"We usually think of Socrates as a fountain of reason, because he is known as the progenitor of what we call 'Socratic Method.' But look at what he says here: 'he knows he is right when his daimon doesn't tell him he's wrong.' That's a kind of god or spirit. In other words, Socrates knows he's ok because he isn't hearing any voices right now. But why should anyone else trust a daimon that only Socrates hears?"
It's Wednesday morning. I look out upon a sea of slumped bodies and gloomy faces. There are 44 students in class today, half of them sleeping, the other half writing down what I say on the off chance that it will make sense later. Gena, who sits in the third row, is drawing pictures of me, then tearing off the heads. I can hear each decapitation: Rrrrrrriiiippp!
It's always like this in my classes.
I'm sweating up here at the podium, wishing that I could be one of those funny professors who don't bore their students to death. If I were sitting out there instead of standing up here, I'd probably be ripping my head off, too.
"Let me put it this way," I say. "What's the difference between Socrates and any other dirty, wild-eyed guy who might harangue you on a street corner?"
I think this is a fascinating question, but my students clearly do not. I look down at my notes; a drop of sweat falls from my middle finger onto the page. It trickled all of the way down my arm to get there, unfettered by the sleeves of my silk blouse. I don't think anybody saw it drip--they're too far away. Though once, Margarita, who sits in the back row, held up a sign that said "You have a big booger sticking out of your nose." I ignored her, but when I checked after class in the bathroom mirror, there it was.
Albert, who pursues knowledge, or at least good grades, with the mechanical tenacity of an undergraduate whose shriveling heart is set on law school, raises his hand. He is the only student in the room who is actually wearing a tie. It's navy blue and matches the frames of his glasses.
"Isn't the difference between the two, is that Socrates is really searching for the truth?" he asks.
"Don't you think that street preachers and vendors of conspiracy theories also see themselves as truth-seekers?"
Albert looks at me like I've just asked the dumbest question he's ever heard, but the bell rings, signaling the end of class. I wonder if it saves him or me. I gather my books and lecture notes slowly, in case any students want to linger after class and ask questions. None of them do. I wait there until the room is empty.
The pile of torn-up paper under Gena's desk looks like a hamster's nest. I walk over and pick up one of my heads. She's done a pretty good caricature, drawing my thick glasses so that they look like magnifiers with googly eyes behind them and my cowlick so that it looks like a third ear humping out of my forehead. I'm kind of impressed. Gena probably gets much better grades in her art classes than she does in here.
After lecturing I usually walk to my favorite coffee shop. It's off-campus, just barely. I savor the illusion that I'm escaping the university and might never return, even though I always go back in time to hold my office hours. Unfortunately, today I see Dennis Cicero's gray hair and tweed jacket as soon as I walk through the door. He is sitting at a table near the counter, so there is no way I can pretend not to notice him. I have nothing against Dennis; it's just that the whole point of walking to Bean Juice is to avoid my fellow faculty members.
"Hey, Julia," Dennis raises his demitasse in greeting. "You have time to talk?"
"Great! Just let me get my caffeine." Young assistant professors--that's me--always have time to chat with grizzled, respectable, full professors who will be voting on our tenure in just a few short months. I'd probably ask the ambulance driver to stop and let me out if Dennis flagged it down as I went by.
"How was class today?" he asks, when I return with my double latte.
"Okay. Fine. Can't get them to care about Socrates and his gadfly-stinging-the-great-sleepy-horse-of-Athens-awake-so-it-can-learn routine. They nod. They write 'gadfly' in their notebooks. They ask me if this will be on the exam."
Dennis laughs and pushes his empty cup to edge of the table. "Not your fault," he says. "These kids, at least most of them, just don't reach for real intellectual discovery. I don't mean to be an Oxford snob, but it depresses me that most of the students are just here to get degrees on the way to their dot-com jobs. They just don't care about the deeper questions."
"Mmmph," I say. "You sound like Socrates." This makes the eighty-ninth time in two years that I've heard Dennis say he doesn't want to be an Oxford snob.
"He's my hero," he tells me, nodding. Now I laugh, which I regret right away because Dennis is totally serious. He leans forward and tilts his head just a tiny bit, the way he always does when he is about to express paternalistic interest in me.
"We all need heroes, Julia. Surely you have one?" Roseanne, I think, but this is not the answer he's looking for. I'm supposed to say Marx, or maybe Nietzsche. Dennis doesn't know anything about pop culture, so I tell him that I'm between heroes right now.
"Every year there are maybe," he says and taps his fingertips lightly against the table and rolls his eyes up and to the right as he thinks, as if he can see something written on the ceiling, "maybe three students who really dig in and pursue political philosophy, who send me email or come to my office hours even after the class ends. If only they would all learn to care that much."
"But those are probably the ones who end up going to grad school, Dennis."
"Not everyone can go to grad school," I remind him.
"No, I guess not. They wouldn't all get in," he says. Which is not what I meant.
That evening I call my sister, Lucy, to complain that my class is going terribly; my students are bored and sleeping and beheading me. Lucy can't identify with this at all, not only because she doesn't teach, but also because she is a charming person who couldn't bore an audience if she tried. It is 7:30. Lucy's voice over the phone is a bit muffled because, she says, she can't use her hands to clear her long black hair away from the receiver, which she is squeezing between her shoulder and her cheek--both the hair and the receiver--while she paints her toenails red. She's going out dancing tonight.
"It's Wednesday," I tell her when she invites me along. "I can't go out on Wednesday. I have to write a lecture for tomorrow morning." The truth is that I can't dance and have nothing I could possibly wear to the clubs she likes to go to. Lucy knows that, but she pretends to think she just has bad timing and that any day now I'm going to jump up and boogie.
"Do something different," she says.
"I really do have to write this lecture."
"No, in your class. You've gotta surprise them once in a while."
"Ooops. Fuck! How do you get nail polish out of rayon?"
"You've got to go now," I say.
"How did you know?"
So the next morning I give my lecture while wearing a pair of sproingy insect antennae on my head. They are part of a bumblebee costume from five Halloweens ago. I'm three sentences into my introduction to Machiavelli when Albert's hand shoots up. I ignore him.
" 'Virtú,' for Machiavelli, doesn't mean 'virtue' in the Christian sense of humility or generosity. It shares a root with the word 'virility,' and this is more like what Machiavelli has in mind, a sort of masculine strength, or excellence."
Albert begins to wave his arm wildly from side to side. Several of the usual sleepers are awake this morning, and Gena is sketching rapidly.
"Yes, Albert, what?"
"Why are you wearing those bug ears on your head?"
I smile at him. "Ask me tomorrow," I say, and I refuse to call on anyone else for the rest of the hour.
I make him wait for ten minutes before I call on him the next day.
"About the bug ears?"
"I don't think Machiavelli says anything in here about bug ears."
"Ha, ha. Why did you wear the antennae to class yesterday?"
A disgruntled murmur goes around the room. There are 49 students here today, which I think is a record. If every student on my class list actually showed up on the same day, there would be 60 of them.
"You did, too." Albert looks distressed.
"How do you know?" I ask this with a perfectly straight face, as if I'm trying to get him to locate a relevant passage in the text.
"We all saw you, Professor Leamer. I mean, come on."
I look around the room. I sigh theatrically. I tap a pen against the podium.
"How many of you think I wore antennae to class yesterday?" All hands go up, minus those that belong to students who missed yesterday morning's lecture.
"But how do you know?" I repeat.
"We all agree," says Albert. "We're all witnesses." Several other students nod. Gena chews on the end of her pen, frowning.
"Mmm. But if you all agreed on your math exam that two plus two equals five, you would all be wrong. The fact that all of you give the same answer doesn't make that answer correct."
"But this is different," Albert insists.
"Maybe," I say. "In what way?"
No hands go up. Some of the die-hards are still taking notes, just in case I'll put a question on the final exam that asks whether or not two plus two equals five if everyone says it does.
"Let's get back to the relationship between prudence and fortune in Machiavelli's text then. If you look at the first paragraph on page seventy . . ."
The bell rings, and the students file out a little more slowly than usual, but still none of them stop to talk. There is no paper under Gena's desk today, though, and this makes me happy.
That evening, just as I turn off my computer and get ready to go home, Dennis knocks on my office door. He's wearing a tweed jacket again, this one a slightly darker shade of brown than the one he wore on Wednesday.
"Do you have a few minutes?" he asks. I don't have any time at all. I'll miss the last bus if I don't leave in the next thirty seconds. But this is Dennis, so I say yes and hope I have enough money in my wallet to pay for a taxi. I invite him to sit down.
"We have a student in common, apparently," he says.
In addition to his tweed jackets, Dennis owns two corduroy jackets with elbow patches. One is beige and the other is gray. I know this because I take wardrobe inventory at faculty meetings when I get bored. It comforts me to think that I'm not the worst dressed professor on campus.
"One who cares enough to separate himself out from the herd and come talk to me once in a while."
Hmm. I can guess. "Would this be Albert?"
"He's made an impression on you, too, then."
"Oh," I say. "Definitely."
"Albert said he was confused by your class this week. He said that you wore a costume insect hat during your lecture yesterday and then denied it this morning. None of the students were sure what the point was supposed to be."
Dennis looks uncomfortable in his chair. It's a hard wooden chair, but I think his discomfort comes from the fact that this is the chair where my students usually sit during my office hours, whereas I am sitting in the symbolically more authoritative professorial chair.
"A little aporia never hurt anyone," I say, making one of those terrible academic inside jokes that I hate.
"Was there a point to the stunt, Julia? Please tell me that you aren't succumbing to a perceived demand for entertainment in the classroom. We're educators, not talk-show hosts." This makes the forty-fourth time in two years that I've heard Dennis say he's not a talk-show host.
"I hadn't been thinking about it in those terms. But don't you think it's worth it, if a little entertainment helps the medicine go down?"
"They'll never figure out that political philosophy is intrinsically valuable, inherently interesting, if you accede to their consumer mentality." Dennis's language gets stuffier when he's annoyed.
"You know, Dennis, I really don't think you need to worry about this. My class isn't usually any fun at all."
"Well, that's a relief," he says, with no hint of irony.
The taxi driver looks a lot like Dennis, only a little bit older and wearing clothes that Dennis wouldn't be caught dead in--jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. He wants to know if I work at the university. When I tell him that I teach political theory, he says he has several theories of his own.
"Take Roswell. What do you think about Roswell?"
"I'm not familiar with his work," I say. He scowls at me in the rear view mirror.
"The UFO cover-up, the desert--Roswell, for Christ's sake!"
"Oh. Right. I don't know much about that. I teach theories of . . .justice, for example. Political ideals."
The taxi smells like an ashtray. A sign on the dashboard informs me that my driver is Mel #22803.
"Well, it's my political ideal that the government doesn't get to hide aliens in the desert and then pretend they aren't there," he tells me. "What do you think about that?"
"Open and responsive government," I say. "An important democratic norm."
He glares at me in the rear view mirror. "Vague words, lady."
"Words that apply across many contexts."
"Yeah, whatever." He pulls up at the entrance to my apartment building. "Now here we are, so you don't get to hear my theory. Your loss. Six bucks."
I only have five in my wallet, so I tell him that if he drives me to a cash machine he'll have time to tell me his theory and will get a big tip for his trouble. "The nearest one's at Safeway," I say.
"You think I've been driving here for seventeen years and I don't know where the cash machines are?"
"Sorry. But, anyway, about Roswell."
"Like I don't know you're humoring me. Miss Professor. But I'll tell you anyways. Now, you know how lots of people think that these aliens have been here before? Like that's what Stonehenge was all about, and the pyramids?"
I don't, but I nod at him in the rearview mirror.
"Well I don't think so. I think these guys are new. I think they're our own guys who went out there and found somebody and got a little bit revamped before they came back, if you know what I mean."
He turns into the Safeway lot and lets me out. I get thirty dollars out of the machine, put the twenty in my wallet and the ten in my pocket. I'm too tired to humor taxi drivers this evening, but I take a deep breath and get back in the car.
"Revamped how?" I ask.
"Genetically altered. The Human Genome Project. Know why we're figuring the genome out now? They told us how to do it. If you look at the timing, you'll see. I'm writing a book about this."
"What's it called?"
"Imported Knowledge: Roswell and the Human Genome Project."
"That sounds very academic," I tell him.
"It's thoroughly documented. I've been researching this for twenty years. The taxi, that just pays the bills. This is my life's work."
"Why this?" I'm truly curious.
"How can you even ask? We're talking contact with the universe and the future of the human race, here. Are there any questions bigger than that?"
He pulls up in front of my building again. The meter says I owe him ten dollars, but I pay him fifteen.
"You ever see my book in the stores, you're gonna read it, right?" he asks.
It's 8:30 on a Friday evening, so Lucy is out. I leave a long message about Dennis and the taxi driver on her voice mail. I ask her what her life's work is. Then I mix myself a gin and tonic, watch a bad detective movie, and go to bed.
The phone wakes me up at nine a.m.
"Dancing," says Lucy.
"My life's work, oh, sleepy sister. To have as much fun as I can before I die. You might say I don't care about the big picture . . ."
"I wasn't going to say that." How is it possible that Lucy got up before I did this morning?
"Don't interrupt, oh Tedious One. Tell Dennis that if you take two steps back and think about science as well as politics, you realize that eventually the big bang will unbang itself and there will be nothing left of humanity at all, no posterity to leave things to. So life is dancing, and then you die."
"I don't think Dennis would be convinced!" I laugh.
"Well, fuck Dennis. What about you?"
"What's your life's work?"
I suddenly notice a smear of chocolate on my pillowcase. I don't remember eating chocolate in bed lately, but there you go.
"Julia?" Lucy asks.
"Yeah" I say. "Let me think about it."
On Monday morning I'm supposed to lecture on Rousseau, but I decide to ask my students some questions instead.
"What's the one thing you really want to learn before you leave this place? What do you want to get out of your four years in college?"
They stare at me blankly, but I wait them out.
Finally Eddie, one of three baseball-hat-wearing guys who sit together in the back row says, "I'm just here to get a degree so that I can get a job. I guess I want to learn how to make money." Several students laugh at this, some nodding in agreement.
"Okay." I say. "Anyone else?"
I wait again, until it is clear that the lecture won't begin unless they humor me with some answers.
Natalie raises her hand for the first time all semester. She sits in the front row, takes reams of notes, and does extremely well on the exams, but she has never, ever said anything before today.
"My dad has Alzheimer's," she says quietly, "even though he's only fifty-one." Students in the back strain forward to hear her. "I want to figure out how the brain works and what makes Alzheimer's happen. And then I want to figure out how to cure it. But I'm not going to learn that in four years."
"It's your life's work," I suggest.
The silence in the room feels different now. Even the guys in the back row look serious. Gena surprises me by raising her hand.
"I'm an art major," she tells the class. "I draw."
I can't help smiling at this, but she doesn't notice.
"I'm want to make pictures that can portray people's whole personalities, so that if you see my picture of somebody, you know what that person is like. Like maybe you can even guess what they would say if you ever met them." Students in the row behind her peer over her shoulder to see the sketches in her open notebook. They look disappointed.
A few other volunteers share their plans, but surprisingly, Albert doesn't.
Albert stops by my office that afternoon.
"I want to go to law school," he announces.
"Yes, I think you've mentioned that."
"But I don't know why I want to go. But I do, really, want to go."
I realize that this is only the second time I've asked Albert a question that he didn't think he could answer.
"That's okay, Albert. You don't have to know right this minute. You might not even figure it out until after you're done with law school." I can tell that this doesn't satisfy him. He frowns and wiggles the knot on his tie. Then he turns his attention to me.
"What about you?" he asks. "Do you have a big goal that you're working toward right now?"
"Not exactly," I say. I smile, hoping he'll go away, but he waits. At least he has learned one thing from my class this year--interrogation technique.
"I should probably say something about teaching, and how I am trying to figure out how to get all of you passionately interested in Locke and Rousseau," I tell him.
He rolls his eyes at this and says, "But the truth is?"
"I'm a collector. I collect questions."
"Hmm," he says.
This is not the answer he expected. It's not the answer I expected, either. He steps over to the door to leave, but then he turns back.
"One other thing. Why did you wear the antennae to class that day?"
I smile at him. Poor Albert. Surely he must know what's coming.
"I didn't," I say.