The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
17.4 (Fall 2017)
F I N A L I S S U E
Fiction & Poetry
In his final burlesque of our chaotic academic scene, Davies shows a beleaguered instructor on a futuristic campus using “pseudo-artificial” intelligence as his “get out of jail” card.
Like all classes in recent semesters, this one was proving distinctly surly right from the outset. The only homework he had assigned at the end of the first meeting was to read over the syllabus and return today with questions—but Lane knew from experience that his utter absence of eye contact with any of the group as he pulled the door shut behind him did not bode well. He suppressed a sigh. Perceptibly registering his disappointment would only antagonize the ranks further.
The horameter’s glass shaft filled with lime-green luminescence on the wall at his shoulder, sounding a gentle chime, and its genial, soothing streak of color began the steady descent through fifty minutes of class time.
“Okay, green’s up,” he chirped. “Let’s begin. Please thumbprint the attendance pad.”
With a rustle produced by their almost perfectly synchronized movement, the students reached for the small screen at the upper edge of their desks and verified their presence. Lane watched his NotePad light up: all in attendance. That would change as the semester wore on, but attention to basic duties always ran high in the first couple of weeks.
Lane was retrieving from his memory an initial observation he’d made last time about the class: almost all were female, so far as he could tell from the largely gender-neutral names on his roll page. (At least eighty percent would identify as female, in any case, if precedent held true.) He was distracted just then, however, by the thump of a hefty beverage container—perhaps one of the latest that brewed fresh coffee and then iced it—on the carpeted floor. Two heads dipped in the back of the room, one politely assisting the other in recovering the runaway cylander. The container’s owner anfrily spiked it back on the desk top.
“Hope it didn’t break,” he piped amiably.
“It doesn’t break. It’s a Polaris,” came his curt answer, as if he had accused the girl of possessing second-rate accessories.
“Oh. Well, that’s fortunate!” he smiled… but he had no sooner confirm-clicked the attendance page than he discovered that the exchange was not over.
“I’m just pissed at this desk,” explained the girl. “If I hadn’t had to reach across it to get the AtPad, I wouldn’t have knocked it off.”
“Ah! That’s unfortunate,” commiserated Lane. “But the AtPad will read either thumb, you know,” he volunteered meekly.
“That’s fine, but I shouldn’t have to use my right hand. I’m left-handed. I shouldn’t be penalized for that.”
“Ah. No, of course not. But… you know, there are left-handed desks in the room…”
“Yeah—all in the middle or up front. I shouldn’t have to sit where I don’t want to, just because I’m left-handed.”
“No, you shouldn’t. But the desks are movable, you know. Maybe you should move one you like to where you want to sit before class begins.”
The girl’s voice rose and hardened. “I should move it? Because I’m left-handed?”
“Oh. Ah, no. Not so much. That is… I’ll see what I can work out.”
As he pecked a note onto his screen, Lane remarked with a quick glance that the girl’s indignation had attracted a certain solidarity. Several very hard stares aimed at his lectern had replaced the initial indifference to his entry. His next glance was over his shoulder at the horameter. The bright green streak seemed to mock him with the puniness of its decline.
“Um… so, how did you make out with the syllabus? I know you must have questions,” he coaxed, as if he himself were asking a question—or presenting a pleading petition. “Someone must have a question… right? Any… questions? Any questions at all? Anyone?”
“Maybe this is more of a comment, but…”
“I don’t see why your syllabus is so confusing. I mean, other professors have everything nicely divided up on PilotPro, where you can go straight to the assignments and skip all the crap. Or if you want to know how you’ll be graded, then you go straight to… I don’t know, something like ‘grading criterias’.”
“And you can set it so that the students will get a SmartVoice reminder at their chosen time about just what the next day’s assignment is. My phone didn’t tell me anything all evening about reading the syllabus, so I forgot. Obviously, you didn’t bother to use the setting.”
Lane looked placidly into his NotePad, pretending to peck in important insights gleaned from the discussion. In reality, he was weighing whether to lock the door and proceed to kill all twenty students with his bare hands, creating a very faintly brighter future for the planet’s surviving inhabitants. If his face seemed to catch a glow from the pad, it was because fantasy’s wings brushed his cheeks on her way out the window.
When he finally spoke, he was on the verge of saying, “Actually, perhaps half the faculty use PilotPro in the manner you describe, so you have uttered a definitive half-truth”… but, of course, his skillful tongue introduced some last-minute edits. “You see… this is a course in composition. What we do in composition is to compose. The word literally means ‘to put things together’. We have an argument with certain logical steps, but we also have examples and illustrations; and these we choose depending on the constitution of the audience, how much time or space we have to make our case, and so forth. So we’re stirring a bunch of things together, in composition. If you’re to be able to do several of these things harmoniously in a piece of writing, then you ought also to be able to read another’s writing and recognize various elements within it.”
He was aware that eyes were dropping and wandering now—in fact, he had counted on chasing them out of their hard stares with his ramble. Mission accomplished. But he still had a lot of green to eat up, and he didn’t dare glance back at the horameter again. As his mind cast about for the next relatively dry spot to hazard a step in the surrounding muck, something in him stole his tongue away briefly and nailed the point.
“So we’re not using PilotPro to tell you every single thing you need to do every moment, no. That’s true.”
“That sounds a little male-aggressive,” said a voice from an unidentified quarter of the room.
He could feel darkness sweeping over his face like the shadow that envelopes an unused screen seconds before it shuts itself down. That voice, so dry and matter-of-fact… it didn’t sound like the typical Beginperson’s simper or whine. An administrative plant in his class, perhaps—a Regulator? His whole career, puny and unexceptional though it was, spun before his eyes. Luckily, he had developed an instinct for handling these crises.
“Excellent! Yes, you’re right! You see, that’s the very kind of analysis I want you all to be able to perform. Good writers need to be able to assess tone and diction. There was just a tad of latent hostility in my remark—which most of you didn’t notice, I’ll bet, because I saw your attention wavering. That’s very good. May I ask who made that observation? I want to give you credit for that excellent pick-up on my NotePad.”
A petite girl lifted her chin his way, then finally, with evident reluctance, raised a limp hand a few inches from where the back of her chair propped its elbow. Her slouch had a sardonic savor to it that a kind of nascent smirk did nothing to dispel. Lane felt instantly relieved. Regulators did not slouch in chairs. They also never smirked. They believed in the righteousness of their espionage the way a religious fanatic believes in the benefits of burning at the stake. He cross-checked the girl’s position with his attendance page.
He looked more closely. It would have been better to keep quiet, but he had already started pronouncing the name. “Thank you… Lucifra.”
“Oh. Lu-CI-fra. Of course. Yes, thank you, Lucifra. Analysis! That’s what we’re looking for. Did you notice that our assignments…”
“I have a question.”
Yet again, Lane was thrown slightly back on his heels, the more so in that this voice came from directly in front of him and was quite loud.
“Yes? A question? Please speak.”
“You said ‘assignments’, and I have a question about the assignments.”
“Certainly. What’s your question?”
“Why do we have them?”
“Why do… the assignments? Why do we have assignments? Is that what you’re asking?”
“Yeah. I mean, if you want to have me write something, then just have me write something. I get it that it’s a writing class. Well, I write all the time. I’m completely cool with that. But why do we have to write about this or that and just b.s. about it when we have so much of our own experience that we can write about and really write good, because we’re experienced in it and it’s what we know and it turns us on? My high school teacher said you always write your best stuff about stuff that interests you, and she let us choose our own stuff to write about.”
“That’s very interest—”
“So why can’t we just write about what we want to write about? You tell us, ‘Hey, I need you to turn something in on Tuesday,’ and then we go home and write something. That’s how you should do the class, if you want my opinion.”
Lane’s immediate fear was that he would perceive a groundswell of approval start to sweep across the class; but, to his great relief, there was no such enthusiasm visible anywhere. Possibly the rest of the group did not share this student’s natural love of the language’s glorious expressive qualities. Even Lucifra was now gazing into her lap, where the arm not flopped over her chair was manipulating a PalmPad.
“The only problem is,” he began gently, “we need to have a common body of subject matter so that we can have collective discussions and study how to develop positions on certain issues.”
“We can do that with mine,” returned his rugged-individualist interrogant.
“With your… do it with your… your what?”
“With my subject. I wrote a paper last night. I did it just because I wanted to. It’s about how pets should have a right to health care. I mean all animals, really. But the first step is to see that every stray animal is adopted by an owner, or taken in by government shelters. But it doesn’t stop there. Animals shouldn’t have to suffer just because some owners are poorer than others. We say that about people, so why shouldn’t we say it about animals? Animals are just people who can’t speak for themselves. Here, I can just read the paper. Is that okay?”
“I… read the….” Lane tried to weigh the risks of a refusal against those of an idiot-storm lasting ten minutes. He glanced at Lucifra to see if his response were likely to be monitored for male-aggressive tendencies, but she seemed more than ever absorbed in her PalmPad.
“It’s not long… see? And I feel really passionate about the subject.”
“Oh, well… in that case….”
The length of certain communications cannot be measured in mere minutes and seconds. Sometimes a half-hour’s presentation appears to fly by like an uplifting breeze… and then again, sometimes a reading of five minutes may appear of equivalent duration to having a KGB interrogator tear out one’s teeth and fingernails over the course of a month.
Lane could scarcely believe that the horameter was just past the halfway mark when the girl’s whiney voice struck a pause that began to promise completion as it continued. A little more than halfway… approaching a respectable place to finish. Few classes ever went the full time these days, and students particularly liked professors who tended to let them out a few minutes early.
“So, are you going to make a mark on your NotePad for me?”
“Hmm? Am I…”
“You sure do repeat a lot! Yeah, you know—like you did for that girl who called you a male sexist. You gave her a point, and I read a whole paper.”
“A whole paper… yes, of course I’m going to give you a point! I was just thinking about the thesis of… of your whole paper. You left me musing there for a minute.”
“Well, what do you think of my idea?”
“Your idea? About free health care for—”
“No, no! About letting us write on any subject that we feel passionate about.”
“I… there are certain considerations that have to do with rules laid out by the department. Your idea certainly has merit. I like it. It’s an excellent idea, in fact. But I don’t know if I would be allowed to act upon it. I’ll have to consult with my superiors and get back to you next time.” Always pass the buck: it was about the only thing superiors were good for.
“In the meantime,” he ventured meekly, “I would actually like you all to read the textbook’s opening chapter, about identifying your target audience. It’s really quite short. But you do need to remember to read it, or else check the syllabus through your PalmPad… because I won’t be sending you any little pings or sweet voices in the night to remind you.”
At least three tiny protests sparked off at the same instant, almost whispered inadvertantly through a layer of dense conditioning. It was as if he had had given the “shave and a haircut”, dot-di-di-dot-dot knock on the lectern: a certain number of knuckles were bound to respond with two more raps. This was proving a more treacherous overture to the semester than usual. Lane’s own conditioning wanted him to make an appeal to common sense and cry, “It was a joke—a very modest joke!” But five years in the trenches had reconditioned him, and he no longer had immediate recourse to common sense or fair play. He toughed this one out.
“Look, as much as you don’t like it, some of you… there will be no PilotPro reminders. I’m not doing that.” There was a limit to what ordure he would swallow for this job: he wasn’t going to play PilotPro hide-and-seek games. “I want you to get used to doing some things for yourselves.” They could fire him, but they couldn’t shoot him or hang him. “It really is much the same thing as what you do in building a written argument.” He could go on unemployment again… and then he could manage another Pizza Shack. How much worse could it be than this?
“What if we don’t?”
“What if you… what if you don’t what?”
“Don’t read it? Will we get an F?”
“Actually, the syllabus explains that under ‘Grading Criteria’.”
“Now, that really does sound male-aggressive.” It was Lucifra again. The little sparring match had reanimated her. She leaned forward in her chair and drew her nimble little legs up like a Buddha-doll. Lane couldn’t decide if this meant that she were preparing for a charge, horns down, or rubbing her hands together in joyful excitement. “A grade is always a threat, in and of itself, and threats are a reflection of the male influence on the culture. But then to refuse to answer the question….”
Lane had learned to seek out his ghostly mirror-image in the NotePad’s screen at moments like this. He found his shadowy eyes and tried to look some peace into them. “Why don’t we all just call up the syllabus together, and I’ll show you all exactly where everything is. I think there’s still time.”
“Now you’re being kind of… what’s the word?”
“Sensible? Sane? Level-headed? Fair-minded?”
“No, I think it’s paternalistic. Or patronizing.”
“I’m offering to look at the syllabus with you.”
But the lithe little Buddha would not drop the strand, as if she had been waiting the whole period for this moment. “They warned us about this in BP Orientation, how the males on the faculty would display certain kinds of aggression.”
“Yeah, and they… remember? That Noddy woman said that there were still three left in the English Department.”
“Oh, you mean that one with the head thing. Nadya.”
“Yeah. I wanted in her class, but it was full.”
Lane listened with a somewhat bewildered passivity as students around the class began to chip in to a completely haphazard discussion who had remained as mute as stones up until now. But the gossip was also landing inner hits against him. Though he had long suspected that other members of the department were openly badmouthing him to students, this was the first solid confirmation he had come upon.
“Just out of curiosity,” he thrust in, already smelling the pizza dough in the oven, “do any of you in this group actually identify as male?”
A huffy kind of exhalation that vaguely possessed something of the stable drew his attention to the back of the room. (He noticed, in the process, that none of the girls followed his eyes: naturally, they already knew where the testosterone was—exactly where.) No hands were raised, but two slouches seated in the rear—in the corner opposite to Lefty’s—moved their chunky thighs about in well-worn jeans. They exchanged mutters, and then one of them gave him a smirk that showed a lot more teeth and a lot less tact than Lucifra’s.
The gossiping resumed, briefly passing under Lane’s radar as he poured a sympathetic gaze upon the two lads. They were boys, all right—and he knew why they were here. There was no better place on earth to harvest unattached females who offered quick, casual sex and to find competition for the prize almost non-existent. They would hang around, these two, under the barrage of public spittle as long as other bodily fluids flowed in more discreet circumstances. Eventually, some girl would want more of them than they were prepared to give… and they would be hit with rape charges, and face suspension or expulsion, and probably move on to a profitable career as electricians or plumbers long before completing a worthless degree.
“Did you really say that?” belted out the passionate-for-pets girl right beneath his lectern.
“Hmm? Did I… say what?”
“Did you really say that you didn’t want your students to use ‘they’ with ‘student’ in the singular? And that you refused to allow your students to use ‘ze’ for ‘he or she’?”
“Nadya said you did.”
“Do you count off for that? Because I don’t know of anyone else who… my Sociology teacher says we have to use ‘ze’. So are you going to count off?”
“Check the syllabus,” sniped Lucifra. Someone really needed to strangle her.
“So we can’t use ‘ze’? That’s really, really, really…”
Logical? Principled? Gramatically responsible?
“That’s like… rapist mentality!” The student in question had grown a bright red in trying to choke out the few words she produced from a seat near the door. Lane had not even noticed her before now. Had she been stewing silently the whole hour, or was she naturally red-faced?
“A man can’t even know what it’s like to feel raped!” she pursued. “You’re forced to do things, and you don’t want to but you have to! You’re getting forced!”
Surely teaching this class was rather like being gang-raped, mused Lane. But he simply gazed in wondering silence at the girl’s rosy cheeks and bubbling lips. She was really quite cute, when she was angry.
“You’re allowed to drop until October—I think it’s the third week,” he heard another voice explain conversationally. Apparently, the sanguine beauty had not drawn universal awareness to her outrage… and apparently, too, some of the group really were capable of reading a calendar.
“Well, I’m dropping Chemistry before I drop this class. This should be an easy A, and why would I wreck my GPA with Chem if I’m going to change my major?”
“Why is that even… what they call it?” shrieked Red Face incoherently, causing Lane’s head to spin back in her direction. Had she worked herself up into a kind of hysteria, or was she irritated that the class’s dissolution into stray chatter was affording her no more attention.
“Call… call what?” Lane stammered with sincere sympathy, slightly worried now about the girl’s health.
“That… that thing on the wall! That slimy green thing!”
He glanced over his shoulder, and did a double-take. “You mean… the hor—”
“Don’t say it! That horrible name! The name men use against women after they rape them! Like they… like they just think we’re some recepticle that can be filled up and emptied out… so that thing is what makes them think of a woman! Or does it time how fast they can get her down and force her right after they first meet her? What’s the thinking behind that name? Tell me! Are women just tubes? Does a tube make you think of a woman?”
The horameter. Oh, my God! Actually, there wasn’t anything in here that made him think of a woman.
“He’s not going to answer you,” smirked LuEllen. “He’s like a robot, or something. He probably doesn’t know what to do with a girl. He repeats everything you say… he keeps using words like ‘actually’ over and over… he runs to the manual whenever you have a question… the latest triumph of Artificial Intelligence.”
The remarks were so deliberately, calmly, overtly insulting that Lane thought he heard little gasps dotting the rows of desks. All the gossipy conversations broke off. He eyed his antagonist, who had slipped out of her Buddha mode and back into her lounging mode, without blinking. Yes, he had her pegged now. She would precipitate some kind of public, even official row between the two of them… and then she could hold that over him while doing nothing for the rest of the semester, threatening an action if he graded her anywhere below “excellent” on the ground that he was punishing her in reprisal. Actually, she had probably done more to earn an A already than anyone else in the group would ever do. Those were pretty sharp comments, stylistically speaking.
But something else was percolating inside him as he stared… something that made him indulge the stare, allowing it to grow fixed and glassy. In an odd way, perhaps he had drawn inspiration from the Martyred Rose in her hysteria; for though he imposed upon his looks the glassy serenity that his NotePad’s screen had taught him to master, he was keenly aware that something nutty was about to roll off his tongue.
“The latest triumph of Artificial Intelligence,” he repeated flatly; and then, after a pregnant pause, “Is that so bad?”
The words drew a nervous laugh from Lucifra. “No… not if you’re a robot.”
“And is that so bad… to be a… a robot, as you all like to call us?”
Nobody would have moved a muscle now if the “whore-arium” had drained its last drop of green and chimed the end of class. Actually, he was deeply curious to know just how much green remained—but he didn’t dare wrest his eyes from their wistful, dramatic gaze into his audience.
“You mean to say… you’re a…” whispered Pets’ Best Friend (though even her whisper carried all over the room).
“Come on!” sneered Lucifra; but she broke eye contact, and the squirming in her chair no longer found its way into an easy slump. “You’re trollin’ me, man!”
“Yes. All right, that’s exactly what I’m doing. See you all next time….”
“Wait!” Lucifra almost lept from her desk in protest. “You can’t get away with that. You know they don’t… they can’t make robots yet that—”
“Don’t call him a robot!” winced two girls almost at once. “It hurts his feelings!”
Lucifra answered them with another smirk. “What are we supposed to call him, then? Mr. Data, from the old Star Trek?”
“You can call me whatever you want,” eased in Lane. “It’s not as though I’m human and have real feelings.”
“Awwwooohh!” commiserated at least half the class in chorus, as if a frightened puppy had just crawled from the Technology Cabinet.
“Actually, you could greatly help me by keeping me apprised of my failures… such as my repetition of that word. Part of the experiment is to see if I can self-correct as time goes one, without specific and targeted reprogramming. So please continue to share your criticisms with me—”
“You’re fine,” reassured one voice… and then the Martyred Rose burst out at his side with a sob that almost cracked his impersonation of glass:
“You’re not a failure! You’re wonderful! You don’t need to change anything!”
Just as her convulsive sniffs interrupted a paean that might have gone on for some while, the chime sounded, and the second class of the semester in English Composition 110 (section 8) was history.
Lane was a little dubious of his ability to sustain the ruse for an entire three months; but he was also aware that, thanks to his association with Desdemona, he really had come to acquire certain speech and behavioral habits common in androids. After all, he spent more time with her now than with any human. Mitch had tired of her during the very week that Lane had tired of his car, having decided that he was permanently giving up dating—and the swap had proved to be a real godsend.
So that evening, after he had made love to her for the umpteenth time in six months (passionate love: he would certainly write about Desdemona if he ever had time to write about anything), Lane lay with her head of flowing hair in his arm and quietly asked, “Do you think you could teach me more about how you were programmed? Especially your speech habits, I mean?”
“My speech habits? But I don’t get that. You have been teaching me proper grammar and avoidance of solecisms…”
“Yes, and I’ll continue to do so, because I think it’s all that keeps me sane. You’re the only person… er, well, the only person or android who pays any attention to the rules and wants to learn them.”
“I do want to learn them. But why do you therefore want me to instruct you in my clumsy cyber-speech, darling? You are the teacher and I am the learner.”
“We’ll learn from each other, sweetheart,” he smiled into the dark ceiling. “Maybe we can both survive that way.”
“I would be happy to teach you,” she said in just the right tone (or was it the tone he now, after six months, associated with tenderness?).
When he hugged her closer at those words, it activated a response that simulated sleep—rather awkwardly, and in a way that still grated on him; for no real human being could just drop off like that. Lane himself drifted into oblivion much more gradually as he pondered what the word “happy” might possibly mean to her.
Ivor Davies promises that this is his last-ever vignette about academe, to which he no longer belongs and whose follies he can no longer stand to observe. He has begun spending more and more time visiting the mountainous sections of central Wales.