Sunday, December 8, 2013

Anton Chekhov and the Misery

"Sit down," I say to the visitor. "What do you have to say?"

"Excuse me for bothering you, Professor..." he begins, stammering and not looking in my face. "I wouldn't have ventured to bother you if it hadn't been...I've taken your examination five times and...and failed. I beg you, be so kind to pass me, because..."

The argument all lazy students give in their favor is ever the same: they have passed all their courses splendidly and failed only mine, which is the more surprising since they have always studied my subject most diligently and have an excellent knowledge of it; if they have failed, it is owing to some inexplicable misunderstanding.

"Excuse me, my friend", I say to the visitor, "but I cannot pass you. Go read over the lectures and come back. Then we'll see."

A pause. The urge comes over me to torment the student a bit more for liking beer and the opera more than science, and I say with a sigh:

"In my opinion, the best thing you can do now is abandon the study of medicine entirely. If, with your abilities, you cannot manage to pass the examination, then you obviously have neither the desire nor the vocation to become a doctor."

From the story "A boring story," 
by Anton Chekhov, November 1889. 
In "Stories", R. Pevear and L.Volokhonsky, 
translators. Bantam Books, 2000.

For many years I collected passages about teaching I found in stuff I read, and posted them all on my web page, in a more or less hidden link. Last year, when applying for jobs, I removed the link. This is one of my favorite passages. But I'm a math person. Surely many of you can think of examples of "CM-worthy quotes from world literature." It might be fun to have them all in one place.


  1. OK, so it's not literature, but it's definitely appropriate given today's "A for effort" batch of students.
    "Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say? You must unlearn what you have learned. . . . No! Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try."
    - Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

    1. Hey, I didn't know this one. It certainly counts.

    2. I quote this one to students every now and then.

  2. There's a brilliant passage in Erasmus (Praise of Folly, I'm pretty sure) that talk about obnoxious college guys being asses to the townies.

  3. Great one! This will be an awesome collection. But first, wow. I hadn't realized until now that Chekhov was kind of hot.

    1. You may enjoy

    2. Annie, he does look sharp, doesn't he? There is evidence this did not go unnoticed in his lifetime. Here is another favorite quote, from "The Lady with the Little Dog":

      "Repeated experience, and bitter experience indeed, had long since taught him that every intimacy, which in the beginning lends life such pleasant diversity and presents itself as a nice and little adventure, inevitably, with decent people...grows into a major task, extremely complicated, and the situation finally becomes burdensome. But at every new meeting with an interesting woman, this experience somehow slipped from his memory, and he wanted to live, and everything seemed quite simple and amusing."

  4. I should be able to think of one (or more), given my field, but right now I am, sadly, drawing a blank (and my bookshelves are in too much disarray to facilitate browsing).

    I'm very much intrigued by the Chekhov quotation, however, and especially by what does and doesn't seem contemporary. Students who think effort/their own awesomeness/their desire to pass/the praiseworthiness of their goals is a reason to pass? sounds very familiar. Students more into beer than studying? Also familiar. Wishing they'd come to class and/or do the reading (and/or pay attention during same)? Check. Opera as the escapist entertainment of choice among such students? Um, less familiar (though one could probably draw some parallels between opera and, say, video games, or even bigtime sports, all of which share a tendency toward grandiose narratives and high emotion).

    The other question is whether nothing has changed in 100+ years, or whether we've simply landed in a period where college students resemble those of Chekhov's day. One could argue that the university student of Chekhov's day was likely to be privileged, and hence likely to act in ways which suggest a sense of entitlement, and that, at least in more selective institutions, we're moving back in that direction during our current economically divided age. And one could wax nostalgic about some probably-mythical time when college admissions were more of a meritocracy -- after the GI Bill? After the GI Bill, *and* desegregation, *and* coeducation?

    1. Yes, I think video games and football (or maybe vampire movies) are our students' "opera".

      But that's a minor change--incredible how CM-like it is, isn't it? I recommend reading the whole story, not "boring" at all: there are passages about colleagues and grad students that are just as spot-on as this one.

      If anything has changed, it's the last paragraph: if a proffie tried to "torment" the student by recommending he/she change majors, next thing you know the proffie would be hearing from the dept head or dean. The sense of entitlement and "service" mentality--the need for proffies to watch what they say--are the main new things, and I'm sure this correlates directly to the degree to which higher-ed institutions have become dependent on tuition for survival--as opposed to state support, which was probably the case in Chekhov's time and place.

      As you say, back then studying was the privilege of the elites, and now "everyone" is supposed to have access to it. But I doubt this made them feel more entitled (though it's hard to know now.) If the passage is accurate, students were intimidated and respectful, and aware of the gulf separating them from their Professor. This has been lost.

  5. Peter, I suspect that you didn't actually remove it from your webpage.

    Having said that, I had to read it a number of times to see if it wasn't a parody - it was that uncanny!

    1. To be clear, I should have said, I suspect that you were unsuccessful in removing it from your webpage.

  6. "Americans (and Canadians)* are the only people in the world known to me whose status anxiety prompts them to advertise their college and university affiliations in the rear window of their automobiles."
    Paul Fussell

    * Parentheses not in original.

  7. This is beautiful! Thanks! And yes, Chekhov is hot. I actually am not bragging but I noticed this in grad school and developed a sort of post mortem crush.....

    Yes, I'm THAT geeky.


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