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

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'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.

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