn Mower folk, and keep ye well rested, well loved, and well shod.