Dr. David Kenneth Johnson teaches philosophy at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He has published numerous philosophical essays and fictional dialogues as book chapters and in the journals Methodologia; Cybernetics and Human Knowing; Capitalism, Nature, Socialism; Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines; Radical Teacher; and The Mind’s Eye. He lives in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.
Greg Lawson pulled back his coat sleeve to check the time. It was 7:35, twenty-five minutes before his first class of the day. A thin layer of snow concealed the icy sidewalk below, forcing him to take short, flat-footed steps to avoid losing ground with each shuffle forward. The snow was just ending – or perhaps beginning, there was no way to know for sure -- with the occasional snowflake adding imperceptibly to the waist-high drifts engulfing the strip of townhouses leading up to the College. Focusing on an unnaturally large flake, he seemed able to slow its fall. He enjoyed the illusion and imagined that he could dodge each one if he had the energy or inclination. But he had neither.
Greg crossed a stretch of unbroken snow between two buried rows of uniform hedges to the side-entrance of Ramsey Hall, home to Carrington State College’s Division of Natural Sciences. Framed by two leggy hemlocks, the heavy steel door was always unlocked, its rusted deadbolt serving as a permanent doorstop. His office was located on the far side of what had come to be known as simply the “Big Room,” a combination student lounge/faculty meeting area sporting an eclectic set of lime-green vinyl couches, a microwave oven, several folding metal chairs, a large, oval conference table, and an automated coffee/hot chocolate machine that, for fifty cents, spurted coffee-flavored hot chocolate or semi-sweet coffee. His door was decorated with a set of faded clippings depicting the foibles and ironies of academic life, a small erasable white board, long-abandoned in the absence of markers or erasers, and a plastic nameplate with reflective, stick-on letters that read, “G. Lawso, Biology,” the shadow of old glue marking the place where “n” used to be. Reaching for the lock, he dropped his keys on a black rubber mat, the sole remaining possession from his divorce settlement of nine years ago. The keys came to rest on the image of a log cabin stamped above the words “Welcome to our Happy Home.” After bending down to retrieve them, he knew that he was due for an unscheduled finger test.
The glucometer read 56. “What do you know!” he said, his hypoglycemia confirmed yet pleased at having guessed 75. For years he had been challenging himself, during the 30 seconds the device took to perform its calculations, to guess his blood glucose within 20 points. This was the first time in several weeks that his guess had fallen within the proper range. He sat at his desk, fumbling through the top drawer for a glucose tablet, sending one to the floor. Shifting his weight to retrieve it, he felt something crush beneath his heel. He briefly considered scraping the dust from the bottom of his shoe into his coffee mug, but noticed two tablets partially buried in a collection of pennies and paperclips. They were watermelon-flavored, a birthday gift from his ex-wife. The taste was not entirely unlike that failed union; an odd mix of sweet and sour with the unpleasant aftertaste of old money.
Greg switched on the computer, wondering if he would beat it to full consciousness. There really wasn’t much he could do in these moments of relative fog but wait. His monitor sat atop an annotated edition of Karl Marx’s Das Capital with a slim biography of Anton Chekhov wedged in to achieve the proper angle for viewing. A fitting role, he thought, for these vestiges from graduate school, Marx’s weighty tract on the economic base of society now a foundation for his monitor. He was for a brief time in graduate school attracted to Marx’s early, humanistic writings and could often be found, especially among those innocent of the basic vocabulary of the debate, waxing philosophical about alienated labor and the fetishism of commodities. It offered immediate, if spurious, access to the world of ideas -- a world to which he now, at least in title, belonged. He made a mental note, lost forever within moments, to reduce his morning dose of insulin. A diabetic for over twenty years, he no longer resented his body for so failing him. Still, the scene left him feeling slightly disgusted. “Well, that was fun,” he thought aloud.
Greg picked up two quarters from his desk drawer, stood up slowly entered the Big Room. He was surprised to see that he was not alone. “Good morning, Vivian,” he said to no visible effect. “I hope I haven’t been talking up a storm in there.”
“I thought you were on the phone,” she said without looking up.
“No. Just a minor diabetic reaction to a dusting of snow,” he explained. Greg thought he detected a singular up-and-down nod in reaction to this minor confession, but couldn’t be sure. He preferred to speak only with his doctor about his condition and, in a slightly less imperfect world, he’d probably skip those conversations, too. It was likely that Vivian, though habitually unresponsive, shared the general public’s unease about such personal matters. Even those closest to him, including his ex-wife in her more agreeable moments, could exhibit a certain visible impatience with the subject, making him feel as though he were demanding undeserved attention or sympathy.
Looks like we’re both running a bit late for class,” he said, the thought of being late making his stomach jump slightly, the way it does in his recurring dreams of falling or innocently leaping off tall buildings. He wasn’t sure why he felt this way, since no one seemed to care whether he showed up to class at all. In fact, despite the heavy costs of attending college, his students freely expressed their displeasure whenever he arrived late, but within the ten-minute grace period conventionally allowed a tardy professor.
“I hope you remembered to make those copies for me,” Greg said, rifling through a collection of loose papers on a shelf above the copy machine. In addition to faithfully occupying the first seat in the first row of several of his introductory classes, Vivian Archer had been his sole work-study student – a less descriptive title he couldn’t imagine – for the past three semesters. She sat balanced on the front edge of a metal folding chair tipped back against the side of the hot chocolate/coffee machine, mouth ajar and eyes narrowed, reading from a notebook positioned impossibly close to her face. Greg dropped his fifty cents into the slot and pushed a large red button labeled “coffee/cream and sugar.”
He looked down on her small, round head. Her shoulder-length black hair originated in an inch or so of canary yellow roots bordering a narrow strip of flesh dividing her head neatly in two. Large flakes of dandruff decorated her shoulders, like snow that refused to melt. She wore her usual black sweater with matching jeans and slip-on sneakers. Nothing stood out about her except the obvious intention never to stand out, to choose clothes and hair that blended with the shadows. Perhaps, Greg thought, she resisted speaking when spoken to for similar reasons.
“I assume that’s the Blackwell essay you’re reading” he said.
More silence. It was possible, he thought, that Vivian saw this remark for the trick it was -- not really a question but a declaration posing as one. The essay, a new addition to Greg’s syllabus designed in part to satisfy the Dean’s College-wide “Multiperspectival Initiative,” recounted the experiences of America’s first woman medical doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell. Earlier that year, Dean Frank Fowley, obviously a fan of Marx himself, had gently instructed the department chairs to modify their syllabi to reflect a more equitable mix of “dominant paradigms” and readings from the standpoint of “marginalized or oppressed others.” After surveying several articles from the Dean’s office detailing the persuasive power of gendered and race-based role models for students, the chairs collectively realized that the simplest way to appear invested in the Initiative was to choose articles and books authored by women.
“I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading about Blackwell’s experience,” he added, somewhat taken aback by the ease with which he parroted Dean Fowley’s words.
“Okay,” said Vivian, ambiguously.
Greg often found himself freely paraphrasing the opinions of others when he lacked a coherent one of his own. He was convinced, too, that his peers often mistook his reticence at meetings and unofficial gatherings for quiet thoughtfulness. He mastered early the serious, detached gaze of the scholar, at once a sign of unrevealed depth and a barrier to those who might otherwise assail him with idle chatter. At times, though, his self-imposed isolation would backfire. When Greg first arrived on campus, his chair, A. O. Kline, had proudly announced at the annual fall picnic of the Natural Sciences Division that young Dr. Lawson represented “humanity’s best hope for ridding the world of compromised pancreases.” From that moment forward, his colleagues, having no evidence to the contrary and not knowing, in particular, the details of his professional life or that his condition flared up the week after he defended his Ph. D. thesis, formed the unshakable conviction that Greg’s research and career path centered on diabetes. After several failed attempts to set the record straight, he decided to surrender to their view, responding with a polite smile to the occasional misstatement about his research and life’s mission.
Initially a student of Russian literature, anxieties about mathematics had made the sciences seem inaccessible until he discovered the life and work of Anton Chekhov, M.D., the undisputed master of unaffected fiction, who famously characterized his frequent exchanges with critics as “swatting at horseflies.” Greg appreciated the image, especially since he often felt that way about his critics and friends alike. He began to suspect that the sciences could be, as they no doubt had been for Chekhov, a stepping stone to a greater facility with ideas and words. His relatives, long suspicious of Greg’s indifference to marketable skills, welcomed the insight. “You don’t need a degree in literature to appreciate a good book,” his mother had told him, herself a high school mathematics teacher and the source of most of Greg’s anxieties about the subject. He was disposed to believe that there was more to the humanities than simply liking to read, but was for some reason ill-equipped to explain it, even to himself. So, never entirely clear about Chekhov’s impact on his decision but relatively content to abide by his mother’s more secure convictions, he dropped out of the Russian Literature program on the evening before his final, qualifying exams.
“The essay is well-written and thorough,” he said, in what he knew was a transparent attempt to counteract his proselytizing for the Dean’s Initiative. The truth was that he didn’t care much for its core assumption that experience is somehow relative to sex or skin color, but he wasn’t entirely convinced that these feelings weren’t simply further evidence of his own limitations as a balding, white, diabetic male. Not so for his white female colleagues in Women’s Studies, who, it seemed to Greg, were thoroughly convinced of his limitations. The chair, Joyce Randall, rejected his offer years ago to teach an Honors seminar on “women and biology” on the sole assumption that, as she wrote in an official memo circulated across the campus, “The current faculty of biology do not and cannot speak for women’s experience in biology or any other domain of human experience.”
There followed a brief exchange in the editorial pages of the Carrington Daily between Joyce and Benjamin Wright, the current chair of philosophy who apparently decided, at the moment of being granted tenure, never again to afford anyone in his presence the luxury of completing a sentence. Mr. Wright, as he came to be known on campus, claimed to have found a logical flaw lurking in Joyce’s official memo to the biologists. Philosophers, it seemed to Greg, were able to divine a contradiction where no one would even think to look. In the penultimate exchange, Mr. Wright flatly claimed that “feminized epistemology is oxymoronic.”
The Women’s Studies faculty, long resistant to Mr. Wright’s rhetorical advances, saw this philosophical tongue-twister as the veiled insult it surely was and countered with the singular, equally devastating line, “Mr. Wright is a misnomer.”
Her chair now perched unsteadily over its two hind legs, Vivian slowly turned her head in Greg’s direction, as if any sudden movement or expression of enthusiasm might spoil the delicate balance. “I put the copies in your mailbox along with my work-study request for next year and some other papers.”
“Thanks,” Greg said, pleasantly surprised to get both a response and the copies. “Guess I’ll see you in class,” he said. He gathered the papers from his mailbox and watched Vivian busily probe her right ear with her left index finger and bury her head further into her notebook.
Greg sat at his kitchen table, the Formica and steel structure dominating his studio apartment, surveying several days’ worth of dishes, empty take-out cartons, and few unrecognizable bits of petrified food. It was noon on Friday, usually his favorite time of the week when all his official obligations, if not met, were at least behind him.
But not today. Several months ago, in what had seemed like an offer involving the impossibly distant future, he had agreed to sit in for A. O. Kline at today’s meeting with the Dean. He had time for a quick lunch. He was used to eating quickly and often, whether he wanted to or not. Eating was consuming him, he thought, somewhat buoyed by this marginally clever phrase. When he wasn’t actually placing food into his mouth, he was either planning his next meal or preparing for the next unplanned one. About half-way down a small pile of dishes sat a bag of dried mixed fruit. He grabbed the corner of the bag and pulled abruptly, like a magician pulling a table cloth from under a setting for six.
The contents of the bag showered across the room along with the dishes. Two indistinguishable students living in the apartment next door, both of whom, Greg was pleased to discover, went by the name Joe, were apparently awakened by Greg’s magic act and replied with several firm raps on the wall. Greg wondered how the Joes could hear anything over their incessant music, the bass line reverberating through Greg’s apartment and chest cavity like a string of distant but regular explosions. Sometimes, during a rare pause in the music, Greg would experience a vague sense of irritation, momentarily disoriented in the absence of the Joes’ accompanying rhythm.
After cleaning up the mess, he felt a bit tired; too tired for a finger test, a sure sign that he needed one. His lunch consisted of five glucose tablets, several pieces of dried fruit, and two sponge-like slices of microwavable, whole-wheat pizza. He had to wait ten minutes before eating the pizza to allow his system to absorb the pure glucose from the tablets. He opened his briefcase and took out several items that he had retrieved that morning from his office mailbox, including Vivian’s work-study request, an assortment of glossy flyers for new introductory texts in biology, and, coincidentally enough, a short scholarly paper, pages misplaced and with no identifying information, on variations in the rate of glucose absorption in diabetic mice. He made a mental note to ask Vivian about the missing pages when they meet to discuss her application for continued work-study funds. He had to weigh the costs of training a new, perhaps less capable, student against another year of Vivian’s predictable mediocrity. Aside from a bit of unresponsiveness, he thought, she really hadn’t been much trouble.
Greg found himself doodling in the margins of a handout from the Dean entitled “Rethinking the Multiperspectival Initiative: Curricular and Criterial Concerns.” Wondering if all those c’s in the subtitle were accidental or intended, he penned a new title “cross-disciplinary crap” that would have made the alliteration complete. Some of his colleagues had persisted in creating a stir over the purpose and nature of the Dean’s Initiative, rather than, as Greg would have preferred and the State Teachers’ Union certainly allowed, nodding approvingly in the company of administrators and then doing whatever one pleased. He knew that his excitable colleagues had principle on their side, but he couldn’t resist feeling some resentment towards the Initiative and anyone who found it even marginally engaging, especially on a Friday afternoon.
“Greg, you with us?” the Dean asked, obviously not for the first time.
“Of course, Frank. Did I miss something?” He was joined by a dozen or so departmental chairs around the conference table outside his office. He straightened his back and presented a thoughtful lower lip, while slowing shifting his arm to cover up the doodling and reformulated title like a schoolboy caught composing a dirty limerick.
“We were reconsidering your proposal to offer a course in women and biology,” Joyce Randall continued for the Dean. She was sitting directly across the table from Greg. “We’ve all heard good things about your classes. And some of the students’ work is very impressive.”
“Glad to hear it, Joyce,” Greg said, more than a little
suspicious of her sources and motives. The public praise, deserved or
not, was nice, but he was more concerned now about being asked to follow
through on what he had intended merely as a theoretical challenge to
the ideology of exclusion. Confident that he would be ignored, there
was no obvious risk in taking a stand. “Is it consistent with
your understanding of the Initiative to have me offer a section?”
he asked, curious about this apparent change of perspective yet still
searching for a way out.
“How could it not be personal if you’re suggesting that my contributions to this discussion are of no consequence?” Mr. Wright asked, the pink tips of his cheeks suddenly making him appear clown-like.
“Of course they are,” she answered quickly, the ambivalence of her reply catching Mr. Wright momentarily off-guard. “Let’s just get on with teaching the students the best we can.”
“My sentiments exactly, and I’m sure…” began the Dean.
“I never suggested anything to the contrary. Instead of using the students as a red herring, what not respond directly to my logical critique of the Initiative?” Mr. Wright said, his face and neck now a pastiche of irregular pink blotches.
“I’m sure you’re right, Benny. I’m just hoping we can move this process along...” Joyce began, obviously aware that, right or wrong, debating a logician was a fool’s errand.
“To its inevitably paradoxical conclusion,” Mr. Wright finished.
“Okay,” Joyce offered, turning to face Greg. “I’m especially impressed with Ms. Archer’s latest effort. She asked me to edit her paper on diabetes research.”
“Vivian Archer?” Greg asked, eyebrows discretely raised in a moderated expression of surprise. Perhaps there were two Ms. Archers in his class, he thought. It was possible, since, aside from the first week of shifting enrollments when Greg jealously guarded the maximum number in each of his classes, he took little notice of students’ names.
“Yes. Vivian’s work is first rate. I think, with a bit of polish, her paper is publishable. What’s your secret Greg? How do you get them to do such good work?”
“I honestly can’t take much credit,” he said. The truth was he couldn’t take any credit at all, but he decided to withhold that piece of information for as long as possible.
“Really,” Joyce said, obviously surprised by Greg’s humility. “Well, she certainly gives you all the credit for it.”
“How so?” Greg asked.
“I suppose you missed the part where she thanks you profusely in a footnote?” Joyce asked, handing Greg her copy of the paper.
“I guess you don’t know the impact you have on your students,” the Dean said.
“Guess you’re right, Frank,” Greg said, thumbing through the paper, equally surprised at the quality of the document and the scope of his ignorance. He recognized the paper as the one he was reading over lunch. There, in the top left margin of the first page -- just where he always insists his students put it -- was Vivian’s name.
Greg awoke Monday morning to an unexpected thaw, with temperatures setting a record high for Carrington in February. Newborn rivulets flooded patches of brown grass at the base of dormant privets defining the front lawn of Ramsey Hall. The Big Room was silent and empty. There was a note taped to the white board on his door from Vivian. In it she wrote that she had to take a temporary leave from school to help out with a medical emergency at home, that she would be gone for at least two weeks, and that she wondered what he thought about the materials she left in his mailbox.
Greg sat alone in his office, reflecting on the past week’s
events and making notes in the margins of Vivian’s paper. He smiled
at the thought of his students’ muted delight as the 10-minute
grace period lapsed for the first of his three morning classes. When
he was finished writing, he pulled the slim volume from beneath his
monitor and, tucking his notes and an approved work-study form neatly inside, placed Chekhov’s biography in
Vivian’s mailbox. It was time for his second WOK of the day.
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