On Twitter, my friend Matt Thomas has been retweeting students who tells us about their professors. (He’s just been searching “my professor” and RT’ing the more interesting results.)

According to my professor, unicorns exist. I’m running with that.

My professor is saying we are robots. Ok.

My professor told us today that we should have sex with hundreds of people & then have open marriages so we can have even more sex.

My english professor comes in 5 minutes late with a poptart singing and dancing to prince.

Also, it seems, many, many teachers have decided to lead off the semester with references to twerking, just to show that they know what’s what. I guess.

I was chatting with Matt and others about what all this tells us, and while it may give an indication of just how lame — how clueless, how vapid, how trying-too-hard, how not-trying-hard-enough — many American professors are, I’m not convinced. To be sure, I’m totally convinced that a great many professors are indeed lame in just these ways; I’m just not convinced that the tweets are reliable evidence of that fact. (I don’t think Matt is convinced either, and he’s not presenting the tweets to prove a particular point.)

After all, how many of these tweets can be assumed to be accurate transcriptions? I mean, maybe your professor said you should have sex with hundreds of people, but maybe you were texting someone when he prefaced that with “Some people think.” And by the time it became clear to you that he wasn’t in fact telling you to have sex with hundreds of people, if it ever did, the tweet was already out there and why take back something funny and interesting?

So I’m just wondering how much of this is a game called “Sh*t My Prof Says.” There’s no way to know, of course; but I’m wondering.

And I also think of the times in my life when I have misheard or half-heard something and then preferred the error to the truth — as did the English novelist Henry Green when he grew increasingly deaf. Once he thought an interviewer was asking him a question about suttee and was quite disappointed when it turned out that the word in question was “subtlety.” The world of real speech was never quite as lively as the one his bad hearing enabled him to imagine. Distraction can have the same effect on us, can it not?

In this context I find myself thinking of Richard Wilbur’s great poem “Lying,” which begins,

To claim, at a dead party, to have spotted a grackle,

When in fact you haven’t of late, can do no harm.

Your reputation for saying things of interest

Will not be marred, if you hasten to other topics,

Nor will the delicate web of human trust

Be ruptured by that airy fabrication.

Later, however, talking with toxic zest

Of golf, or taxes, or the rest of it

Where the beaked ladle plies the chuckling ice,

You may enjoy a chill of severance, hearing

Above your head the shrug of unreal wings.

From there he moves on to the lies of poetry, and ends with an invocation of the small event that became the Song of Roland. Forget about Twitter for a while: read it.


  1. I've been fascinated by Matt's RTs as well. I agree that they can't really be taken as accurate accounts of what's happening in all these classrooms. But if it is a game of "Sh*t My Prof Says" that still raises interesting questions for me: why is that a game that students would feel compelled to play? Why would the misheard be so desirable to tweet? What is up with professors' public image, anyway?

  2. Sarah, I think at least some of it would be building up solidarity among students: Look at all this crazy stuff we have to put up with! Sharing war stories about weird or bad or hard profs provides a good deal of social glue for students. At least, that's the way it was for me!

    And of course teachers do the same when we share our war stories with one another, which can be done in a relatively healthy ways or relatively unhealthy ones. And by the way, I’m just as skeptical when teachers tell outrageous stories about their students as when students do it about their teachers.

    More generally, as I think the Wilbur poem indicates, we’re just born storytellers, and as such care a good deal more about vividness than about accuracy. And on the whole I like it that way.

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