Here’s to You, Dr. Kirchfeld

As I’ve mentioned, my blog topics typically come from memories, which seem to trigger more memories. My last two pieces have led to remembering a most unforgettable professor whose class I enjoyed during graduate school. It wasn’t the subject I enjoyed most for we were to learn how to prepare theses and dissertations under the guidance of Dr. Hedwig Kirchfeld (not her real name).

After the stories I’d heard about Dr. Kirchfeld I was expecting to have the worst semester yet. I’d taken classes all summer when I should have taken a break, but because I’d listened to the negative voices around me insisting that I plow through the program, I gained a few extra credits along with mental and emotional exhaustion. When you find yourself having a panic attack in the middle of Bloomingdale’s because you can’t locate the exit that’s directly in front of you, it’s time for a vacation! When the fall semester began, I wish I’d been anywhere on the planet than on that campus.

Dr. Kirchfeld’s class met on the library’s top floor, and the initial assignment involved outlining the first chapter of our main textbook. I listened to Dr. K.’s explanation and believed I’d understood her expectations because they were so similar to Mrs. B.’s specifications in middle school, which I wrote about in my previous post. Sure of myself, I trotted out of the classroom and completed the assignment before my afternoon class.

I arrived early to the next session and was chatting with a classmate from New Jersey who is that type of person we’ve all met at some point unless we are that person. She’s the one who always raises a hand first. She thinks she knows everything, and can easily convince you that she does. Don’t confuse her with Hermione Granger because the person I’m describing doesn’t always know the correct answers. She’s sort of a hit-and-miss Hermione, but her boldness and a 53% success rate compels one to regard her opinions.

She was most eager to see my completed assignment. At that age, I was too inexperienced with her type to realize that she really wanted to compare papers because she was quaking with insecurity behind that façade of confidence. Another of our classmates arrived, and New Jersey was on that poor girl’s papers to see how she’d done the work since she’d ended up with a different result than mine. The two women’s assignments bore a striking resemblance, so Miss New Jersey proclaimed my doom.

“You know she has a reputation for calling out work that falls short of her expectations!” exclaimed Miss New Jersey. I was well aware of Dr. K.’s reputation, and had already eyed a path from the classroom to the elevators.

“If she humiliates me,” I said, “I’m going to walk out, head to the registrar, and withdraw from the university. I might even get a partial refund this early in the semester.” I was too tired to put up with anything else the university wanted to put me through.

Approximately 24 masters and doctoral students filed into the classroom the following week, and we found our places around the long table. A cluster of five white guys sat on the east end, five or six Asian women hastily pulled their chairs tightly around the west end, seven of us grabbed seats on the south side of the long conference table, and like musical chairs, the remaining students had taken the unfortunate leftovers on the first day. They flanked Dr. Kirchfeld whose seat in the center of the table was directly across from mine. She and I appeared to be the most important guests at some haphazardly arranged continental dinner.

We were expecting the return of our first assignments, and this was the day I was prepared to flee and never return. My palms were sweaty, and I tried to convince myself that the air-conditioning was responsible for my chill. Dr. K. removed her sunglasses, which I found interesting because she’d already walked the length of the library’s windowless main floor to reach the top floor via a windowless elevator car, and she had made it to her seat in the classroom before deciding that she no longer needed her shades. Dr. K. disappeared from the surface for a moment as she dug into her bag and pulled out papers. She breathed deeply and surveyed the table with a scowl before speaking.

“Class,” she spoke with heavily accented English in a way that not only emphasized her command of several languages, but that she thought so little of English speakers that she had no intention of adapting to any of the country’s various twangs and drawls. “I’m so disappointed with you all! But for one reason alone, I almost thought it was my fault that the results of your papers were so bad. Tell me, who is Patrick Brown?”

I almost vomited. The nausea triggered reddening, and my ears were instantly steaming. My hands shook as I reached for my things. Of course, Miss New Jersey, the hit-and-miss Hermione, was seated next to me. Hoping for extra credit, she pointed frantically as if Dr. K. couldn’t see quite plainly that her target was seated before her.

“Mmmmm,” she murmured. “Patrick Brown, do you mind if I use your paper as an example for the rest of the class?”

I nodded and shrugged. At the very least my humiliation would be delivered with a fabulous German accent that made me think of Madeline Khan in Blazing Saddles. I believed this moment would eventually become a final fabulous memory of graduate school, and I was eager to get it over with.

“Yours is the example of a perfect paper! I’m going to pass this around so that everyone can see it. You were the only one to grasp my intentions, and I thank you. You helped me to understand that I was not the source of the confusion. So everyone, please look at Patrick Brown’s paper and understand that when you redo the assignment, THIS is what I’m looking for!”

My relief was visible. I sat taller without looking smugly at Miss New Jersey. One of the next assignments was making an oral presentation on the topic of our respective professional journals (i.e. magazine), which we properly called periodicals. This is where the class really got entertaining.

Miss New Jersey and Miss Arkansas showed up with the same periodical. Regardless of who presented, Dr. K. was totally uninterested in their magazine, which implied that she was completely disappointed with their chosen field of study. She interrupted Miss Arkansas in her second sentence and asked the class, “Tell me, does anyone have anything that is NOT…boring?” Miss Arkansas looked like she might faint, and I got to watch Miss New Jersey fret once more about the possibility of getting an incomplete on her work.

Dr. K. liked the men gathered on the east end of the table. Neatness counted, and she singled out the Ph.D. candidate with an emphasis in Moravian music. “Tell me, do you have a little wifey at home who types all your papers?” He reddened and said that while he had a wife, she didn’t type for him. “Oh, well, it looks so professional. I can see you are a man that knows how to handle multiple details.”

I felt terribly sorry for the Korean women seated at the opposite end. No matter what they did, Dr. K.’s response was, “You’ll all need to stay after class and see me.” Miss Arkansas and I usually dashed for the elevator to get away, but one day we found ourselves riding down with Dr. K. already donning her sunglasses. We held back when the doors opened, and my classmate muttered that she didn’t appreciate being repeatedly poked in the back with the professor’s prominent bosom. Keep in mind that my classmate didn’t phrase her displeasure quite so genteelly.

I happen to love the tedium of research and following trails from one topic to another. A class devoted to learning how to do it efficiently turned out to be more enjoyable than I expected. The class was easy for me, and the lectures were like a nightclub act directed by Bob Fosse where the mesmerizing emcee interacted with the audience between topics, compliments, and effortlessly delivered insults.

Dr. K. was a woman possessed of biases, but for once I was on the right side of the bias. My old car broke down one day, and after I got a ride to campus three hours late, she allowed me to turn in an assignment and review her lecture notes. We had a delightful conversation in the process, and I was smitten.

When I got my term paper back before finals, it was full of tiny circles. I’d committed a number of grammatical infractions involving commas. There were also a few misspellings, but she gave me an A++ with complimentary comments because I had chosen a subject that she’d not run across for several years. She indicated that my approach was something she’d never read, but she was actually swayed by my using the only reputable contemporary source to support my thesis. Her former classmate had written that book, and when handing my paper back to me, she announced to the class that I’d provoked so many fond memories.

I remain very proud of the A I received in Dr. K.’s course, which helped me to realize what I wanted to be when I grew up: an idiosyncratic intellectual who isn’t the least bit hesitant to express ennui when the topic fails to stimulate. Some would say I’ve achieved my goal, but perfection eludes me.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

Some recommendations for summer reading!

To learn more about my books, especially the latest two suspense novels that feature Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1