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Funny hats topped my teaching career

In serious self-evaluations, i'd include a few less weighty accomplishments.

By Edward T. Ordman / May 1, 2003



For some years, I reported in my Annual Effort Report that I was, among other things, chairman of the Committee on Funny Hats. Filling out the Annual Effort Report, a rundown of "what did you do this year?" was not my favorite part of college teaching. It asked for a listing of classes taught, papers published, meetings attended, committee memberships, and so on. All worthwhile, I suppose, but I've never felt statistics are the best way to tell a story.

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Fortunately, my first department chairman, Prof. James Wells of the University of Kentucky, understood the importance of telling a story. He explained to new faculty members in 1969 that his job, as chairman, was to get resources for the Mathematics Department. To do that, he needed stories he could tell, information so he could brag about us to the dean and the provost. Yes, he did need the statistics - but mainly as a way to jar the stories loose. He really wanted us to write down the stories.

Over the years I changed schools, and the schools acquired bigger and more powerful computers. So the forms got longer and more complex, with less and less space to actually explain anything. Were the conference talks invited (Check Box A) or contributed (Check Box B)? Was the journal refereed or edited? Was the committee elected or appointed?

In my first dozen years of teaching, I got to know a few deans and chairmen only too well. Most of them spent too much time serving as the complaint department and not enough time talking with students. It was talking with students that had attracted me to teaching. How could I manage to avoid becoming an administrator? One way, I thought, was to not take the Annual Effort Reports too seriously.

Yes, I gave them the statistical data they needed. I wrote the stories I really wanted to tell, too, and sent them along whether they fitted on the form or not. But I started including in my lists things I'd written and meetings I'd gone to that weren't in my research specialty, and I put down that I was Department Poet, and chairman of the Committee on Funny Hats.

The funny hats, if not the committee, actually existed.

My bald head sometimes suffered from heat, cold, and sunburn, and my absent-minded-professor persona was well enough developed that I occasionally collided with a low-hanging tree branch. So I had a nice variety of broad-brimmed hats for all seasons. And I had other hats. Some were collected from craft fairs and foreign travels - a Panama hat, a Turkish cap, a warm Russian sheepskin hat, and a brightly colored stocking cap made by Indians in Ecuador.

I mentioned to my children and grandchildren that, if they happened across funny hats (I suggested other alternatives, too), they might help prevent my having a steady income of a dozen neckties every birthday and Christmas.

That brought in propeller beanies, a jester's cap with bells, and one hat that looked like a chicken nesting on my head.

The funny hats do have uses. Putting matching propeller beanies on the younger grandchildren makes rounding them up much easier when they scatter in all directions at county fairs and outdoor arts festivals. Pretty girls strike up conversations with me, asking about the hats.

For the last 20 years of my career, I taught at the University of Memphis. None of my chairmen, deans, or colleagues who sat on the committee that read the annual reports ever commented on the Committee on Funny Hats. But at my retirement dinner, I was presented with a handmade hat built primarily of computer parts - large old floppy disks adorned with computer chips including a processor, memory, and input-output controller chips.

After the dinner, we held the first and only full meeting of the Committee on Funny Hats. The president of the university wore the safari helmet, the associate provost the Russian cap, the department chairman the nesting chicken, another colleague the stocking cap from the Andes - more than a dozen are in the picture.

I keep a copy of that photograph, and treasure it. The Mathematics Department even put the color picture in its newsletter. I feel very blessed to have worked in a department where people are friendly, like each other, and work together well.

And I contend that no statistics, carefully compiled by ever-faster computers from ever more complex Annual Effort Reports can convey that message as well as a picture of the smiling members of the Committee on Funny Hats.

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