The other day, while teaching my 8:00 am class, I began to write “architect” on the board but stumbled. Maybe my coffee had not kicked in yet. I was also terribly exhausted from giving evening lectures the night before. I stared at the board, my hand holding the marker, and the letters I had already written: a and r. I could not remember how to spell “architect”! It was a Dan Quayle-esque moment (you remember the “potatoe” incident, yes?) Paralyzed I turned to my students and asked “What am I missing?” Oh the humanity! Three or four students chimed in to spell it out while my brain remained in a funk. The caffeine-gods had definitely forsaken me. This was only the beginning, for I made two more gaffes that week which involved embarrassing confusion and a joke that came out all wrong and potentially offensive. Eeek!
We all make gaffes but some of us recover from them better than others. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I give three 2hour lectures, and on Wednesdays I give two 2hour lectures so the odds are not in my favor in the gaffe department. When I’ve spoken to other teachers and professors they always have their own moments to share. They range from fresh coffee stain on the front of the shirt, unaware of a belt unbuckled, making statements that were seemingly intelligent in the mind but came out sounding horrible to mispronouncing hors d’oeuvre.
One of my all time wondering-why-god-had-done-this-to-me moment was a few months ago when I rushed to get to school and spilled a full container of water in my car that created a pool in my bucket seat. I was already running late so I sat in the water for the 30 minute drive. When I stepped out of my car my pants looked like….well it wasn’t good. On top of that, the entrance to my classroom was at the back, so I needed to pass all of the desks to reach the front of the room. I stood at the back of the room and began my sad explanation: “Everyone, I have an announcement.”
Students are sometimes in awe of the awkwardness of professors and I think I know why this is. You see, as an academic we are drawn to reading and researching, an essentially solitary affair. The kicker is that when you are good at it, then for a living you must stand in front of people (you, the students and other academics at conferences) to present your knowledge. Chances are most of the professors you encounter are introverted, which is exactly the sort of disposition that led them into academia and teaching in the first place. This is certainly the case for me. Indeed, this is how you’ll find me in my natural element:
Given the number of hours I spend standing in front of people and speaking, my gaffes are inevitable. One day I hope to be able to brush them off with more grace instead of toiling over them as I rock back and forth hugging my knees…okay, it’s not that bad.
So, dear students, when professors have their moments, be gentle. Don’t get too snarky. Help them out. We’re only human.