Monday, May 19, 2008

Ralph Waldo Emerson - By Way of Frank L. Baum?

The Atlantic Monthly has an article written by an anonymous adjunct university professor who teaches required composition and English literature classes far from the "idylls" of the Ivy League or even the US News and World Report's list of colleges. His article is sobering and wickedly funny. (Although it seems as if he needs a sabbatical, or may be burned out permanently.)

He has to fail over 50% of the students who take his classes, not because they don't work hard, but because they are in way over their heads.

At one point he talks about handing back an "F" to a middle aged woman student who had returned to school, "probably needing the degree to advance in her career." The professor had spent extra time working with her, talking to her about her topics and explaining how to do research. When she receives the paper back, she is stunned at the grade:

“I can’t believe it,” she said when she received her F. “I was so proud
of myself for having written a college paper.”

She most certainly hadn’t written a college paper, and she was a
long way from doing so. Yet there she was in college, paying lots of tuition for the privilege of pursuing a degree, which she very likely needed to advance at work. Her deficits don’t make her a bad person or even unintelligent or unusual. Many people cannot write a research paper, and few have to do so in their workaday life. But let’s be frank: she wasn’t working at anything resembling a college level.

And, in this paragraph, the writer sums up the weird puzzle box of the degree-centric culture:

One of the things I try to do on the first night of English 102 is relate the literary techniques we will study to novels that the students have already read. I try to find books familiar to everyone. This has so far proven impossible. My students don’t read much, as a rule, and though I think of them monolithically, they don’t really share a culture. To Kill a Mockingbird? Nope. (And I thought everyone had read that!) Animal Farm? No. If they have read it, they don’t
remember it. The Outsiders? The Chocolate War? No and no. Charlotte’s Web? You’d think so, but no. So then I expand the exercise to general works of narrative art, meaning movies, but that doesn’t work much better. Oddly, there are no movies that they all have seen—well, except for one. They’ve all seen The Wizard of Oz. Some have caught it multiple times. So we work with the old warhorse of a
quest narrative. The farmhands’ early conversation illustrates foreshadowing. The witch melts at the climax. Theme? Hands fly up. Everybody knows that one—perhaps all too well. Dorothy learns that she can do anything she puts her mind to and that all the tools she needs to succeed are already within her. I skip the denouement: the intellectually ambitious scarecrow proudly mangles the Pythagorean theorem and is awarded a questionable diploma in a dreamland far
removed from reality. That’s art holding up a mirror all too closely to our own poignant scholarly endeavors.

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