Fear & Loathing in the College Boardroom: Finally the Final Chapter

Posted on June 8, 2010

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Previous: Fear & Loathing in the College Boardroom: Welcome to My Blackboard Jungle

Dear Reader,

The following post is long. But it was either that, or extend the tale for yet another day, and I don’t think either of us wanted that to happen.

So here it is. The final chapter.


So it's not Starbucks. Those really are my glasses and root beer, though, along with my Anne Tyler book.

All the study, all the preparation, all the attention to myriad little details of the presentation — and ultimately, everything came down to a pair of glasses and a Starbucks.

I walked into the boardroom knowing I’d be talking to more than one interviewer, and had imagined as many as three — possibly four.

There were eight.

As non-intuitive as it may seem, this was actually encouraging.

Talking to two or three people is inherently intimate, no matter what audio-visual accompaniments may be available. Presentations, on the other hand, are inherently formal, even if the audio-visual component consists of nothing more than chalk and blackboard. Aside from close-up magic, it’s difficult to perform in front of such a small group. Too informal and you lose the necessary authority. Too formal, however, and you look pompous.

But eight people — that’s almost like a classroom. Not a well-attended classroom, mind, but a classroom nevertheless.

I figured that when all the factors, both for and against me, were weighed by the committee, this presentation would be the fulcrum on which they’d be balanced. The chance to present in something like a classroom situation, then, was a bonus.

Hell, give me an audience anytime.

After making a few introductions, the woman acting as hostess (I don’t know her name, nor the names of anyone else I met that day) asked if I had my presentation on a memory stick. Actually, I think she said “wand.” I seem to remember a moment of confusion, since I seldom use that term. She then showed me to the computer sitting on the lectern and pointed to the USB port.

“Do you need any help?” she asked.

Oh sure, lady. I’m here applying for a position as a professor at your blinkin’ college where I’ll be expected to deliver umpteen lectures a day, and I’m going to start by asking you how to use a computer and an overhead projector?

“I don’t think so,” I said, and she sat down.

And then I discovered that I couldn’t see the USB port.

It was there. That’s where she’d pointed, and that’s were they generally were located. But being nothing more than a small black hole in a piece of black plastic, the port was pretty much invisible. Still, no panic. I could feel for it and, after a minimum amount of fumbling, I had the memory stick (“wand”) in place.

The rest of this routine was familiar. I took hold of the mouse and waited for the icon to appear. Except, I couldn’t make out the icon. Any of them.

Or rather, I could, but I couldn’t determine which was which.

Damn! Wrong glasses!

I checked my shirt pocket, then my jacket pocket. Then returned to my chair to check my shoulder bag. With a sinking feeling I realised that I had left them somewhere. And suddenly I remembered where.

Well, there was no way of retrieving them now.

I stared at the screen, pulling my head back and forth trying to get the icons to mean something, but they stubbornly remained blurred and indistinct. I didn’t want to just stab at one on a guess because sometimes computers can get ornery about such things. I dithered, and as I dithered, time ticked by, along with my chances of making any kind of good impression.

All right,  I thought, if this were my class, what would I do?

Well, when you run across unexpected obstacles in front of a class — or any audience, really — the trick is to include them in a way that elicits sympathy. Not the “poor me” kind of sympathy. Pleading handicaps, special circumstances, unforeseeable difficulties and the like may earn you their pity, but not their respect. What you want is the kind of sympathy people display when they’re on your side.

So I decided to tell them about the preceeding seven days of my life.

I peered at the screen for another few seconds, this time to get my thoughts in order, then straightened up and moved to the centre of the staging area.

“Excuse me,” I said. “But I have to tell you something. I wear two pair of glasses, one for normal use and the other for close-up.

“Anyway, this past week I’ve been molded. Think of a piece of clay at the hands of a potter, and you’ll get an idea of what’s been happening.

“Or perhaps a better analogy would be to say that I’ve been groomed. Since receiving your call, my wife and best friend have herded me like a prized race horse, transporting me to various groomers and suppliers around town.

“Fortunately, I didn’t have to ride in a trailer.

“My hair has been professionally styled, and it took two days to find just the right suit. Isn’t it nice?”

At this point I spread my arms and legs slightly and did a turn. I’d had one last panicky moment at the beginning when I’d thought: “But wait! This isn’t a classroom! It’s eight people who are thinking about hiring you, you moron!” Now, however, I had no doubt.

It wasn’t just that they were starting to laugh. It was that we were quickly changing from a group of eight people and me, to a group of eight people reaching out to include me — in effect, “rooting for me.”

“Pretty well everything I’m wearing,” I continued, “is new. The only thing more than a week old is my watch and my –.” I looked down for a moment. “Oh right. Just my watch.

“Both my wife and friend even wanted me to have a proper barber shop shave, but there just wasn’t time. Too bad. I think I’d have liked that.”

At this point one of the men interrupted me.

“”You would have,” he said. “They’re a real experience, all right.”

For a few moments several others put in a comment or two about barber shop shaves and people who’d had them.

Yes!

“Well,” I continued, “as you know, it was a drive of several hours for me to get here, and in order to keep my new outfit as unwrinkled as possible, I wore casual clothes for the journey while everything else was protectively wrapped and carefully placed in the trunk of the car.

“Just a little over half an hour ago, we stopped at a Starbucks where I was sent into the bathroom to change. There was no place to hang anything, and the only flat surface was the top of the toilet paper dispenser.

“While transferring my close-up glasses from my casual shirt, I laid them down on the toilet paper dispenser and never picked them up again.

“So, what I’m saying is this: at the moment I’m blind as a bat and I’m afraid I’m just going to bumble around up here for the full 15 minutes unless I can ask someone to help.”

I had all the help I needed.

From there I launched into the presentation itself (“The Cornerstone to Skill is Perception”) in which I tried to explain how using a Rex Murphy rant, in which he defends Canada’s Governor-General for eating raw seal heart at an Inuit ceremony, could help students (“learners”) discern themes, arguments, and rhetoric in a way that was directly transferable to writing. (The presentation, slightly edited for reasons of identification, is available here, should you want to view it.)

Then came the questions. Each interviewer, in turn, asked one question until we’d been around the table four or five times. Some, they told me, were official questions that all colleges in Ontario had to ask. I couldn’t tell which were which, though. Mostly they dealt with the practical side of teaching, such as: “Have you ever had a situation get out of your control, and what did you do about it?”

One, however, completely befuddled me: “What would you do in the event of an academic challenge?”

“A what?” I asked.

“An academic challenge,” repeated the woman who’d asked. Irish accent, and the one unreadable face in the group. I felt comfortable with pretty well everyone else, but she was opaque to me.

“What does that mean?”

“Well — what do you think it means?”

“I don’t know. Are there other terms for it?”

She struggled for a moment, and then said, “I can’t tell you.”

Ah! I thought. It’s one of those. It’s an official question, and the rules won’t let the questioner help in any way.

“Well,” I said, watching her face for tells, “I could interpret an ‘academic challenge’ as challenging the reliability of sources, challenging an interpretation of data, challenging the originality of material…”

Something in her face changed.

“Oh! You mean an ‘academic challenge’ in the sense of catching a student plagiarising, right?”

Hmm. Not quite. She’d blinked (I don’t mean literally — although she did that too) and I was sure I was close, but not there yet. I glanced, without turning my head, to a woman on the other side of the table whom I’d come to view as most sympathetic towards me. Her face had that expression you get when your kid sees the hamster cage is empty and asks if Hammy is sick, when in reality Hammy met Fluffy for dinner, but didn’t stick around for dessert.

“Or, no.” I said to the near-unreadable woman. “You mean a situation in which a professor accuses a student of plagiarism, and the student challenges the accusation. Right?”

She wouldn’t commit, but there was a general sense of relief in the room, and she asked, “Well, if it were, what would you do?” She may just have asked this to move me along, but I hoped she’d asked it because I was right.

Fine. Plagiarism comes up all the time. Anyone who’s been in the writing industry and can’t catch students plagiarising shouldn’t be teaching. Student attempts at “slipping by” plagiarised papers are about as effective as kittens attempting to cover up their messes on a linoleum floor.

Anyway, when it comes to plagiarism, what I generally do is scare them to death. If it’s serious enough, I’ll keep them after class (it’s a good rule never to discipline people in front of their peers). I get out the special form for reporting plagiarism and sit them down to sign it with them. And then, of course, I relent providing they never do it again, which they don’t.

It saves on paper work.

I was so happy about figuring out the question, and discovering that I actually had an answer, that I blurted it out without stopping to question whether or not it was the answer I should really give. Besides, I’d already wasted time trying to decipher the question in the first place.

And then I thought: “Was ‘terrorising students’ one of the principles of facilitated learning experiences?” I certainly hadn’t seen it referred to in the literature.

At least I didn’t mention that at the beginning of each semester I tell the class I have the foundation-pouring schedules for all the major construction projects in the city, and can dispose of plagiarists’ bodies where they will never be found.

Anyhow, eventually the interview was over, and despite some setbacks, I felt I was still ahead. The goodbyes were personal and friendly, and I’d been encouraged by several of the things they’d said and done.

Still. A week’s worth of research isn’t enough to turn anyone into a convincing expert. I hadn’t detected any signals that I’d severely goofed up, but things may have gone wrong that either didn’t give off any signals, or whose signals I’d simply missed.

Basically, I started worrying.

I had time to kill before my wife and friend reappeared to pick me up, and down in the lobby there was a display dedicated to the man after whom the college was named. I’ll call him Samuel Fielding. It consisted of old drawings and a few old photos illustrating events from his life. One, showing a ship tossed by waves at sea, described his harrowing journey from Scotland to Canada.

Here, word for word (except for the name), is the description of his crossing:

“In 1845 Samuel Fielding, aged 18, and his brother headed from Scotland to Canada. The ship that carried them was caught in a ferocious storm. Samuel used his engineering skills to take wind speed readings and determine that they might not survive.”

Visualise the scene, if you will.

As the wooden ship heaves from side to side and stem to stern, crewmen desperately try to pull in wildly thrashing canvas sails. Water washes onto the deck in torrents from the sky, and in towering and irresistible waves from the sea itself.

Amidst this wind-lashed fury, a young Scottish engineer, deaf to the prayers being uttered all around him by sailors convinced they’re about to die, calmly takes scientific measurements of the wind speed, scrawls various formula on a sheet of paper beside him, and after careful analysis authoritatively makes his announcement.

“By my calculations,” he says, “we might not survive.”

It’s a surprise they didn’t drown him on the spot.

But it brightened my day immeasurably.


Post Script:

Didn’t get me the job, however.

The letter was polite but unrevealing. They’d “gone with another candidate.”

Damn it.

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