Stumbling Through School, a Lost "Luxury"
Sometimes you have to get lost to be found.
I do not remember my undergraduate modernist literature professor’s name, but I remember his elbow patches because I spent the limited number of class periods I attended critiquing them in my notes. I was criticizing my professor’s elbow patches and unlit pipe (not kidding) and other professorial affectations because the way he was talking about the things we were reading made me confused and angry and taking notes on the class discussion only intensified that anger.
Now a teacher, I often use myself as an object example of what not to do in college. My attendance was poor, my engagement sporadic. I was a drifter without direction or purpose. I tell my students that if I had college me in class, I would not like myself.
A lot of this was due to immaturity, laziness. I could work plenty hard at the things that were interesting to me, but if I decided it was difficult (economics) or boring (Russian history), I’d switch into maintenance mode, doing the bare minimum to get a B, which wasn’t all that hard.
I tell my students I don’t remember anything I learned in college, and how I regret this, that I wish I was more mature, more engaged. I’m trying to offer a warning not to do as I did.
But I had a student call me out recently. “You must’ve learned something,” she said. And furthermore, if I didn’t learn anything, why am I such a strong believer in the importance of higher education?
I’ve been asking myself what I learned, and I’m starting to see an answer in two courses I didn’t even like at the time, where even immediately after completing them, I couldn’t have demonstrated much learning.
Prior to that class in modernist literature, I had thought I loved The Great Gatsby, but the way this professor talked about it had me loathing it. Whatever emotional effect the novel might’ve had was suddenly irrelevant. Instead, we were asked to pull the text apart like so much taffy, seeking to articulate how the different strands came together.
Once I made it to graduate school I learned that this professor was an adherent to the New Criticism, and the close reading we were asked to do was simply the fundamental tool of the method. At the time, though, I thought my teacher was determined to kill literature. It was my only C in college.
A couple semesters later, I took a postmodern literature course. I was introduced to Barth and DeLillo and Coover and fell fast and hard. I was both captured and mystified by these fictions, so different from all the other literature I’d been exposed to previously.
At the same time, I’d started taking creative writing courses, the only classes I cared about. I was exploring the “hows” of writing, asking not what a story meant, but how it managed to affect me (and others) emotionally. After a lifetime of reading for pleasure, this other window had been opened, one that invited me to try my hand at making my own things of meaning.
I wasn’t very good at it. Despite putting more effort into my fiction writing classes than any other, I was a B student in those as well, at least at the outset.
So when the time came in my postmodern literature class to write a close analysis of the metafictional effects of a specific text, and how this tied into the larger postmodern tradition, I chose John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and almost entirely ignored the assignment prompt, and instead argued how the novel – like a lot of Irving’s work – contains a kind of cri de cour defending the use of overt sentimentality as an aesthetic element, that is, the novel contains a defense of Irving’s approach to art, a “how to” embedded in the larger narrative.
It was the first literature paper, maybe the first college paper period I was genuinely proud of, where I was interested in my own thoughts. I think I went almost double the page limit.
I’ve treasured the professor’s one sentence comment at the end ever since: “Not remotely what the assignment asks for, but a very engaging read.”
I got a B+. I kept that paper for 20+ years. I may have lost it in our last move, but I’m still hoping that it’ll turn up in a forgotten box somewhere.
My student is right, I did learn something in college, I discovered my personal relationship to words and writing and that I am always going to be more interested in the “how its done,” rather than “what it means.”
It is what makes me more teacher than scholar, but also what makes me well-suited for that particular work.
As we enter the age of the New American University that prizes “job preparation” and efficiency, that asks us to interact with adaptive software and algorithms, and in doing so seeks to remove as much friction as possible from the student experience, so we can improve chances of completion, I can’t help but think about what is lost in the shift.
I understand the stakes are higher now, that we can’t let students cast about like I did. I was allowed slack we can’t seem to afford anymore. Those luxuries are gone.
I wonder what Purdue’s Course Signals or ASU eAdvisor would’ve told me after my B in introductory creative writing and C in modernist literature about my choice to major in creative writing. If the software had been checking my attendance, I might’ve been drummed out of the university altogether.
I certainly didn’t excel in either of those literature classes, but I now realize how important they were. I can’t really imagine a life without them.
They were career preparation and identity shaping all in one.
I hope we can somehow preserve an experience that allows students to stumble towards their destinations. I hope it isn’t an unaffordable luxury.
 Being a mediocre student and still getting B’s or better isn’t that hard if you make a practice of identifying the easiest courses and have a proficiency at the B.S.-laden essay that makes copious use of block quotes stitched together with the barest of connective tissue.
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