Monday, October 15, 2007

An Old Dog.

I just took my second biology exam. It was less harrowing than the first one. The material was not as difficult for me. The first test was all chemistry and genetics, which are abstract and complex compared to viruses and drugs (the topics covered on this test) which are complex but they're somehow more real to me. I also knew better how to study this time. I was thrown last time more by the types of questions than by the subject matter. Anyway, I think I did well.

I also had a quiz in Spanish this morning.

So last weekend was intense, with studying for the exam and re-writing an English paper. I say re-writing, but for all intents and purposes I was starting over. In the first draft of the paper, I had taken issue with a point in a scolding little essay by Nabokov, called "Good Readers and Good Writers." The essay is one of two texts that the professor has based the course on (the other is "Education by Poetry," by Robert Frost), so I knew I was walking into a minefield by disagreeing with something in it, but my argument was specific and well-argued, I thought. I got it back with no marks on it, and a note on the front that said, "While your paper is well-written, what you have written is not the kind of argument that the assignment requested... You need to go back and choose a topic that you can support with clear, undisputed proof," etc.

We have lecture twice a week, and we meet with a grad student teaching assistant in small "discussion sections" once a week. Our papers are graded by the T.A. In lecture the day after we got our papers back, the professor said "the worst thing that can happen is that you get your paper back with no marks on it, but that only happened to a few people who are still trying to argue that Nabokov is wrong. If you're still doing that, just stop it, it's childish."

I stewed for a while, remembering what it was that drove me to drop out of school 3 times previously: the attitude in academia that the person who has read the most books is the smartest. But then I started thinking, you know I've read a shitload of books, and not only that, I've had a pretty wide range of experiences, not to mention the fact that I've been an artist and writer for over 25 years. My mind might not be exactly on a par with Nabokov, but I at least have enough authority to have a dialog with some of his ideas. And, I certainly have more authority than a 23-year-old grad student. Harumph.

So I went to see the professor in his office, and I said, "I need some guidance here. I need more than just 'wrong, try again.'" (Have I said that I love this guy? I've never seen a more energetic, committed teacher. I love his class.) We had a great conversation. He understood how I feel awkward sometimes, being an older student when the style of his class is geared toward people just starting out with these ideas. He looked at my paper and the T.A.'s comments and said, "I remember this one -- this isn't what I told her to say to you." He helped me see the Nabokov essay more clearly, pointed out things that I hadn't noticed, and I left with a deeper understanding of it. I went home and re-wrote the paper.

The moral of the story is, make use of your professor's office hours.

When I was younger, school consisted of figuring out what the teacher wants, giving it to him or her, getting an A. I don't want to do it that way this time, I know that. What I want to do is figure out what the teacher wants because if I do the thing in the very specific way that the teacher asks, I will learn something valuable. And get an A.


Tom Meltzer said...

Your story reminds me of a friend who taught for a while at Columbia. She taught both the regular undergrads and the General Studies students, i.e. the continuing ed folks. She hated the Columbia undergrads, who, though extremely bright, seemed never to ask any question other than "Will this be on the test?" She loved the adults, though. I really feel as though my college education was somewhat wasted on me because I was still a kid with no idea, no context for what I was learning. Still, it kept me from working, meaning it kept me from almost certtainly fucking up someone's business, so it at least served some good purpose.

m00nchild said...

You've made me think ... I abandoned a PhD in progress when I was 28 and have been off professionalizing ever since. I'm doing great in term of career opportunities and am fortunate as hell that I'm doing exactly what I want.

But I've thought about returning to school and pursuing that PhD or another advanced degree ever since I left.

And I've wondered what it would feel like to work with a professor who would quite likely be my age or just a few years older.

It really changes the dynamic. I'm not sure how that makes me feel other than simply ambivalent.