Likes: top-10 lists, sharing a cold one with students at semester’s end, political science and a certain Murphy Brown actress.
Dislikes: law school, shabbily dressed students and most movies released post-1969.
These are just a few of the fun facts Jameson O’Guinn learned about a peculiar professor he had for three unforgettable classes in the mid-2000s.
Here’s more on the incomparable Ira Carmen, from the St. Louis-based leader of Adobe’s solution architecture team:
“Professor Carmen taught at the University of Illinois from 1968 until shortly after I graduated in 2008. There was a certain mythology that surrounded him because he was a unique personality, so even before I signed up for one of the three courses I would eventually take with him I was well aware of what I was getting myself into.
“He had a certain disdain for law school, yet he ran his classes like a law professor would. He took a Socratic approach with his lectures and had a knack for knowing exactly what to say to elicit a response.
“He’d regularly veer completely off the topic of the day and dive into his top-10 lists of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time, or the 10 most beautiful women of all time, which included his wife and a young Candice Bergen.
“He had contempt for many new things — he liked only three movies made after the 1960s — and was a staunch, lower-cased ‘C’ conservative.
“What I’ll remember most about Professor Carmen, though, are included in three memories. Probably only two are fit to print, so I’ll share those.
“The first is when I attempted as a first-semester transfer student (via Southern Illinois-Edwardsville) to sign up for his seminar on the Supreme Court. The online system wouldn’t let me complete the registration without getting permission to participate from Professor Carmen himself.
“I met with him in his office one afternoon, expecting a conversation about my interest in the class. I sat in the chair across from his desk and started explaining that I wanted to take his course.
“Without looking up from whatever he was doing on his computer, he curtly asked what my GPA was and whether I’d taken his Constitutional law classes. I said I hadn’t. He stopped typing, looked up at me, and said, ‘Then I have to say no to you, good day.’ It was like meeting Willy Wonka after stealing Fizzy Lifting Drinks. The entire meeting was done in under three minutes.
“The second memory about Carmen is that at the conclusion of his Supreme Court seminar at semester’s end he would take his class out to Murphy’s for a few pitchers. I was finally able to secure a spot in his seminar after a couple years of trying and was looking forward to the end-of-semester beer with him and my classmates.
“Carmen would show up every day in a suit and tie and regularly chided all of us for wearing T-shirts and shorts to class, so a bunch of us agreed to dress up a bit. He brought his wife and we spent an hour or so chatting about his various lists. It was the highlight of my time at U of I.
“A couple days later, I was almost hit by a beat-up car peeling out of a covered parking garage. I turned around and saw Carmen behind the wheel, completely oblivious to nearly killing me.”
O’Guinn’s second most memorable professor is still around — Scott Althaus, director of the UI’s Cline Center for Democracy.
“I came into his Campaign Management course during my last semester at U of I and was positive I was going to law school since I couldn’t conceive of any other use for a political science degree.
“Professor Althaus’ class was completely unlike anything I’d taken at that point. Instead of studying the history of politics in the U.S. or analyzing treaties or understanding why developing countries enacted policies the way they did, Professor Althaus asked us to complete practical, hands-on coursework.
“Throughout the duration of the class, he had us create PowerPoint presentations as if we were political consultants pitching strategies to the candidate. He had us edit together attack commercials and positive ads, both for TV and for radio.
“For our final project, we were asked to create a comprehensive campaign strategy for an Illinois senatorial candidate by analyzing data in a statistics program and Excel, and create electoral maps with a geographical mapping software. It was incredible.
“At the end of the course, I thought back on my time at Illinois and realized two things: This was the first class I’d taken that really prepared me for the real world, and that law school wasn’t for me.
“Graduating Illini are issued a ‘stole of gratitude’ they’re meant to bestow upon someone who had a significant impact on their life. Many give that stole to their parents; I gave mine to Professor Althaus.
“Years later, I emailed him to let him know that without his class I likely would have gone to law school and absolutely hated my life. Instead, I used the data analysis and presentation skills he gave me to pursue a career in digital marketing.
“I owe him everything.”