Tangled Tassels: Tales of Academe (1996)

This volume opens on the climactic announcement of a college commencement program:

Once again the Elisabeth Pang Award of $3000 for Distinguished Teaching has been announced as the climactic surprise of the College commencement program.  Once again, all faculty members but one had to put their prepared acceptance remarks into storage for another year.


For elderly Professor Bingwood Butts, the anthology of undelivered acceptance remarks had grown unusually long and rich over the years.  He had secretly conceived them in every style and theme appropriate for a great teacher of English Literature who wished to lend himself humbly but openly to the public celebration of his powers....

So continues the review of Professor Butts' acceptance remarks--year after year, through his early popularity, then his indignation at being passed over, then his struggle with alcohol, then the years of  dull dry seniority.

He taught drily.  Students cut his classes.  But he had learned to be gentle and compassionate with those who, like him, had found the College an alien place.  So he had lasted until the present, still improvising his acceptance of the Pang Award, but only as a reflex, a ritual of self-respect.  Today he would have said, I once felt indignant, in my younger years, that this Award should go to an old fossil.  No where I am, the old fossil...


Well, something like that.  He would have worked it out.  Not that any of his acceptance remarks could mean much, because he would never know what good teaching was, and why he had lost it.  The Award went to some fledgling instructor, and Professor Butts emerged from the auditorium with his colleagues.  After a few goodbyes he made his way toward his office across the quadrangle.

"Oh Professor Butts!"

A tall young woman stood before him, in cap, gown, freckles, and large horn-rims.  He had her in Victorian Poetry, he thought, or was it Shakespeare.  The left side of the room but now, alas, nameless.


"Professor Butts," she said, smiling, "I just want to say how much you did for me.  The course was really great but I mean you too."

She reached for his hand.  He stared up at her in perplexity, then recalled that extravagant things were always said at Commencement.  He returned the smile and the handclasp, groping for words.

"Thank you," was the best he could do.  "Thank you."

There, then is the opening chapter of Tangled Tassels.  For the next, here is Jonathan Clay, sadistic teacher of Creative Writing, whose teaching consists of humiliating his student-writers into submission.  You see him at a critical moment:

Incredibly and outrageously, there was the printed rejection slip.  He, Jonathan Clay, Creative Writing instructor of LaFolla College, had received a rejection slip from the student literary magazine.  It was clipped to the masterpiece which he had condescended to submit as a sign of his patronage and good will.  The text of the rejection was fairly generic:


Thank you very much for your recent submission to Scroll and Quill.  It was reviewed carefully, but unfortunately we are unable to publish it.  Generally, we try to select pieces on topics of interest to our readership which demonstrate lively writing.  In the meantime please feel free to submit further pieces in the future.

A score of other academic types step out of these pages into life.  For examples:

The womanizing professor: "C.O.W."
The plotting politician: "The Prince."
The discontents: "The Exiles."
The Young Turks: "The Olympians."
The self-made god: "Self-Portrait."
The brilliant but lazy: "The von Clausewitz Principle."
The fear of retirement: "Encores."

Dick's own conclusion to the Preface may best guide the new reader:  "I trust the overall atmosphere of this collection will seem neither unduly sentimental nor cynical.  On the whole I saw teaching with fairly clear eyes for its hypocrisies and other pitfalls (which may have been exaggerated here).  I also loved the profession for its intellectual and human adventure.  The reader, I hope, will share my pleasure."

   Copyright 2005-2009  by Richard M. Eastman.  All rights reserved.