The following vignette came to me as I was thinking about the situation I blogged on Friday. It should be no surprise that I was once in a similar situation as those students.
I started off my college career at Tennessee Tech University as a psychology major. I was taking the Honors Psychology intro course as a freshman, with about a dozen other students. Prof. Linda Giesbrecht-Bettoli was my professor. I was sitting at the big square table around which we met, chatting with a friend who had missed the previous class. She was asking me what we had gone over. I told her we had started talking about Freudian theory, like for example how some people supposedly express repressed sexual feelings through the kinds of food they eat and so on. “It’s all just a bunch of bull****,” I told her.
A few minutes later class started. Dr. Bettoli — a woman of slight build but intense intellect — walked in, put her notes down, and said very clearly and very quietly: “I just want to say, before we begin today, that nothing I say is bull****.” There were about two seconds of silence, during which time my preconscious mind (h/t Freud) kicked in and realized that the door to the main hallway had been open just before class while I was chatting; that I was talking kind of loudly; and that Dr. Bettoli had walked by. Then my stomach fell through the floor. Then the two seconds were up, and we started class. What that class was about, I have no idea, but I have never forgotten the five minutes leading up to and including that moment.
Dr. Bettoli didn’t call me, personally, on the carpet either in public or in private. And I never apologized to her, although I should have. But I did learn not to take the expertise of my professors so lightly. Maybe Freudian theory is actually bull****, but if I think so I had better have a very good case made, and not rest on the unique kind of uninformed quasi-intellectual cynicism that all freshmen, including yours truly, are doomed to possess instead of intelligence for at least a semester or so. (I changed my major to math after my sophomore year, but I kept psychology as a minor and Dr. Bettoli was a great support to me after I redeemed my duncehood.)
Moral of the story: Everybody does something stupid at least once in their lives to people who don’t deserve it and who can really make your life miserable because of it. But the right combination of firmness and mercy can make it all turn out for the good.