03 January 1994

The battle of the halfwits

In January 1994, I became the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the course Introduction to Biological Oceanography. I was in my second semester as a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia, and I was proud that I had successfully made it through the first one. Obviously, a lot of work still lay ahead, but still.

The professor for the course was Al Lewis -- not the actor who played Grandpa in the television series The Munsters, the other Al Lewis. Lewis had grown up in southern California and had earned his Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii. That must have been in the late 1960s. He was tall and in good shape, and he rode his bike to work every day. He also sported a crew cut, which made him look like a Marine Corps drill sergeant.

Lewis was very polite, at least initially. He always reminded us graduate students that it is as important to know the name of the janitor who cleans your office as it is to know the name of the university president. I shared his sentiment, although I wasn't sure if knowing the janitor wasn't more important.

Before the course started, I came to talk to Lewis about his expectations of me. I would be setting up the slide projector, of course, and preparing class demonstrations, and holding office hours to help students with their assignments, and marking of assignments and mid-terms, but was there anything else.

"Yes, there is one more thing," he said. "And that is very important. Before every class I want you to go to the department lunchroom and get me some coffee, which you then bring to the classroom."

He must have misinterpreted my perplexity as being caused by the procedure he had just laid out rather than his show of utter disrespect. This was a university not a coffee house, and I was a Graduate Teaching Assistant not his waiter. Lewis liked to preach the show of respect, but he certainly didn't live by it. Indeed, to clarify the process he felt it necessary to physically walk me through the steps.

"Come on, I'll show you," he said.

So he walked me downstairs into the lunchroom and showed me where his mug was located. (It was a brown mug hanging from a hook behind the sink.) Then he showed me where to find the coffee. (There were always two pots smouldering on a hotplate, one usually empty, often both, as the many seemed to drink the coffee, but only the few seemed to brew it.)

"Make sure to check the coffee situation ahead of time. If there is no coffee left, you will have to brew a fresh pot."

"Get your fucking coffee yourself," is what I should have said but didn't. Instead, I tried to be diplomatic about his gaffe, and making him see the error of his ways. "Class starts at eleven o'clock, and it's just one hour long. Right?"

"Right. That is why it is important that you get the coffee up at five to eleven."

"Are you worried about caffeine deficiency in your bloodstream?" is what I should have said. Instead, I said: "Right. Easy enough."

Needless to say, I had no intention to serve him coffee, not once, not ever.

The semester turned out to be the battle of the halfwits, really. Three times a week for thirteen weeks, I struggled between pretending to have forgotten about Lewis's coffee and the humiliation of serving him. Three times a week for thirteen weeks, he struggled between firmly reminding me of his coffee and just letting it slide, which for some reason he couldn't do.

And so the mutual resentment grew.

Why Lewis never brought his own coffee remains a mystery to me to this day. But I was defending a principle here: This is a university. I am a Graduate Teaching Assistant. Graduate Teaching Assistants are not waiters.

Was his reasoning the same, and if so, what would the syllogism look like? University professors do not pour their own coffee. I am a university professor. Therefore, I do not pour my own coffee. (Instead, I force some poor schmuck to do it, one that desperately needs money and will therefore not pipe up when I tell him what is what.)