The students I met last night at Middlebury College were so assured, so able to converse with grown ups, and so unlike myself at that age. I was mute around my professors which was probably wise as they were not the nicest people in the world. We had little in common. All of them were men. All of them were old. And, yes, all of them were white. There weren’t even any Jews. The one thing they all had in common was their complete lack of interest in me.
Apparently there had been complaints about faculty indifference and so in an effort to simulate a school like Middlebury (or Princeton, or Williams, or Oberlin etc), the college sponsored an awkward event called-invite a professor to dinner night. They issued us gilt edged cards to send to professors and so with some trepidation I filled one out and dropped it in the mailbox of my intellectual history professor who did not know me from Adam or Frank or any of the other men in his seventy person class. I don’t know why I invited him except I thought he was smart and funny and I loved his lectures. I don’t know why he came. I learned the hard way that a great lecturer is not always a great dinner companion. If only he had been able to monologue at dinner we would have been fine. But to carry on some kind of conversation — that was agony. What, after all, did we have to say? His role in my life was to tell me about Fichte and Hegel. My role in his life was to sit somewhat anonymously in his class and listen deferentially. Chat? Where was he from? Worse, where was I from? Did he have any pets? Did I? I don’t know how we stumbled through, but last night’s students were warm and expansive. They asked great questions that showed me that they really understood the dilemmas of literary scholarship. And after my talk two young women came up and talked to me about the complexities of their Jewish experiences and identity. I could have listened to them for hours.