In Praise of Eccentric Professors

The electric shock hadn’t hurt Jeremy very much, but he had bumped his head on a metal leg of the auditorium seats which he fell into. I had told him to ham it up when I applied the electrode of my violet-ray machine to his outstretched hand, but this was much more than I expected.

I was using the machine in a lecture on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Many of the Romantics thought of themselves as “natural philosophers” and employed such devices to experiment with electricity, which they thought had rejuvenating powers.) I was so flustered by Jeremy’s feigned collapse (and twitching) that for another five minutes into my lecture, I forgot to remove my black rubber gloves. But I’ll bet that was one of a handful of lectures those students will remember for a long time; maybe they’ll even retain an intuitive appreciation for the complementary relationship of science and literature.


Eccentric professors are genuinely loved, and they are a glue that holds together the culture of an institution over time. They are not highly paid, transient “superstars”; but they are the professors to whom former students send their own college-age children. —Thomas H. Benton
In Praise of Eccentric Professors (Chronicle)

I remember Prof. Irby Cauthen, a Milton scholar at the University of Virginia, who seemed eccentric simply because he loved Milton. And James Trefil was the physics professor who shot a bullet into a stuffed Barney for us. I don’t recall him having any particularly eccentric mannerisms, though.