My Professorial ‘Eureka’ Moment

I remember the exact moment when I realized that I really am a professor. It wasn’t when I got hired, that’s for sure. I assumed that was a clerical error, so I spent six months waiting for an “Oops, we’re sorry” email (“We meant to hire that smart guy named Fenhold”). It wasn’t when I showed up to start the job either. It took me at least a year to stop glancing around before I entered my office, figuring that if someone saw me, I would get accused of breaking in.

In class, I kept waiting for my students to get up and leave, heading straight to the registrar to demand a refund. And do you imagine I settled in after tenure? No way. I carried that letter everywhere, thinking I lived in a dictatorship and could be asked for my papers at any time. My delusions got pretty grand, but I’ll spare you all the gory details. Just call me Imposter 2.0.

No, my professorial eureka came quite recently, on a Tuesday afternoon when I arrived very late for class. It was one of those days: my kids were impossible, the subway was delayed, I forgot my lecture notes, my old computer took forever to boot up, and then my printer wouldn’t work.

I was getting really stressed: arriving late for class is pretty bad stuff. Every two days, some provincial politician is accusing professors of not teaching enough, as though when I’m not in class I just sit around smoking a pipe and drinking martinis. (How tough is it for them to figure out that class time is just one part of the job? I mean, how many hours a week do they actually spend in the legislature?) In fact, I work a lot of hours, but it is nonetheless true that there are relatively few times in my week when I actually have to be somewhere on time.

Well, by the time I left my office, class had already begun, and I still had to make it all the way across campus. This is more treacherous than it sounds. The University of Toronto’s campus is vast, and my route to lecture is bisected by Queen’s Park, an urban green space in back of the provincial legislature. It’s a nice feature for a downtown campus. On a normal day, people jog, stroll the pathways, sit on benches under old-growth trees, and mostly ignore the wartime monuments. Quite beautiful, actually.

Personally, though, I never set foot it in. The place is riddled with semi-domesticated squirrels, whose behavior—no doubt the result of years spent eating cellophane and cigarette butts—has become unpredictable. They approach humans without fear, gleefully join you on the benches for lunch, and crowd the pathways, leaning back on their haunches with their front paws out, inviting donations of food and spare change. I once saw a grey one climb right up a person. No kidding: she was trying to take a picture of her friend, and she stood so still the squirrel got confused. The photographer was startled, to be sure, but I was hysterical, having just realized that squirrels, like undergraduates, can turn on us at any time.

Suffice it to say, I usually take the long way around. But I was already so late, I ran straight across the park, bounding over the squirrels, dodging the joggers, and backtracking around the occasional mud puddle. By the time I staggered up the stairs and into the building I was almost twenty minutes late. It’s a fifty-minute class, so it was starting to seem a bit pointless. Surely everyone would have just left by now? But I was carried forward by desperate momentum, so I dashed down the hall and sprinted into class. The students were all just sitting there. Waiting. I was shocked, even thrilled. “Holy crap,” I thought, “I must be a professor.” I still carry that tenure letter around, though. Just in case.

Steve Penfold is Academic Matters’ humour columnist. He moonlights as an Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto.