Wednesday, August 04, 2004

A Lit-Geek's Personal Academic Policy

Myles' post about reading lists and study aids jogged my memory back to my glorious days on Bison Hill. I was a young, naive English major, who had finished high school second in his class, and for whom homework was nothing to be worried about. High school was cake.

So when I rushed headlong into college-level English classes, I was struck by the accelerated reading schedule. Forty two days? oh...kay. Shouldn't be too hard. But then with each year, the "ante" was "upped" in every class. I remember a few classes with assignments of 100+ pages due within two days of being given. This challenging academic environment crashed against my former habits of highly-cultivated procrastination. What was a slacker lit-geek to do?

There was the crass alternative of ...Cliff's Notes. I shudder to type the words. The tell-tale marigold yellow cover peeking out of your bag like Hawthorne's letter, eliciting well-deserved derision from other English majors. I couldn't bear to do it. My aspirations as a writer prevented me from procuring bastardized summaries of other authors' works. How could I spit in the face of the Past Masters like that? Never.

I've only bought CN once for the purpose of "aiding" my studies. My American National Government class, taught by the brilliant, mad professor, Dr. Litherland. [namedrop]The class I shared with Grammy-winner David Hodges.[/namedrop] Dr. L oft repeated that "The Federalist Papers is the greatest work written on this continent! You will read it every day of your life! Besides the Bible, it's the most important book you'll ever read in your life!!! YEEEEAAAAAAAA!!!! *Dean-scream* "

So paranoid that I wouldn't understand all the nuances of the material, or wouldn't keep up, I succumbed (succame?) to the nagging self-doubt and purchased the shameful CN for the Federalist Papers. As Providence and Grace would have it, I never needed them. Never even cracked them open. And did just fine. I was very pleased to sell the volume back to the campus bookstore unused, and claim my 4.843% of the original purchase price.

So I developed an iron-clad policy, to remove any chance for wavering. No matter what the subject, no matter what the size of the assignment, I would never, EVER, use so-called "study aids." I would read, or I would not. I held the firm conviction that to read only CN and pass it off as knowledge was a SIN AGAINST LITERATURE ITSELF. And I would never be guilty of such a crime.

As it turns out, this policy contributed to my standing legacy at OBU. My favorite professor, and academic advisor, the eternally cool Dr. Carolyn Cole, often would make the class give itself daily grades based on their reading of the homework. Guided by the honor system, each student would award themselves 1-5 points, on a sheet that was passed around at the beginning of class. Sometimes this would take the place of a quiz. But I noticed something troubling over time.

In my final term, while taking Dr. Cole's Medieval British Poetry course, I noticed that every single person in the class would put down "5" every single day... except me. There were perhaps a dozen "4"s scattered among the ten other students, throughout the term. Meanwhile, my self-awarded point average was hovering around a 2.3. I thought to myself, surely, SURELY, they aren't all reading all of the homework every single day. It can't be.

But it struck me. The vast majority of the other students are in the Honors Program, Sigma Tau Delta, and various other academic organizations. They took part in no extra-curriculars. They studied all day long.

This emboldened me. I thought to myself, "Yes, that's right, I read two paragraphs from the chapter, but I also am rehearsing for Our Town, and I made out with my girlfriend for two hours last night! Take that, you elitist, honors-program snobs! I don't need an unsullied point tally--I have a life!!!"

When it was all done, when I had garnered my degree and had gone home, my friend Jess informed me that at the beginning of the following semester, Dr. Cole had described her grading system thus: "Five points for reading every word of every page, four points for reading most of it and being able to discuss it thoroughly, and so forth down to one point. The one-point grade is in honor of Dave Mitchell--it signifies, 'I haven't read, I'm twenty minutes late, but at least I'm here, and I'll do my best to contribute something useful to the discussion.'" And so my name lives on.

I would like to end this essay here. I would like to say that my iron-clad policy remained so. But it behooves me to be forthright. So I must. I did use SparkNotes, the online version of CN, once, while writing a paper. No one but my roommate at the time ever learned of this until now. I beg you, kind and gentle reader, to have pity on my confession.

In my final term, I signed up to do a research paper on "The Sound and the Fury." I had never read Faulkner before, aside from a few short stories (such as "The Odor of Verbena" which was very good, as I recall). And I tried, oh ma gad did I try, I tried all the time to read TSATF. But I couldn't get past the first seventy pages. So confusing, so convoluted. Only after reading the online "helps" did I realize that the first section was written from the perspective of a mentally-disabled person. Once i got over the hump, I was able to read sections of the rest of the novel, and understand it. But I didn't read the whole work. I used the online source to point me toward certain pages and themes. And I wrote the paper. I've never been proud of doing that, and I've never claimed to have read the book since then. Because I know in my heart that I never did read the book. I may be a cheat, but I'm not a liar.

So there it is, my full and honest remembrance. Confessions of a slacker lit-geek.

No comments: