“What game are you playing, Cheeseball? This isn’t f***ing high school.” My favorite professor in college was a foul-mouthed son of a bitch named Dr. Marvin. He taught freshman biology, a subject that didn’t interest me at all (having little to do with beer or girls). But Marvin’s reputation was well-known and I felt lucky to get into his class, mainly because he swore all the time.
That made his class more entertaining than most. Marvin’s profanity and foul moods caught my attention. And that proved to be the hook that drew me in.
On Day 1 of freshman biology, I was one of those lumps sitting in the back of the classroom. I was ready for class to be over before it had even started. But Marvin changed my attitude that semester, whether he knew it or not.
He connected with college kids on our level because the way he talked was less mature than other professors. That got our attention. I still remember the day we were in the biology lab and the sink turned on by itself. Marvin always walked around the lab, but his main spot for lecturing was near this big stainless steel sink.
So he was leaning on the sink and explaining something when water suddenly began to burst out from the faucet. Marvin jumped back. I don’t think he was wet, but he was surprised.
“Holy s***! What the hell was that? Somebody get the ***ing cops in here; that sink has a mind of its own!”
You had to be there to appreciate it, but perhaps you can imagine the scene. That whole class was laughing pretty hard. Then Marvin went over to turn off the sink. I don’t know why it had turned on, but I don’t think he had leaned on the faucet handle. It probably had a bad gasket or something. So once he had turned it off, Marvin went back into his lecture. And then the sink went on again.
“Jesus Criminy! This f***er’s haunted! Sonofabitch, you moved the bodies, but left the headstones!” I think the latter was a quote from the movie Poltergeist. The whole class was rolling in laughter.
He kept turning off the faucet and a few minutes later, it would turn itself back on again. I never found out whether the whole episode was spontaneous or whether he set it up somehow, but Marvin owned that group of students from then on. No one was late to class; we didn’t want to miss a single minute with that guy.
Except for one student. She was one of the hottest girls in the class. Guys took notice. And she made a point of walking in late every day, strolling in heels right in front of the whole class. In short (skirts or pants), she did her best to steal the show until she found her seat on the opposite side of the room.
Dr. Martin let her charm the class a few times until the pattern was clear. Then he gave her a verbal lashing in front of everyone. He called her a Lolita and a seductress with the mind of a child. And then he addressed the guys in the room, telling us that we were the real problem because we paid attention to her. At least she was honest, he said, because love is a trick. Love is a trick of biology to get us to fall for someone and procreate together, ensuring the continuation of our species.
I still remember his next quote quite well: “You want to ball her, so you let her control your mind. Lust is honest. It’s biology. But we’re not animals.”
Wow. Words that would get a person fired today rang with some truth back then. I think Marvin dished it out a little too straight for that girl’s taste. I saw him talking to her after class and she wasn’t happy, but apparently it worked. Every day after that, she was in her seat when class began, wearing more clothes than she had before. She became a serious student.
So did I. Whatever Marvin said, he helped me tune into his channel. And his immature language was only part of what was featured there. Beyond the gimmicks, Marvin was quite serious about biology and he had a passion for teaching. I remember the day that he explained his own research to us, which had something to do with frogs in a rainforest in Costa Rica. It was an incredible story and he almost broke down crying because he was so passionate about what he was learning and achieving. And he related everything back to the basic work we were doing in class, learning about cell structure and single-celled bacteria.
Over the next few weeks, I ate it all up. I didn’t want to miss a minute of that guy’s class and I thought about it for days after each lecture. When he’d come around the lab and check up on students’ work with microscopes or petri dishes, I was star-struck if Marvin even spoke a few words to me.
Back in my dorm room, I rarely studied other subjects until test time came around. But I read the Biology book almost every night. I wanted to understand the material and I was highly motivated to get a good grade in Marvin’s class. I actually enjoyed the material, too, and for the first time I realized it was important to understand.
I learned how to study in Marvin’s class. After blazing that trail, I was able to apply the same methods again in later courses, so I earned a few good grades along with the mediocre ones. But I also gained something else in Marvin’s class: I learned how to learn.
“Learning how to learn” was the most important thing I learned in college. I may have discovered it eventually in some other way, but Dr. Marvin made me want to learn. Though I started out as a lump in the back row, I ended that class on the edge of my seat. I learned how to learn because I actually wanted to understand.
If Dr. Marvin were teaching today, he would not be able to say the things he did. In my day, the college put up with him because he was an amazingly good teacher. Today, being a good teacher would not balance out all of his profanity, name-calling, and making sexual references to students. Today, Marvin would be a lawsuit waiting to happen. But the silly things he said caught our attention, and Marvin knew that once he had us hooked, we were with him for the whole semester. He made us better.
That was a semester I’ll never forget. Dr. Marvin was the best damn teacher I’ve ever had.
Pictures: Public domain, except: Sketch (Creative Commons, Flickr by Ken Mayer), Poltergeist (MGM), Sauce (Creative Commons, Flickr by Komal All) and top image (from The Simpsons, 20th Century Fox). Unfortunately, I could not find a picture of Dr. Marvin, but that sketch is very close.
Thanks to @donkeypong for editing my post, as he often does.