Amoeba’s Lorica: Pivot Point

pivot pointTwenty-one years ago as this is written (egad!), Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba had a life-defining experience. No, it didn’t involve choirs of angels. It was more of a solo performance, and YFNA would not exactly classify it as “angelic”.

He was serving as what an American university would call an “associate professor”, in an English-speaking place that proudly referred to itself as “the Antipodes” – though a rod passed through it and the center of the Earth would have come out closer to Madrid than London. By the usual measures of success, he was prospering in the job, as he’d secured tenure and was advancing through the step raises at a better than reasonable rate. He had established a laboratory, and was getting papers published.

But his teaching duties were challenging. Students were entering his department with academic records that could generously be described as “poor” (in that system, the “good” students went directly from high school to medical school, or veterinary school, or “overseas”; the local universities got the leftovers). His efforts to lift their performance had had little success. Moreover, he had been curtly, and consistently, informed by his superiors that their level of performance didn’t matter. The departmental budget, he was told, depended on how many students there were, not on how well they were mastering the subject, and he was not to jeopardize the departmental budget for any reason whatsoever. Including pissing off the marketplace by supplying it with Bachelor of Science degree holders who were unlikely to get, or hold, jobs in the sciences.

After dark, on a winter’s evening in July (see “Antipodes”), as YFNA was preparing to head home, one of those students appeared at his office. He was unkempt, scruffily dressed, and in a scruffier mood. He was failing all his classes, not an easy task to accomplish (see “departmental budget”), and it was Somebody’s fault. The discussion, if it could be called that, lasted for over half an hour, during which such topics as career goals, class schedules (“inconvenient”), and the persecutions of the faculty were prominent, while YFNA sought for some sort of opportunity for positive intervention. Finally, YFNA ventured to question the student’s study habits. To which came the quick and fierce rejoinder:

It’s your job to make this easy for me!

After a few more minutes of pointless dialogue, the student went off in a huff. And YFNA went home contemplating his future. This in-your-face declaration of what he had been seeing in his classes and evaluation forms for years was more than he could take.

He was due a sabbatical, and he took it at the institution in the US where he’d received his degree. An institution that he remembered as a place where the faculty expected students to take responsibility for their education, to make their course work, their career preparation, their top priority, or suffer the consequences. Where the toughest member of that faculty was now departmental chair. Where he hoped to discover that what he’d experienced “down under” was a local aberration, that his home university still valued student performance.

“Oh, no, we can’t do that”, she told him at dinner one night when the topic came up. “These students have lives!” …

Six months later, YFNA was in Canada. He had resigned his tenured faculty position, never to seek, or hold, another. And was working at the first of the long series of research-oriented jobs that have kept him more or less alive for the ensuing two decades. Pivot point.

YFNA never learned what became of the scruffy young man, but he has been unable to forget him. He has been reminded of him constantly; indeed, his descendants, in thought if not in body, are practically ubiquitous.

For example: the night before this post was written, YFNA was F-bombed on Facebook by people who WILL see a total ban on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), or else. When challenged by a scientist (a colleague of YFNA’s) with facts about GMOs (challenges that YFNA supported), these people responded that they don’t understand these facts and have no time or inclination to understand them. Because, obviously, by daring to present facts rather than submit to their self-evident wisdom, to invite debate on the evidence rather than kowtow to political speeches, he was a hired tool of Big Business and deserved, at best, to be splattered against a wall somewhere.

And the fault was his.

Because he had not made it easy for them.


Fahrenheit 451 described a world in which firemen were called to fireproof houses to burn their inflammatory contents. Books contained dangerous information, information out of the control of those who programmed the parlor walls. The writers of books whose contents were controversial were condemned for putting down [pick any] minority. Writers of books whose contents could not immediately be understood by all were lambasted for making readers feel inferior. By the time we meet fireman Guy Montag, books have been banned (they weren’t selling anyway, which probably was the most important factor in their damnation), and their authors removed from society, one way or another.Amoeba’s Lorica: The Parlor Walls

And in one section of the book, Montag’s Captain reminds him, “The firemen are rarely necessary. People stopped reading of their own accord.”

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2 Responses to Amoeba’s Lorica: Pivot Point

  1. Doug says:

    And it shows, doesn’t it? I remember my first semester at Emory after 6 years out of school. I studied harder than I ever had and was proud to get on the Dean’s list until I noticed that just about everyone was on the Dean’s list. It didn’t have a big motivational effect because when you go to school in your mid-20s, it is probably in the hope of learning something and it clearly is not because that’s just the path you’re on. But still, I wondered how a good student could signal to future employers that he or she had been a good student sharing the Dean’s List with drunken frat boys who woke up at 11 for tacky-sack.

    • Amoeba says:

      And the worst part of that, Dawg, is that the drunken frat boys were probably first in line for the jobs, precisely because they had been drunken frat boys – like the guys who hired them had been (and likely, that same fraternity).

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