The Curious and Quirky Lives of Professors

by Jessica Peet | 11/10/06 6:00am

Over the past nine weeks, you've spent up to 36 hours looking at your professors. That's 12 hours per professor (give or take a 10a). You noticed things about them. Haircuts. Jewelry. An inexplicable tendency to snap their fingers when they get particularly excited about a certain lecture topic.

You have a vague sense of their schedules, the way they organize their offices. Perhaps you've exchanged an awkward blitz or two, apologizing for absences and late papers or whatnot. And while all of this might be way more than you knew about the person you went home with Saturday night, what do we really know about our professors?

You spend a few hours a week in the same room together; they talk, you listen and then, for the most part, return to your lives as if nothing had happened.

Teaching is a strange profession. Teachers are the first adults in our lives (other than our parents, presumably) who really assume any authority or responsibility for shaping the direction of our thoughts. Some we disliked: mostly the stuffy ones who delighted in assigning extra homework over long weekends and smelled vaguely of glue. The majority were fine. And somewhere along the line, most of us have had a teacher who stands out in our memories for recognizing in us the potential to be something bigger than we felt at that moment.

Monsters or superheroes, since we started kindergarten, the hardest thing to remember has been that teachers are, like, just people.

So going with the profs-are-people theory, what do they do with themselves at Dartmouth? Ivy League professors are your typical brilliant overachievers, devoting their lives to advancement of the mind (or so says my tuition bill). They are in Hanover, N.H., a blink-and-you'll-miss-it town just south of absolutely nowhere. So it's basically a bunch of type-A adults voluntarily trapped in the isolated Northeastern woods.

"Before I moved here, everyone was telling me how busy I would be with the job and I was kind of terrified. But now I'm kind of grateful for it 'cause it doesn't give me time to think about what happened to my social life," visiting professor Newton Armstrong of the music department said. Armstrong arrived at Dartmouth this fall fresh out of Princeton's Ph.D. program and, like most Dartmouth students, has spent much of his time wondering where the term went.

Armstrong's dilemma is typical of the young, single professors -- a group that seems to struggle a bit to find each other. As Armstrong put it, he teaches four courses with up to 61 students per course in addition to advising graduate students; a most formidable and time consuming task.

"I haven't really had time to figure out the places that are hidden away," Armstrong said. "I'm not sure there are places hidden away. I'm sort of holding out hope."

Dartmouth once had a Faculty Club where faculty members could go to eat and socialize, but it closed primarily because it didn't serve the needs of the faculty particularly well.

"Some people liked it a lot, but I hardly ever used it," retired chemistry professor Roger Soderberg admitted.

In recent years, the college has started After Hours, a program designed "to provide College and Medical Center employees with opportunities to get acquainted and participate in social, recreational and cultural activities" according to the group's website. However, faculty agree this initiative is geared mainly toward college staff and therefore does not include many professors.

For most professors, including Armstrong and his peers, dinner parties are the most prominent events on their social calendars. Armstrong's colleagues invite him to their homes on weekends, bringing his social scene into contact with that of the largest population of Dartmouth professors -- those that are middle-aged and married.

You've probably heard of that survey somebody took in 2000 that says way too many Dartmouth students marry each other. Well, a fair number of Dartmouth faculty and staff are married to each other as well. All that marriage leads to children, and there goes what free time said professors had left.

A psychology professor and a mother of two, Janine Scheiner is an apt example. Over coffee at Dirt Cowboy, Scheiner recounted a portion of her day: "From 3 o'clock on, I'm running around like a maniac taking care of my kids. Literally, there have been so many schedule changes," she starts, launching into an extensive list of complicated child transportation, trick-or-treating schedules, rescheduled French tests and a ritual of pulling into her own driveway just in time to slap her husband high five in passing from car to car as he leaves to practice with his band.

"It's fun but busy. When it works, it works beautifully, though when it doesn't, it's a headache," Scheiner said.

Children also provide a link into the broader world, faculty members agreed. "Once you have children you meet other people and you find out there are tons of people up here who have nothing to do with Dartmouth," said government professor William Wohlforth, who lives in Lyme, N.H. with his two children and wife Christianne Wohlforth, assistant director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding.

Indeed, friends made outside of the Dartmouth scene often become an integral part of social life. "We have our own parent posse, so we get together and have parties and go out to dinner," Schneiner said. "I'm very honored to have all those friendships, but I don't find much overlap [between Dartmouth and non-Dartmouth social scenes]."

The only portion of the faculty population that seems to escape the frenzy of commitments most of us call lives is the crowd that no longer pays full price at the Nugget. Having paid their dues, the older members of the faculty seem to savor life in Hanover, using their free time to indulge in hobbies and enjoy the beauty of our rural surroundings. I'm not saying the rest of the faculty doesn't do these things; It's just these folks have a relaxed air about them that can only come with time.

Take English professor Andrew Hook, who is visiting from Scotland this fall. Described fondly by one of his students as "the perfect fairytale grandfather," Hook spends his free time attending Dartmouth sports games or enjoying the Hanover area. And like all professors, he attends his share of dinner parties.

"Academics have a lot in common, wherever they are," Hook said, adding that he felt the Dartmouth social scene for professors was similar to other institutions he has visited during his career.

One place where the Dartmouth faculty overlaps regularly is the Hanover Inn Dining Room, which hosts a lunch on Wednesdays for faculty members at a special price of $3. The scene somewhat resembles the opening cafeteria scene in "Mean Girls." Two language professors discuss something in Italian, while at a nearby table a group of female psychology professors burst into laughter. Several retired professors gather together at one table, happily lost in memories.

A group of government professors has somehow happened upon a half bottle of champagne (which they swear is a first time experience in approximately six years of these lunches) and, as they divide its contents amongst themselves, professor Allan Stam muses about the social life of Dartmouth faculty.

"We're just like you guys, we have lives," Stam said. "We have cocktail parties where we engage in very elevated conversations..."

"...About who won the latest Nascar races?" Christianne Wohlforth, an adjunct assistant professor of government, interjects, teasing Stam. who is apparently a Nascar fan.

"I think real the answer is we don't hang out anymore, " Stam concludes, digging into his pie.

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