The Smoking Professor

I entered graduate school in mathematics at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1963. You could find people smoking on campus just about anywhere back then: dormitories, hallways, classrooms, even libraries - no doubt damaging the books.

In my first semester, one of my professors, an Englishman, had the habit of smoking during his lectures. His brand was Players, a British import noted for its strong Virginia tobacco flavor. They came in a stiff cardboard box hinged at the side, not the soft shirt-pocket-size packs more common in the United States.

He had a little ritual that he followed before every class. He’d enter the room and walk up to the chalkboard two or three minutes early, take out a pack of Players, put it on the table, open it and take out a cigarette, light up, and lean against the chalk board smoking it and staring at the class, uttering not a word, until it was time to begin. Then, unfinished cigarette in the left hand and chalk in the right, he would turn to the board and start writing and talking, always facing the board, taking an occasional puff on the cigarette, almost never looking at the students.

The man was not one of my favorite lecturers. He mumbled disjointedly, used technical terms that he hadn’t defined, wrote in a small and practically illegible hand, and passed from one topic to the next with scarcely any visible or audible sign that the subject had changed. One came away from one of his lectures feeling that matters deep and profound had probably been touched upon, if only one knew what they were.

Such was my irritation with his teaching style that I always hoped he’d mix up his props, stick the chalk in his mouth, and attempt to write on the board with the lit cigarette. But it never happened.

Copyright © by John Remmers.