In my first year of graduate studies at Elite National University, I learned to adjust to quirky instructors, but I had a continuing struggle with the director of the freshman composition program, "Dr. Dreedle." I met him at an orientation for new TA's on the Friday before we first taught. I got to the room and took a seat before anyone else had arrived because I wanted to make a good impression. After a few moments the door opened and in strode an elegantly dressed, elderly male who announced, "I am Dr. Dreedle." I said, "Hi." (Editor's Note: Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series are online.)
"Don't you know enough to shake hands and introduce yourself?" he replied.
I leapt up and shook hands, but I thought: Oh, no. It's Kingsfield in the flesh.
Since my undergraduate days hadn't exposed me to doctoral studies, I based my understanding of graduate school on that old movie, The Paper Chase, which features John Houseman as Charles Kingsfield, a cold, distant law professor who begins the semester by telling students that their skulls are full of mush. Clearly I'd blundered in my first meeting with his counterpart at Elite National U.
After the orientation session began, Dr. Dreedle said, "In the first-year composition program, we dedicate ourselves to fighting grade inflation." He explained that for each essay assignment we had to fill out a chart to show how many of each grade we gave. "The chart should form a bell curve," he said. "Give no more than one or two A's per assignment."
One of my fellow graduate students, "Sandra," raised her hand. She'd taught in an elementary school and asked, "Our students won't like that system, will they?"
"What they like doesn't matter," Dr. Dreedle replied. "At Elite National University, we give them what they deserve."
Definitely Kingsfield, I thought. Dreedle wore a thin mask of a cultured gentleman, but beneath his perfect suit and tie there lurked an angry contempt. As the afternoon wore on, I included arrogance in his character sketch, and delight in power, since he was the director of the composition program. I cast myself as the protagonist of The Paper Chase. I was James Hart, a first-year law student in the movie who attempts to win the professor over. Hart fails to do so, but he was dealing with a professor of law, while I faced a professor of English. Given the difference, surely I could outdo Hart.
Dr. Dreedle taught a course that beginning TA's were required to take in which he practiced the pedagogy of ego crushing. One day he began class by saying, "You people could never compete with the graduate students of a generation ago." One of the few times he discussed teaching, he gave this advice: "Once a week, refer to something your students don't know. It reminds them that yours is the superior intellect." He followed his own advice in our classroom. Every week he would ask us a question about a book we hadn't read. When no one could answer, he'd say, "Every serious student reads that before coming to graduate school."
His shaming behavior gave me a chance to redeem myself. The next time Dreedle mentioned a should-have-read, I got my hands on a copy and consumed it. I wanted him to praise me, of course, so just before the next class, I said casually, "Over the weekend I read The Education of Henry Adams. It's great. Thanks for suggesting it." Dreedle said only, "Oh," and began class.
One day I asked "Marcus," an advanced student in the program, to tell me about Dreedle.
"Kiss his rear," said Marcus, "and he'll let you live."
"I figured that out on my own."
Marcus thought for a moment. "There's a rumor he used to be a professional wrestler."
I laughed at the idea of a masked, caped Dreedle stomping around a wrestling ring and bellowing outrageous claims. When I thought about the professor's alpha-male teaching style, however, I wondered how much distance there was between the Director of First-Year Comp and, say, the Masked Crusher.
"Did he really do that?" I asked.
"If you'd been a pro wrestler, would you go to grad school?" Marcus faked a yawn. "In English?"
I liked the idea of Dreedle as the Masked Crusher, but I gave up on it and sought other ways to impress him. Once when he was getting into an elevator, I dashed to join him. When the ride began, I made conversation by talking about an undergrad professor who had influenced me.
Dr. Dreedle said, "You should write a letter and tell him."
The horror of adding yet one more task to my load must have registered on my face, but I said, "That's a good idea. I'll do that."
As the elevator door opened and Dr. Dreedle stepped out, he mumbled, "No, you won't."
I dashed to my apartment and wrote that letter, but afterward I could hardly say to Dreedle, "I wrote to my former professor. Now you have to be impressed."
One afternoon I went to the university library to do a little research on Dreedle. I expected that a professor nearing retirement at Elite National University would have a lengthy list of publications, but I found only a few dated, ho-hum articles about obscure poets. His articles were much easier to comprehend than the writing of my other professors, however, which, for some reason, made me feel confident that I could impress him if only I tried harder.
I tried once again when a student in one of my sections of freshman comp asked me about the absence policy. The syllabus seemed clear: Miss a certain number of times and your grade drops a full letter; miss more and you fail. But my student noted that that particular policy was for arts and sciences, whereas he had enrolled in engineering, which had stricter guidelines. Which policy applied to him?
I figured I could show my conscientiousness as a TA by running my student's question past Dr. Dreedle. "We hold all students to our standard," he snapped. "You'd know that if you bothered to check the undergraduate catalog."
I wanted to slap my forehead and say, "Oh, I forgot to memorize the undergraduate catalog." I come from the Midwest, however, so I only apologized and retreated.
After class that day I asked my colleague Sandra, "What do you know about Dr. Dreedle?"
"One day in the lounge he did a Cary Grant imitation," she said. "He was terrible."
We laughed at the idea of Dreedle as a romantic lead in a movie. I asked, "Have you ever seen Paper Chase?"
Sandra's eyes went wide. "Kingsfield," she exclaimed. "Yes, yes, Kingsfield!" We roared together as we recalled Hart's many attempts to impress his professor.
One day, my own personal Kingsfield surprised me. As I was walking behind Dr. Dreedle down the hall and toward a stairway next to the English lounge, the professor opened the door to the lounge and gestured inside.
"Thanks," I said, "but I'm going down the stairs."
"No you're not," he announced. "You're going in here."
I walked obediently into the English lounge. "How is 'Juan' doing?" Dr. Dreedle asked. Juan was a quiet guy who didn't mingle with the rest of the graduate students. I said, "I don't know. He isolates himself."
"Make sure that Juan doesn't drop out," said Dr. Dreedle. "Befriend him. See that he attends social functions. Have other students invite him to dinner."
I suspect that my jaw dropped. Dr. Dreedle didn't ask if I would help; he assumed I would, just as he assumed that a first-year TA had the time to take on a project like Juan. At the same time, however, I felt surprised that a notoriously callous professor wanted to rescue a student in trouble. More important, Dreedle trusted me enough to give me the mission. I said, "I'd be glad to help Juan."
So I set out to help my self-isolating colleague. On several occasions I tried chatting with Juan, but his only interest in the world was a handful of contemporary poets I'd never heard of, so our conversations went nowhere. Whenever grad students held a party, I made sure that Juan knew about it, but he never showed up. I annoyed students who cooked by hinting that they might invite Juan to dinner, but none did. Once I bumped into him off the campus, and he invited me to his apartment for coffee. When we got there, he discovered he was out of coffee, so he handed me a single pecan from a jar of mixed nuts, after which I went home.
At the end of the academic year, the English department held a banquet, and Juan actually attended. I felt responsible for this miracle. As people milled about during the cocktail hour, I worked my way through the crowd to Dr. Dreedle, who was chatting with Sandra and several other students. When I got close, I observed, "I see that Juan came."
Unexpectedly, Dreedle announced, "I'd like to buy a drink for my deserving graduate student."
Me? His deserving graduate student? I opened my mouth to thank him, but Dr. Dreedle took Sandra's arm and said, "Excuse us, Adams."
So even though Dreedle handed me an opportunity, I failed to win over my own personal Kingsfield. Unlike Hart, however, I won a small victory. At the end of The Paper Chase, after all their adventures, Kingsfield isn't even sure of Hart's name. At least Dr. Dreedle remembered mine.