Saturday, February 9, 2008

One of Our Chief Correspondents Breaks Down the Super-Keener Thing. First, There Are Two Kinds. Second, He Used to Be One.

I have a good deal of sympathy for Sarah from Sausalito. It’s a drag to be in a class where some guy – it is usually a guy – dominates the discussion and winds up discouraging other students from speaking up. As an instructor, I usually try to drop subtle hints to the keener that he needs to let others into the conversation, but when that fails, I’m not above delivering a slap to the keener’s ego: “Keith, thanks for that trenchant observation on Pope’s couplets – you show exceptional insight for someone with your lack of background.”

In my experience, there are two main kinds of super-keener. The first (and perhaps most common) is just a brown-noser pretending to be enthusiastic, but the second kind is genuinely enthusiastic, just socially clueless. The first type is a pain in everyone’s ass, though every once in a while even he can save the day when you have a class full of hung-over Greeks and brain-dead athletes (overlapping categories, I know). There have been rare occasions when I was grateful to have even some fake enthusiasm to break the silence into manageable pieces.

The second type of keener, I want to encourage in his enthusiasm while socializing him to the niceties of classroom behavior. And I have pretty often been very happy to have a type two super-keener in an otherwise dull class. The problem arises when there are other students who are less voluble, or who take more than a microsecond to formulate their thoughts. I’m sure that orchestra conductors must always have some random flute player who wants to come in, not on the beat, but just an eager moment before the beat. The guy may even be a good musician – the problem is how to hold him back a bit and teach him to play well with others.

Full disclosure: As an undergraduate, I was a bit of a super-keener, at least in some classes. I just loved the material so much I couldn’t hold myself back. I sat in the front row and I am dead certain that a whole classroom full of students were rolling their eyes behind me. But I had one instinctive rule: Never be a keener out of class. How I detested the groupies who followed the professor to his office, who formed a sort of honor guard around him in the cafeteria, a posse, with the girls vamping and the boys trying to look sophisticated and deferential at the same time. (Medical fact: this can give you a hernia.) Those are the lowest form of keener, utterly beyond redemption, and however idiotic I was in class, I never joined their parade.

My dears, do not go there! Your professor does not want to be your friend (or if he does, he needs psychiatric counseling) and he especially does not want to hear you tell him that you think the class “went well.” He does not consider you a colleague, even of a very inferior sort, and your opinion of his scholarship will be of less than zero interest to him. If you are that fucking smart, go to grad school and write articles that demolish his most cherished ideas.