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Scathing Online Schoolmarm
April 17, 2008 - 12:11pm

By

SOS

A professor at the University of Colorado sends SOS the following intriguing letter a freshman there wrote to the campus newspaper. As always, SOS will comment throughout.

"As my first year of college draws to a close, I realize that I have learned nothing academic from these hallowed halls at the University of Colorado. [SOS likes the absolutism of this. You want to keep reading because the claim is so strong. Absolutely nothing... SOS is less sure about the sarcasm of hallowed halls. And she definitely thinks dropping a few words would tighten this first sentence and make it even more riveting: I realize that can go, as can at the University of Colorado.]

I am spending $8,000 per semester to have instructors teach me things that I already know. I am given assignments that take hours of my life to complete and leave me wondering what I was supposed to have gained. [Vast generalizations, but it's okay, because we're still at the very beginning of this. She'll need to offer details pretty quickly, though.]

My esteemed professors [ Again, the sarcasm on esteemed is probably not a good idea. You don't want your emotions to dominate; you want the reader thinking not about your feelings but about the substance of your claims.] gab about their personal lives, their vendettas, drop names of people in their field all while leading tedious discussions and teaching us to be overly critical and judgmental of ideas presented by others. [ Drop the awkward judgmental of ideas presented by others. By others is too vague, and the passive formulation weak. Remember that you want to end all of your sentences with your strongest word -- this sentence peters out. Notice too that the phrase is redundant, overly critical already having gotten across the idea. As for professors who gab about their personal lives -- I agree that this is almost always cynical time-wasting.]

In one of my classes, we read articles and classmate-written papers and are instructed to "tear them apart." [ SOS will assume this is the student's English comp class, where it's routine to take an editorial eye to your fellow students' efforts... The writer doesn't need quotation marks around tear them apart . And this phrase introduces what SOS would argue are flaws in the writer's arguments. Throughout the letter, she takes umbrage at the idea that the cultivation of a strongly critical intellectual disposition is a valuable thing -- indeed, that this sort of disposition might mark a college-educated person. Yet it is indeed the dispassionate ability to judge the worthiness of ideas, prose styles, and a range of other cultural expressions that - among other attributes - distinguishes people who've studied at universities. Some freshman instructors might overdo the shock therapy here, figuring they're getting students who've known little other than runny self esteem in their earlier school years. But the effort to turn nice non-judgmental folk into less nice, more incisive types is central to universities.] I feel a student is only rewarded when they offer up a witty biting criticism rather than a clearly presented idea or even a compliment. [ The deadly I feel identifies a writer more emotional than intellectual. Drop it like a hot potato.]

We learn to say what is wrong with something but rarely are we asked how to make it right. In college, the classroom is full of those sharing problem after problem, those who are too shy to speak their opinions at all, and those like me who are just waiting for the learning to start and are left wanting more. [ These, er, thoses are vague in their reference. Make it clear that you're talking about students. And what sort of problem? Personal? If so, she's right to complain. As for those too shy to speak their opinions -- so what? In every class SOS has ever taught there are a few people too shy to contribute to the discussion. Not a problem. Or is the writer suggesting that these students are shy because the cruelty of the professor and other students shuts her up? This is certainly a problem. The student is too sensitive.]

But my education hasn't been a total bust; I've learned how to stretch two pages of information into a 10-page paper [ Are CU professors asking this student to write papers that merely convey information? SOS doubts it. She suspects that the professors are looking for an elaborated argument which incorporates information. This would call for more than two pages.] , where the best parties are on a Thursday night, how to use Facebook in lecture [No surprise there. UD's been talking non-stop about the scandal of laptops in the classroom. Note that the University of Chicago law school is the latest place to ban them .] and just how small one person can write on the one note card allowed in the exam room. Perhaps I am just an idealistic youth [ idealistic youth is awkward; a cliche. Avoid repeating the word just.] who thought I would learn something more from my liberal arts education at CU. I can't help being disappointed at what exactly college has turned out to be. [SOS likes the restless sense this student expresses that she's not getting a higher education. SOS suspects the student is to some extent right about this. But the writer hasn't, in her letter, clarified the real basis of her disappointment. If all she wants from college is a pleasant setting in which nice people hand her information, she could get an online degree from a for-profit school and save some of that eight thousand. Mainly what she's complaining about are efforts on the part of CU's faculty to induct her into a world of sharp polemic, deeper thought, and higher standards. She may well be right that the professors she's so far gotten haven't done a good job of ushering her in, but she herself hasn't done a very good job, in this letter, in saying that... One final thought: Part of the reason she's fallen short here is that education is a slow process. It may well be that for a few semesters you don't at all grasp what the payoff is, if you know what I mean... Four-year colleges with meaningful curricula are trying to build something in students, and it may be that the foundational early years don't look like much. Patience.]"

 

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