Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Next Week Game

            In graduate school, I had to take an American Literature course that I was interested in, but, as it turned out, the professor was not.  Perhaps he had grown tired of teaching or bored with the standard works on the syllabus, or perhaps he had other distractions, but he never made it through the three hour seminar. Each week, after making a half-hearted effort to cover the usual literary elements, such as symbols or characters or clichés like “half-hearted,” he would conclude, "It’s pretty self-explanatory.  Any questions?"  When he said, "For next week...," we knew we would be outside within seconds.
            At some point, as we filled our coffee mugs before class, someone said, "I bet we're done by 6:15" and when another replied, "Or even six," The Next Week game was born.  A half dozen of us would put money into a pool and pick the time we thought the class would end.  From then on, the seminar became much more interesting.
            Like gamblers at a racetrack, each week we would discuss what we thought were the key elements to consider.  What did the day's reading involve?  Was it close to his specialty?  What was the weather?  Was something happening in his personal life that might make him want to go home or avoid going home?  Some of us would wait to pick a time until he came down the hall, hoping to distinguish something in his posture, facial expression, or gait.  (It was, in a way, a practical analysis and application of setting, character, and motivation.)
            I was good at The Next Week Game.  I seemed to sense which days he would end exceptionally early and when he would seem to have resolved to stay a respectable length of time. I even became a little scared by my prowess.  Did I have a special insight into this seemingly burnt-out professor?  If so, what did that say about me?
            As the term progressed, we developed a code.  No questions could be asked which would deliberately prolong the class.  In fact, no questions should be asked at all.  We would sit in silence and look back and forth between the professor, our watches, and the list of bets that each of us had copied.  Of course, thanks to our behavior, classes were let out earlier and earlier.
            Then, one day, I found myself conflicted.  It was a sunny crisp afternoon, so most of us had bet on a particularly early dismissal.  No one would want to stay indoors on such a day.  Except  . . . I did.  I had found the assigned reading fascinating, and I wanted to hear people's ideas about it.  When the professor said, "Any questions?," I felt torn.  I didn't want to violate the unspoken rules of the game, but, yes, I did have a question.  A lot of them.  People began packing their bags, and then, just before the professor said, "For next week. . ." I spoke.  "There was something I was wondering about," I said.  My classmates turned to me in disbelief.  This was an unsporting tampering.
            I wish I could say that we ended up having the best class of the term, that we had a deep, meaningful exchange which crackled with enthusiasm, but that didn't happen.  It was far too late to change the dynamic.  Classes like cakes become set after a while. I asked my questions, but even the one or two people who had read the material didn't want to discuss them.  After a painful few extra minutes, the professor let us go.
            Outside, my colleagues confronted me:  "What were you doing?  You screwed up the game."  Some were convinced I had engaged in a deliberate ploy.  For a moment, I felt a surge of anger and frustration.  I felt like reminding them we weren't spending thousands of dollars for a chance to win six bucks a week. We were there for an education, and maybe we were going to have to insist upon it.  If he didn’t feel like teaching us, for whatever reason, we would have to teach ourselves.  I felt like being sarcastic and saying, "Excuse me for wanting to learn something.  I don't know what I was thinking."  But I also realized this sudden shift to righteousness would be ridiculous. Instead, I shrugged.
            "Sorry," I said.
            The next week we played the game again.  The professor looked at me when he asked if there were any questions; I stayed silent.

1 comment:

  1. Fortunately, I've never had a prof like this, but I can name a few subjects for which I wish I had one like this!