Howard Jacobson: Come to an American university and be instantly promoted to professor

Their courteousness can get in the way of your knowing what they think

Share
Related Topics

'Oy!" "Aachagh!" "Oooomf!" "God almighty!" This is not geriatric lovemaking I am describing, nor is it the sound of old Jewish men playing ping pong. They are the noises I hear, noises to which I contribute in kind – mine's the "Oy!" – in the washrooms, let's call them toilets, of a church on the campus of the American University in Washington where I am addressing retirees (of all faiths) on whatever I choose to address them about.

These aren't bodily noises – we don't do bodily noises in this column – they are soul noises: exhalations of relief, exclamations of metaphysical bewilderment, expressions of dismay too deep for words. It's a strange thing going to a washroom, sorry, toilet, when you've been alive a long time. Paradoxically, it's the fact that you've done it so often that makes it strange. Here we all are again! The trial of it, the familiarity, the wearisomeness – viewed philosophically, the sheer bloody pointlessness.

It cheers me more than I will ever be able to convey to you, knowing that others my age feel what I feel. I've been in the company of the young for weeks. When I go to the toilets – all right, washrooms – at George Washington University I don't feel I can say "Oy!" out loud. And certainly not "God almighty!" The students won't understand. They would either think I'm asking for help, or worse, suspect me of voicing some sad appreciation of their youthfulness. The bemusement that comes with having physical needs to answer when you no longer have a physique is beyond their comprehension.

What I hear in the church hall washrooms disposes me so well to my audience that when I come to address them I am a combination of Dickens, Nietzsche, Lenny Bruce and the Archbishop of Canterbury, each of them at the top of his game. There is an invariable law of public speaking. The audience makes the speaker. Unresponsive auditors, rubbish talk. This audience is so athirst for knowledge – no, not knowledge, for news of how the whole human caboodle feels to another soul, for companionship in the mirth of misery, for a message recovered from the bottle marked experience – that they create in the speaker the power to give them what they want. Their faces shine. We normally reserve the vocabulary of refulgence for the faces of children, but let me tell you – no faces shine more wonderfully than those of the elderly when they are still curious, still communicative, and still wanting to be amused. As for their concentration, their ear for nuance (regardless of impaired hearing), their quickness on the uptake – they leave the young looking slow-witted by comparison.

Don't get me wrong. It's been great fun being professor at a university for a month. Professor Jacobson. It has a ring, don't you think? "Professor Jacobson!" one of my Washington students calls out as I cross the quad (there isn't a quad, but you take my meaning), and I don't at first realise it's me he's talking to. When I do, I turn with a flourish of the academic gown I wish I were wearing. A cold wind whips down 23rd Street. But I attend to the student's enquiries, smelling coffee from the campus branch of Starbucks (though there is no campus), finding the conversation strange – stranger even than going to a washroom – and marvelling that words, some of them making sense, can issue from a face as yet so unmarked by life or suffering. It's like listening to rabbits talk.

They are courteous as hell, these American kids. But the courteousness can get in the way of your knowing what they think, indeed of knowing what they know. I return an essay to a clever young woman, gently reprimanding her for talking about Jane Austen's "theory of happiness". Jane Austen, I tell her, is a novelist not a theoretician. She takes this well and smiles at me. "I thought you wanted me to talk about Jane Austen's theories," she says. Meaning that pleasing her professor was what she thought her professor wanted.

I take this to be American, but it's so long since I've taught at a university anywhere that I don't know whether pleasing their professors is what all students now try to do. I doubt it, though. Not in Britain where no one person wants to get caught trying to please another.

The Americanness of my older audience no doubt explains their responsiveness. What I mean by their Americanness I'm not sure I can say, but it comprises a greater social alacrity than you find in English audiences, an unembarrassedness, a more direct gaze, a greater zest (the stuff that can be a pain in the neck when you see it in commercials, all that get up and go), and a deeper acquaintance with the resources of that eastern European comic fatalism which we sometimes limit by calling Jewish. So when I describe a game of table tennis I threw because my opponent kept teasing me with drop-shots I couldn't be bothered chasing – I told this story as I imagined Nietzsche would have told it – they understood immediately. The English don't get losing as a subtler form of winning, and the young of any nationality, of course, don't get the twisted joys of defeatism at all.

"Thank you for talking to us, Professor," a glamorous woman, I'd guess in her middle seventies, comes up afterwards to say. "And don't let any dentist persuade you to close the gap between your front teeth."

I tell her that I didn't know I had a gap between my front teeth.

"Makes you look winsome," she says.

The Winsome Professor. You winsome, you losesome.

I'm sad it's over. No more "Herr Professor Luitpold Blumenduft", as Joyce called Leopold Bloom at his most impossibly pedagogic. I never made it to professor when I was a full-time academic. Senior lecturer at Wolverhampton Poly was the furthest I got. Of course to be called professor in Washington is not the same as being called professor in London or even Wolverhampton, since it merely denotes that one is a tertiary teacher and is not a mark of seniority.

Scrub that "merely". Professing at any level is a sacred calling. They're attacking Obama over here for being professorial. Fools. They think a president should be any old Joe, though they've just had an any old Joe and couldn't wait to see the back of him. I tell whoever denigrates Obama in my hearing that they don't know how lucky they are, having a President who bears himself professorially. Oh, to have someone even half-professorial leading us, I say. But they think I'm being winsome.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
UK Border Control  

Do you think I'm feckless? I worked for two years in the Netherlands

David Ryan
Bob Geldof  

Ebola is a political AND a medical disease

Paul Vallely
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin