Friday, October 31, 2008

Okay, so That Was a Bit Harsh. . .

The other day I wrote to you, my students:

I love you all BUT:

I'm disappointed (and annoyed) at how few of you did the assigned reading. Some of you admitted honestly that you simply hadn't done it; others claimed the material was boring.* (see footnote). But there is NO EXCUSE for not doing your assigned work. What it says to me is that you don't care. And that you don't belong in a university.

Furthermore, given that you don't care to learn, why should I or anyone care to teach you? Or give you a passing grade?

Sometimes students are so advanced that they can afford to skip classes and assignments and will still turn in papers so accomplished, so brilliant, that they're professors have no choice but to pass them. Rest assured that is not the case with any of my current students.

That you've missed this last assignment will be reflected in your grades.

On a related note: I have spoken to you several times about the need to make appointments with me and (if necessary) the writing center. Many of you have yet to do so. I suggest you do. The responsibility is yours.

On Thursday, Nov. 6 we will begin discussing your final paper: the research paper.

And don't forget to vote!!!

*footnote: When students say they are bored by someone else's work (like Carl Sagan, who, by the way, was one of the most accomplished and brilliant scientists of the last 50 years), my response is that it isn't the man or his work that is boring, but you who bored yourself through your lack of intellectual curiosity, patience, and engagement. You want knowledge to be spoon-fed to you in sugary, bite-sized pieces—like candy? But knowledge is not candy; you won't find it at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks. True knowledge requires EFFORT. And EFFORT means enduring something that may not be as entertaining as a vampire novel or a Disney movie, but may have MUCH MORE to teach you. This is what college is all about: to expose you to realms of thought that you might not be exposed to otherwise. But it is also why some people—those with NO intellectual curiosity or interest in expanding their minds—should probably not be in college.

End of editorial.

Okay, so that was a bit harsh ... and not meant to apply to all of you. To those to whom it didn't apply my apologies. But I see my job here, with this course and for you, as not just a matter of helping you to become better readers, writers, and thinkers, but to see to it that you are equipped in other important ways to succeed through these next few years of university—and beyond—into what I hope and imagine will be successful futures.

Let me tell you a story, a little personal anecdote, if I may. In 1983 I got my bachelor's degree—I say I "got" it because, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure that I earned it. It took me a while (I graduated from high school in 1975; do the math). What did I do in those eight years? Well, mostly I ran around in search of "experience." And though I did have some good (and bad) experiences, and may even have learned a thing or two, mostly I was running AWAY from my education. I told myself that life was too interesting to waste four years of it moldering in classrooms. School was unreal. Who needs it? That's what I told myself.

In fact I was AFRAID of school, afraid of the whole academic world: afraid of tests, of professors, or grades, or being judged and, worst of all, of finding out I wasn't as damned "brilliant" as I pretended to be, but—somewhere deep inside—suspected I wasn't.

Like someone walking down a flight of stairs into a basement, I transferred from one college to another, in order of descending reputation, until finally I ended up in a state university (Western Connecticut—a place no better or worse than Montclair). If I went to school at all it was only so as not to break my mother's heart. But I honestly still thought it a waste of time.

Like many of you I phoned in my assignments and barely studied. And like some of you I was a wise-ass in class in a way that charmed some of my teachers, and annoyed others. (It should go without saying that I thought I was smarter than most of my teachers; after all, look where THEY ended up!)...

Well, here I am, turned into one of those teachers that I so took for granted back then. But then I'm actually lucky; I've done okay, considering. Over twenty years after taking my despised Bachelor's Degree (the whereabouts of the actual document escapes me, that's how little I cared), with a VERY different attitude toward education, I applied for graduate school and got in—no thanks to my undergraduate grades, but because, in the meantime, I worked hard at my writing and, since I had published some stories, was able to convince my sponsors that I was not the complete academic jackass that my college transcripts may have suggested that I was.

I consider myself VERY fortunate to be able to stand in front of you and be your teacher—a position that, twenty years ago, in my youthful defensive arrogance, I would have frowned upon.

The short of it is that—had I known back then what I am sure of now—I would have taken my education MUCH more sriously; I would have seen it as the glorious privilege and opportunity that it was, a chance to deepen my mind and soul, to learn from men and women older and wiser than I, to read things I would NEVER have read on my own; to surrender my arrogant, defensive, and largely pretentious beliefs, and replace them with earned, genuine, and generous ones. To replace cynical arrogance with humble authority: THAT's the main purpose of education—one of the main purposes.

Ah, but if I had known way back then what I know now! What I am doing now at age 50 I might have started doing at age 40 or 30 instead; I would be that much further ahead. As it is I've had to struggle very hard to get where I might have gotten much more easily if ONLY I had taken more seriously to my studies as a younger person.

Consider mine a cautionary tale. I believe that many of you can and will do better by your own education. If I am hard on you, it is because I WANT you to do as well as you can, to not waste your time—and, more importantly, to have the futures that I'm sure you deserve.

So—I take back what I said in frustration. You all DO belong in college. So did I 30 years ago.

But I didn't believe it, and I wish that you all would.

1 comment:

John Madera said...

Hi Peter,

Since this is my first time at your blog, it's kind of strange to read this entry. But once I got past the tirade, I flowed right along with it. While I agree with much of what you have to say about the values of schooling and education--two things that I would argue rarely mean the same thing--I think that since students aren't given much opportunity for critical thinking, independent thought and choice, or even access to the vast reservoir of resources, opportunities, and information available to them, and since they are rarely, if ever, exposed to teachers who bring an artist's passion to their vocation, it's hardly surprising that they fail to measure up to high expectations. When all that's been expected of them is consumption of massive quantities of junk food media, political conformity, test-driven achievement, etc. it's probably a shock to the system when they encounter a teacher like you. On the other hand, laziness is laziness, and it needs to be called out, so you gave them what they needed and deserved. I also feel like I should applaud them in a way, since it inspired this blog entry.

So what was the reading assignment? I'd also be interested in seeing a list of the readings and syllabus for the class.

Anyways, I'll be sure to visit from time to time.

Take care,