A prof’s word was law

At Highlands University in the ‘80s, a secretary I used to know circulated a sheet that contained clever descriptions of the college hierarchy.

It started with the dean, who was “able to leap tall buildings at a single bound” and was “more powerful than a locomotive.”

The department head could leap Quonset huts and sometimes win a tug-of-war with a switch engine.

The full professor left scuff marks trying to leap over a chair. The lowly instructor would trip over his own shoes.

The events and descriptions are probably inaccurate and based on memories. I hope some Highlands secretary, with access to the correct version, will forward it to the Optic.

The descriptions came to mind during a meeting last week in which several members of the emeritus faculty group discussed what they plan to talk about during a homecoming week panel discussion at 10 a.m. Thursday at the new Student Center.

One of the panelists, former Highlands professor of education Lupita Gonzales, talked informally about protocols when she was a student in the ‘60s: Coeds wore dresses, not slacks, cutoffs or shorts. There was to be no overt P.D.A.

What’s P.D.A.? It’s not the erstwhile Personal Digital Assistant, a cell-phone-like device that allowed people to take notes and even listen to voice or music. That P.D.A. vanished as cell phones grew. P.D.A., in the eyes of then-Dean of Women Ann Nanninga, meant “public display of affection.”

So, there was to be no overt or excessive kissie-face or huggie-bear in Kennedy Lounge, where couples congregated.

What impressed me even more in that era, as a student was the amount of power held by professors. The law simply was that students were to dress and comport themselves respectably while enrolled at Highlands.

New freshmen needed to wear a purple-and-white beanie on campus. That item of apparel entitled upper-classpersons to demand that we lowly freshman sing the Highlands fight song: “Cowboys, the best in the west land; Cowboys for you we stand . . .”

We climbed Hermit’s Peak, and we painted the “H” on the hill on the east side of town, where a professor, Caskey Settle, awaited with a kettle of soup.

We were expected to thrive on school spirit, which meant attending games and sitting together, purple-and-white chapeaux on our pates. The rule was that we wear the beanies until the Cowboys won their first football game. We lost the first game, whereupon L. Rush Hughes, a Highlands official, got on the P.A. at Perkins Stadium and said, “Freshmen, hold on to your beanies.”

We didn’t win a football game for several weeks but got to shed them with our first victory, our homecoming against The Sisters of Mercy Tech.

We were a different group 50 years ago, and I assume almost all of us understood that “the professor’s word is law.” About two decades after my years as a student, I was amazed to discover how much things had changed.

Two decades earlier, if you missed a final exam, that was it, tough. You received an F.

But during my time as a faculty member, it seems, there were myriad safety nets for students. One office on campus typed students’ hand-written papers. Did they also correct spelling and punctuation?

In the earlier years, every prospective graduate needed to pass what was called the English Usage Examination. It didn’t matter what one’s GPA was before taking the test. I believe we English majors had an advantage, the test containing grammar terms like “gerund” and “appositive.”

Of course, for those who failed the exam, there was always next quarter to try it again. I suspect the mere pressure of taking an exam may have caused some to fail it.

We lived through the era of the mimeograph. Once, in a scenario that might have inspired a scene in the movie “Animal House,” someone went through outside trashcans to recover the stencils used to prepare a multi-page final exam. The students apparently “read” the typing on the translucent sheets, giving them access to the exam questions.

But that theft was discovered early the next morning, prompting our history teacher to require what many thought was a grueling written final exam. None of those completion, multiple-choice or true-false items. The professor’s word was law.

And on a personal note, a letter I once wrote to the editor displeased one of my profs with whom I was currently signed up for eight credit hours. Soon, the professor threatened to turn all my current credits to Fs, unless I wrote and had printed, a letter of apology.

Apology for what? Doesn’t matter. The professor’s word was law.

And finally, an incredibly perceptive professor who apparently was able to distinguish term papers written by Hispanics, from those written by non-Hispanics, issued five hours of F to a senior in her major field. Why? Because “no Hispanic can write that well,” the professor said.

Now what if I’d defied my professor’s insistence by refusing to write an apology, lest he assign the eight hours of failing grades? Or what would have happened if the other (Hispanic) student had gone up the chain of command to protest her five hours of F? I have no doubt that would have caused more difficulty. The first instinct among chairpersons and deans is to back up the faculty member. I don’t believe either of us would have won our case.

It is true that many students believe their work merits a grade higher than that awarded. My first year of teaching featured visits from a number of my students who said, “I showed this paper to another professor in your department, and he/she thinks I should have gotten a higher grade.”

One thing that never happened in my 28 years of teaching at Highlands was for parents to question any grade their Hijito or Hijita received.

Apparently it happens a lot in public schools. Let’s hope it remains there.

3 thoughts on “A prof’s word was law

  1. Ben Moffett

    I’m sure Lupita Gonzales never sanctioned or engaged in PDA at HU during the designated period, but in the late 50s, at UNM, PDA was Pretty Darn Active. Even the campus newspaper, the Lobo, had a “campus cutie” of the week striking a particular lovely pose. I’m wondering if the difference between the fifties and sixties was at work here, or it was just a question of big school metality being less restrictive. Panty raids were also big then, raids by the men (fraternities I suppose) on multi-story buildings like Hokona Hall, then a women’s dorm, with undergarments fluttering down from the third floor.

  2. Art Trujillo

    Hi, Ben:
    Interesting observations, Ben. As for Lupita, I suspect her version of P.D.A. in college was more like Preparing for Daily Assignments. And besides, she was a P.D.A. (Part-time Dormitory Assistant) whose job was Preventing Displays of Affection. I was never aware of things like panty raids when I was an undergrad at Highlands, and even as a dorm resident at the U. of Virginia and U. of Missouri, I NEVER even heard of such activities. I’m going to forward this dialogue to Madame P.D.A. (Put Down Art) to get her take on this subject, which will prolly be Pretty Darn Ambiguous. Pues Digame Algo, Ben.

  3. Lupita Gonzales

    Sheesh! I have become the poster girl for PDA variations and victimization for writing well despite my ethnic origin. How lucky can one get?….P.S. PDA could also have been Ponce Darned Awesome. Thanks for the notoriety Tanks, Arby…lol…lpg

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