Sunday, December 24, 2006

Why I Got Bad Grades in College

When you go to college, you have to choose a major subject. If you want to be a writer, you might choose English, in which case you end up taking a bunch of literature courses, like The Romantic Poets, or Milton. They claim that to be a writer, you have to read other writers, so you’ll be influenced by their styles. Which is crap. I mean, does this sound anything like Milton?

My Shakespeare professor was this old bald guy, Doctor Wells. He assigned a paper on King Lear, but he also told us that if we wanted to write a Shakespearian sonnet instead, he would accept it. Which was his way of saying that he’d rather read a sonnet than a whole paper. Most professors don’t bother reading serious papers anyway. If I had written a twenty-page paper on King Lear, and in the middle of page 19 I’d written, "Shakespeare was an ass, and so are you, Baldy," he never would have seen it. Not that I’d blame him. If I were a teacher I wouldn’t read all that crap either. A teacher's slush pile is probably ten times worse than an editor's.

Anyway, I happened to have a crush on the woman who sat in front of me. I hadn’t ever said a word to her, but I wrote a sonnet about her:

When I come in at nine o’clock a.m.
And sit down in my Shakespeare class, I see,
The room is filled with women, and of them,
The loveliest sits right in front of me.
O terrible dilemma, what to do?
If only she would sit some other place,
Then I’d enjoy the class much more, it’s true,
For I could spend it gazing on her face.
But no, she sits right there, with me behind.
Her visage, by her hair, from me is walled.
The only consolation I can find,
Is, unlike Doctor Wells, she isn’t bald.
Professors have it easy, I would say:
They stand where all the women look their way.

Doctor Wells gave me an "A", and that was the beginning of the end of my college career. I asked myself why I'd bothered to read King Lear, when I could get an "A" by writing 14 lines. The answer to this question occurred to me a few months later, as I was taking the final exam, but at the time I felt I was on to something big: professors don’t want to be told stuff they already know; they want to be entertained.

For my Romeo and Juliet paper, I didn’t read a word of the play. I wrote another sonnet:

It used to be when I came in at nine,
And found so many women here to see,
The only one I wanted to be mine
Was sitting in the seat in front of me.
How could such foolish thoughts be in my head?
O tell me how I could have been so blind,
To want the one who sits just up ahead,
Without a thought about the one behind?
I thought that things were really bad before,
When I could only see my true love’s hair,
But now I hate the situation more,
‘Cause I can’t even tell this woman’s there.
Why must the women I’m in love with be
The only ones in class I cannot see?

Personally, I thought this sonnet was as good as the first one, but this time I got a "B." I also got a poem:

By this time you’ve convinced me you can write
Fine poetry, but listen, listen tight:
If I don’t see some prose from you real fast,
You haven’t got a chance in hell to pass.

Well, no professor, especially not one who probably hadn’t written two pages of prose himself since he got tenure, was going to tell me what kind of papers to write. For my third and final paper, I wrote a play in sonnet form:

Return of Shakespeare

(Dramatis Personae: Dr. Wells, Ghost of Shakespeare, Students, Attendants, Nymphs)

Enter Dr. Wells
(A classroom)

WELLS. Now class I want thee all to please take note:
Othello was the best play Shakespeare wrote.

Enter Ghost of Shakespeare

GHOST. Othello?! Why if only I weren’t dead,
I’d tear you limb from limb for what thou’st said!

WELLS. Who darest interrupt me whilst I speak?

GHOST. ‘Tis Shakespeare! I’m attending class this week.

WELLS. But Shakespeare! Thou’st been dead this many years!

GHOST. Yet now’ve returned, and can’t believe mine ears!
Thee’d better shape thine teaching up real fast,
‘Cause if thou don’t, this class will be thy last.

WELLS. But William, I have loved thee all my life!
I love thou more than I love mine own wife!

GHOST. Once Caesar daredst call me mine first name;
Thou knowst what he got — thee shall get the same!
(Stabs Dr. Wells.)

WELLS. Et tu, Will!

That was only good for a "D+," but I wrote the thing in five minutes, and I forgot to use the correct rhyme scheme for a Shakespearian sonnet. I ended up with a "D" in the course, because I didn’t know enough about Shakespeare to pass the exam, but hell, if you can almost get a "C" in a Shakespeare course without reading the plays . . .

There was no stopping me now. I enrolled in Dr. Wells’s British Poetry course the following semester. Our first paper was supposed to be on Paradise Lost, which I’d read in high school, and once was enough. No way was I going to read it again, so instead I wrote the following epic of my own, and I didn’t care what grade I got. Even an "F" was better than having to read Milton. If you’ve ever read Milton, you know what I’m talking about.

Think back about a month, and you’ll recall
I took your course on Shakespeare in the fall.
I did not make an "A," I wish I had.
In fact, a "B" would not have been too bad.
But no, I did not even make a "C."
A "D" is what I made. A fucking "D"!!!
And now, I start to think I’ve lost my mind.
I have a problem that keeps getting worse.
It seems each time I talk out loud I find
That all my words are spoken in blank verse.
Your Shakespeare class has made me talk this way.
It’s been like this for three entire weeks.
No matter what it is I try to say,
I speak in blank verse every time I speak.
I asked my lawyer what I ought to do,
And he said, "Why not sue? It really pays!
Old Shakespeare’s dead, but guess who you can sue?
The guy who made you read the lousy plays!
I speak iambic penta-metric-ly.
You’ll dearly pay for doing this to me.

Weisenheimer Wells’s response to my Milton paper:

My conscience, sir, at times has troubled me,
But not, I must confess, for your earned "D."
And by the way, if you keep writing verse,
Your grade in this class may be even worse.

Doctor Wells gave me a pretty good grade on that poem. I figured he was trying to tell me something. I figured he was trying to tell me, in his own subtle way, to go ahead and write funny essays and poems for all my courses, so that other professors could experience the joy I’d brought into his tedious life.

It was my Browning paper the following semester that should have told me to cool it with the funny stuff. You’ll need some introductory information before I show you this one.

My roommate Rex and I happened to be in the same writing course one time, with this professor named Mitch Manische. After the semester we asked Mitch which writing course we should take next, and he recommended English 47, with Harmon Irons (some famous poet, though I’m sure you’ve never heard of him). Mitch told us that it was a special writing course, and that he was going to be sitting in on it himself.

I'd never taken a course with two teachers, even if only one of the teachers was really teaching, and I’d also never been in a course with only two students. That’s right, Rex and I were the only ones who registered for the course. Rex and I were the only ones stupid enough to register for the course.

You’d think they’d have enough sense to cancel a course that no one wanted to take, but no, his highness and mightiness Harmon Irons had spent at least half an hour preparing to teach the course, and he was damned well going to teach the course.

The worst part was, it wasn’t even a writing course, like Mitch had said it was. It was the same old standard boring literature course, where you read some boring book or poem by some boring person who died a few centuries ago, like Dryden, and then write a boring paper about it.

We were pissed. We had already taken all of the literature courses we needed to take, and we’d been tricked. We decided to rebel. I decided to rebel by not reading anything, and by writing papers totally irrelevant to the assignments. Rex decided to rebel by having an affair with Harmon Irons’s wife, (a much more interesting story, admittedly, but this isn’t a story about Rex).

Our first assignment was to read this ridiculously long and obscure poem called "Cleon," by Robert Browning, and to write a ridiculously long paper in which we covered these points:

1. Why did Browning decide to make "Cleon" an epistolary poem?
2. Was he right in doing so?
3. Discuss the quality of the epistle from an acoustic and graphic standpoint.

I read the first eight or ten lines of "Cleon," and that was all I could handle. This was my paper, good for the lowest grade I ever got:

In Harm’s Way

We had gathered once again, we three. There was Mitch, tall and gruff, once a writer, now playing out the string. There was Rex, virile and stylish, a veritable playboy. And of course I was there. We sat silently, staring straight ahead, apathetically awaiting an evening of weariness, anticipating the arrival of....Harm! Yes, Harm, that Greek intellectual poet-philosopher who pretended to teach this class.

Rex flipped up his Polaroid Cool-Ray clip-ons, and said, "Didn’t see you in class last time, Mitch.

Mitch refused to engage in direct eye contact with Rex. "I had a meeting to go to," he said.

Rex said, "You can only claim to have meetings and diseases so often. Face it: you spread it around the department that you were auditing this course, and now you’re stuck with it."

"I’m not stuck with it," Mitch claimed. "It’s interesting and I like it."

Rex and I were still laughing ten minutes later when the door flew open. "Quick, hide the dope!" Rex screamed. "It’s a bust!"

"Worse than that," I told him. "It’s Harm."

Harm entered in his usual flowing white toga and Roman sandals, an olive branch wreath draped solemnly about his neck. "Good evening, disciples," he bellowed, raising his arms to the heavens. "Tonight we discuss Browning."

"Fascinating," Rex yawned.

"'Cleon', my friends," Harm said. "'Cleon'! Should it be epistolary?"

Rex rolled his eyes and headed for the door, saying, "I should have dropped this course the minute I found out there weren’t any women taking it."

"Hold it!" Harm squawked. "Who’s going to tell me about 'Cleon'?"

Rex pulled open the door, and there, as if in divine response to Harm’s question, stood Dick and Jane, the talking jackasses, wearing striped pajamas. Harm’s eyes popped out of his head on springs and dangled in front of his chins.

Dick came in, extended his hoof to Harm, and sat in the easy chair next to Harm’s. Rex decided to stay.

"What seems to be the prob here?" Dick asked, lighting up a Salem.

"Aw, I can’t get anything out of these guys about why Browning made "Cleon" an epistolary poem," Harm told him.

"Oh, Jane would be the one to see about that," but I don’t think we’d better disturb her right now." Jane was sitting on Rex’s lap, nibbling his ear lobe. "Anyway, if Robert Browning made it epistolary, who are you to complain, Harm? I mean, compared to "Cleon," your poetry sounds like Mother Goose."

"Why, thank you," Harm said, genuinely flattered to have his poetry mentioned in the same breath with Goose’s. "And now, who wants to discuss the epistle from an acoustic and graphic standpoint?"

"I haven’t read it," I said.

"Guess I’ll have to field this one too," Dick said, crushing his cigarette butt against Harm’s toga sleeve. "Graphically, I think it’s a good epistle. But what do I know? I don’t even know what an epistle is, for Christ’s sake. Acoustically, the words flow right along, though there are a few touchy spots. For instance, it’s impossible to say the word ‘lisps’ in one syllable. Try it, Harm."

"Lisps," Harm said in two syllables. "Lisps, lisps."

"Hey, quiet everyone!" I said. "Mitch is talking in his sleep!"

"How did I get roped into taking this course?" Mitch said in his sleep. "And how do I get out without hurting Harm?"

We all started laughing, all except Harm, who just walked out of the room, muttering, "Lithpth, lithpth, lithpth."

That’s the kind of paper I wrote for most of my courses. I got away with it about half the time in the English department, but when I started doing it in Anthropology and History and Geography, my grade point average started plummeting. It was a miracle that I graduated, when you think about it.

As for Harmon Irons, he didn’t like my humor one bit. If there were a grade lower than "F-," he would have given it to me. Maybe he didn’t like being called "Harm." Or maybe he actually enjoys reading serious papers all the time. Could that be it?



Anonymous said...

At least the material was original. I used to just plagiarize some book I was certain the prof wouldn't have read based on his personality, added a few spelling errors, and went back to the bar. I remember one class in particular in which I used Leo Bugliosi (I think that's how his name was spelled) for all of my papers. His writing was such garbage, I knew the prof would never have read it. Got me a "B", and I was drunk and stoned all semester.

Angus Weeks said...

LOL. An interesting insight into EE.

I remember in a high school Lit exam making up at least one fake quote from 'Wuthering Heights' to justify an assertation in my essay. The teacher didn't notice it was fake, so I invented some fake quotes for my University entrace exams, too.

At University I got away with doing as little as possible and took 10 years to finish my undergraduate degree (I would have taken longer, but 10 years was the maximum time allowed). In that time, the English course underwent an entire facelift. I started off studying Shakespeare and Homer. I ended my days writing essays about alien abductions and lobotomies.

Dave Fragments said...

Was it perhaps, Dean Richard Wells?

Anonymous said...

I studied engineering. Lots of math. You can't make that stuff up.

In one course, I had a Japanese professor. His final exam was so easy, I worked the problems in my head. All I wrote down were the answers.

I got every answer right, but he gave me D. When I asked why, he said, "Mathematics like story. Don't tell half story."

(That was back when EE meant Electrical Engineering.)


Rhonda Helms said...

Hilarious. I would have chosen writing sonnets over papers any day of the week, too... :D


Ann (bunnygirl) said...

And to think I muddled along writing all those factual papers for my history major, when I could've just written some poetry and squeaked by in lit class!

Then again, considering the quality of my poetry, maybe it was for the best. My poetry only sounds good when I write it in another language. And then it's only due to the "whistling dog" factor-- one is amazed I can do it at all.

So did you encore by going to grad school, EE? I can see it how-- EE in a room full of snooty creative writing MFA candidates. Hilarity ensues. Also, a bitter prof.

Anonymous said...

Is this really true, EE? No wonder I have a crush on you. :-)

In my honors English class in high school we had to do extemporaneous writing every Friday. We'd be given a poem or piece of prose and told to analyze it.

One week Mr. Becker gave us a poem called "Ogun". It was about this woodcutter, and how he felt so in touch with the wood, but how the world was passing him by and moving into materials like formica and steel and nobody wanted his wood pieces anymore (ludicrous, when you consider the prices solid wood furniture goes for these days.) And he had a back room where he kept a special carving, that was "the face of his anger".

I hated the poem and I was bored. So I wrote an essay about how the woodcutter should take up poker if he's lonely, and maybe he should expand his business or get a subscription to Playboy, too.

I got an F. But Mr. Becker refused to give it back until the next day, because he had to read it to all of his other classes and show his wife and the other teachers, too. He told me it was the funniest essay he'd ever read (and it actually was quite funny, much funnier than I've described it here.)

--December Quinn, who is tired of re-logging into beta Blogger all the stupid time.

Anonymous said...

I went to 'Community College' for Graphic Design (quit after a semester) and then for some obscure program called Visual Arts Instructor Training.

Then I went to work in a camera store, and ended up doing their ads.

Then I ended up at a newspaper, writing sports articles.

Sometimes I wonder why any of us go to college.

That was an entertaining read, EE. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Very cool, EE. That's the most I ever learned about what goes on in the English and /or Literature department.

I think I got worse grades than you, and I wasn't trying to rebel at all. I'm just dumb!

...dave c.

Anonymous said...

It's always puzzled me why we have a system where if you want to teach K-12, or even pre-school, you have to have extensive knowledge of both the content you want to teach, and the pedagogy of teaching in, plus training in educational psychology, assessment and evaluation, classroom managment, and the good ol' bloodborn pathogens workshop, plus in our district, to teach secondary school, you also need at LEAST a bachelor's degree in the subject you want to teach, plus a master's in education, and ongoing professional development training to keep your license updated...

... yet to teach college, to teach at the very highest educational level, you need an advanced degree in the content area you want to teach. Nothing else. You don't need any training at all in how to teach it: no pedagogy, no assessment and evaluation, no nothing. Whatever the hell you feel like doing, that's the class.

So here I am teaching college science, with a bachelor's and masters in the subject area, and a masters and nearly a Ph.D. in science education. Does the pedagogical content knowledge make a difference? Well, there's got to be a reason why, when we did a pre- and post-test of the beginning students this last term, students of all the other professors made a tiny little pre-to-post increase, while my students blew everyone's socks off.

Teaching matters.

Now, if someone wrote me a sonnet about Mendelian inheritance, he might get a decent grade, but only if he got all the facts right, thoroughly explained the concept, and didn't misuse the word "dominant."

Anonymous said...

I suppose your esteemed alma mater didn't offer a major in doggerel?

I got a C in the only English class I ever took -- the professor was a raging Pinko, you see, and since I am a flaming Red, we were at each others' throats the whole time.

He did, however, succeed in imparting to me a lasting affection for Coleridge.

Dave Fragments said...

I had a class in differential equations (Mathematics) that had a lecture and three recitation sections:
i) one taught by a chinese student who sort-of didn't speak english. He'd only been in the USA four weeks.
ii) a Texan who's favorite epithet was shit-for-brains-has-to-ask-a-question.
iii) the lecturer who only let 25 students into his recitation.

You think you got it bad bucky, well, let me tell you...

Anonymous said...

Dave said...

"Was it perhaps, Dean Richard Wells?"

So you're saying he's done something else besides playing McGuyver?

Anonymous said...

What a treat! I often wonder about what set you on course to become THE EVIL EDITOR! (And I soooooo would have dated you in college)

Anonymous said...

Heh. I flunked out of university twice. Always hated being told what to do all the time. My grades averaged out in the 3 range (out of nine), but my English courses were always up there at 8.5 or more. Not because I read much of the material, but because I was good at faking knowing what I was talking about. You can't do that in biochemistry, though. Curse you, scientific method!

Oh well. After two half-assed tries, I figured I'd wasted enough of my parents' and the Canadian taxpayers' money and took up the always fresh and exciting field of food service. If I never see the inside of a classroom again, it'll be fifty billion years too soon.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Chumplet - I delved into mathematics and chemistry and learned that I passed out cold whenever I saw real blood gush from a human being.

So, I've worked at everything else...had a job in an engineering office and hated it.

I enjoyed technical writing but composing in fiction will always be best for me because many do not read, or believe, the written word.

You should hear my esteemed relatives read newspaper headlines.


Dave Fragments said...

Dear Anonymous,
Richard Wells was a Dean at the University I attended. He taught the two semester agonhy called English Composition for Engineers and various esoteric graduate studies. Other instructors I had were Gladys Schmidt and Dick O'Keefe.

Richard Dean Anderson and his incarnation McGyver have nothing to do with it.

{bronx cheer}

PJD said...

I had a similar, though less confrontational and less amusing, experience at Berkeley. An engineering major, I signed up for a classics class--Greek mythology--and wisely selected the pass/fail grading option. I went to all the lectures because--well, because of a girl. But I never read a word. On the midterm, I wrote my own myth because I had no clue what the questions were about. I made sure to use all the devices the professor had discussed in class... but still he had the audacity to give me an F. He even wrote, "See me" on it.

I ignored the "see me" (400+ students in the lecture) and decided to read the material for the final. As long as the final grade was "P" I did not care.

My sonnets in college were never written for such a pedestrian cause as a grade, though. Mine were all written for girls.

The best classes I took were these: (1) ballroom dance, (2) creative writing with Robert Pinsky, (3) library studies 1, and (4) Victoran novel. Looking back now, girls figured prominently in all of them. I suppose the Victorian novel class wouldn't even have made the list, though, if I hadn't married one of the girls I met there.

Anonymous said...


I enjoyed reading this, and the comments left by your minions.

Eons ago, I, too, attended college. I started as an English major because I wanted to be a writer. I too had ridiculous teachers--one was an older woman named Carolyn. (She had a last name, but we never used it and I've forgotten it now.) The class was the 19th century English novel, and after having us read hundreds (thousands) of pages of Bleak House and stuff like that, Carolyn would ask questions on the exams like how many times did Miss so-and-so's lavendar gloves appear in the novel and what was the significance of each appearance.

I too exacted my feeble revenge--I figured out how to take these stupid tests, got A's, then changed majors (to Sociology, of all things).

I ended with a liberal arts degree--I took math classes to raise my grade point average, and had more credits in history (where there was a host of interesting teachers at my university) than in either of my majors.

Ah, those college days.

I changed focus to become a lawyer.

So now, eons later, I am back to my goal of being a writer. Perhaps I should write a sonnet about mittens, huh?

Anonymous said...

ROFL. And I just kept getting comments like, "If you would have just taken the time for a second draft, I could have given you a better grade." But A- and B+ grades worked for me, seeing as I was working full time midnight shifts.

Joely Sue Burkhart said...

Laughs. See, if you'd taken "honors" courses, this kind of work was encouraged! In the honors "history of theatre" class, I wrote some Clan of the Cave Bear version of finding fire for how "theatre" might have began and got an A. In honors political science, we didn't even use the appallingly boring text book, but read Seven Days in May, watched Henry Fonda's Fail Safe, and got bonus credit for both reading and seeing The Hunt for Red October. Sean Connery and extra credit. I was in seventh heaven. :-) I don't think I ever turned in a sonnet for an assignment, though. That's priceless!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight into your genius, EE.

My algebra teacher walked up behind me and confiscated the poem I had just written about her and before reading it asked me if I would like to switch to the (remedial) math class. I said, "Hell yes!" I caught a glimpse of her smile before she admonished me about the foul language. She kept the poem. I guess she was into erotica. -JTC

Anonymous said...

I spent most of my two years of English courses at Junior College staring at a certain young man's tattoo and wondering how hard it would be to lick it off his arm? Needless to say I didn't average much more than a C in the course work but I sure got an A+ for imagination!(in my book...)
Wonder what happened to old tattoo arm? I didn't mention but he had great bisceps! Really really great....sigh...never mind.

CantBreathe said...

I used to irritate the hell out of one of my two creative writing professors by writing poetry that A) rhymed and B) usually included bloody murder or insanity. She asked me one time why I couldn't just write a free verse poem about a tree.

So I wrote about a lumberjack accidentally cutting off his own leg while cutting down a tree and bleeding to death. She wasn't amused.

But she did give me an A.

My favorite professor, though, forced me to write shorter papers. He'd ask for a paragraph, and I'd give him a page. I needed two blue books for my first final in one of his classes. Thus, he gave me a word limit on ever paper he assigned. It made me stop and think about the relative importance of each word in an assignment/project/story.

Mind you, I think I've forgotten that lesson....

Anonymous said...

I know this has been posted too long ago my friend are a godsend. You have inspired me :)