Friday, May 14, 2010

Skool Daze Part I

Academically my first year at St. Mary's was aided tremendously by "insider knowledge".  Here's some sage advice for all you freshmen students out there: make sure you know someone who's already been through a university's first year program who can tell you how best to navigate the minefield of insane professors.

'Cuz, trust me, there's a lot of them.  Your research will mean the difference between dealing with a Philosophy prof who wants you to break down a line of reasoning using a quadratic formula or just map out the flow of an argument from a Monty Python skit.

Thanks to my BMOC (Big Mole on Campus), here's how my intro course load broke down in that magical first year:

Philosophy Hey, we didn't just cover episodes from "Flying Circus", y'know.  We also looked at the  classic "Witch Trial" scene from "Holy Grail".  So, all told, a pretty comprehensive course.  I finished with an "A". 

Sociology.  This class was presided over by a prof who knit her own vests, cut her hair using a modest-sized mixing bowl and had a clear penchant for Birkenstocks.  Not a big fan of the dudes, if you know what I'm saying.  Now, back in the day I was a lot more conservative in my stance on issues.  In fact, I'm ashamed to admit this now but I voted for Brian Mulroney because the backwater teachers in our High School brainwashed us into believing that Free Trade was a good thing.  But over the years, as I began to do independent research, educate myself and grew passably intelligent, a liberal sanity eventually dawned on me.  Now I make Tim Robbins look like Glenn Beck.  But way back then I was a still stupid, hick kid and I saw this sociology class as being trapped in the front row with season tickets to the "Oprah Winfrey" show.

Now don't get me wrong: this wasn't a difficult class.  In fact, regardless of what issue we were exploring, as long as you had a reasonable grasp on it and took a liberal perspective on how to address it ("Don't club baby seals!" "All races can live together in perfect harmony!" "Gay rights now!"), you were money.

Now, I don't want to make it seem that the class was completely vacant.  For example, I remember the professor doing an eye-opening lecture about the objectification of women in advertising and the media that started me on the path from borderline conservative redneck to liberal renaissance man.  It was great to see someone make a left-wing claim and then back it up, not with a bleeding heart but with concrete evidence to support her claims. 

Anyway, I racked up one "A" after another by following this strategy until the time came to do a term-busting group presentation in front of the entire class.

Now as a super-shy, conservative kid, this was nothing short of a nightmare.   I'd specifically avoided classes with public speaking, so why this one?  Nothing in the course description mentioned anything about being judged by a bunch of complete strangers!  Regardless, it was the academic hurdle laid out before me and I was resolved to try my best to clear it.

So, anyway, Ellen DeGeneres wrote ten popular causes on the blackboards around the room and then prompted us to to go and sit next to the topic that interested us the most.  At the the time, the only one I really felt comfortable representing in public was "THE ENVIRONMENT" so I wandered over to where two granola munchers had already taken up residence.

Just before I sat down I overheard the following exchange:

HIPPIE CHICK: (best read in the voice of "Janice" from "The Muppet Show")  "Y'know I was watching the 'Nature of Things' the other day and they about the Black Forests in Germany and how is killing the pine and fir trees there.  It was like...really, really sad..."

HIPPIE DUDE: (best read in the voice of  Jeff Spicoli from "Fast Times At Ridgemont High)  "Hey, did you know that David Suzuki major drug user?"

I stopped, turned on my heel and walked out of the room.

Despite not doing the group presentation I still managed to score a "C" in the class.

Psychology  A three-hour epic on Wednesday nights from 5 pm  to 8 pm, occasionally visited by a young, cute, female prof who'd recently graduated from Dalhousie University.  Often the class would be canceled because she didn't bother to show up.  Since a prof is likely to get behind in their curriculum when routinely missing three-hour classes, the few times we saw her she's just give us the answers to the next test and call it a night.  The only thing I can remember about her lectures is a story she told about being in Tijuana on Spring Break, eating a tequila worm, passing out and waking up the next morning in a ditch.   Ah, student loan money well-spent.  I got an "A" in this, as did everyone else in the class who was capable of velcroing their own shoes to their feet.  

20'th Century History  One of my fav subjects in High School, so I thought I'd kill this one.  I didn't have any lead in about the prof and he busted our collective balls quite a bit.  I still ended up with a solid "B".

English  Now I'd always gotten straight "A"'s in High School for book reports, compositions, and creative writing so I went into my University-level Intro English class with considerable swagger.

I'd also managed to score a "computer-assisted" English class, which I know sounds completely archaic to a young reader, but in 1989 we were all like the chips at the beginning of "2001: A Space Odyssey" regarding computer stuff.  "So, lemme get this straight, I'm not gonna hand-write my paper?  I don't even need to do it on a typewriter?  I can type this into the computer and this magical "WORD PROCESSOR" will process the, uh, words for me?  'Tis sorcery!"

Regardless of this new-fangled technology, I still clung to my old ways and  composed my first submission on an ancient Smith Corona typewriter which I'd dubbed "Old Clackey".  With considerably pride I submitted that paper and anxiously awaited the results.

Well, color me confused when this first magnum opus was handed back to me without a mark on it.  I went back to the prof after the class was over and confronted him.

"Er, excuse me, Sir, but you didn't mark my paper."

The diminutive prof looked down his nose at me briefly, then continued to pack up his things.

"I'll mark it when it's presentable," he huffed.   
"Pre...what do you mean by 'presentable'?  Are you telling me that this paper that I slaved over for hours isn't presentable?  I worked my butt off on this..."

The professor heaved a world-weary sigh.

"It's not the content," he said.  "It's the formatting.  Did you graduate from High School?"

I resisted the temptation to slug him, thinking that an assault charge would make for a less-than-auspicious debut to my university career.

"Of course I graduated from High School!" I returned, clearly rankled.

"Then why don't you have any concept whatsoever of formatting?  Why are there barely any margins?  Why is it nearly whitewashed in liquid paper?  Why are there no spaces between sentence breaks?  This thing is a mess!"

I flipped through the paper and looked at it intently.  It was identical to any other paper I'd submitted in High School that had snagged me an "A" before.  What was this clown's problem?

"Look," he said, clearly seeing that I'd been stung. "Don't worry about it.  Just go over to the bookstore, ask for a copy of the 'Guide to Proper Pagination' document.  Read it.  Know it.  Then re-submit the paper.  And for the love of God, you're in a computer-assisted class now, use the resources at your disposal and stop using a typewriter!"

I shot him a dirty look then made my way over to the bookstore in the Student Union Building.  I found the document in question and began to  read it.  While during this I began to feel a creeping red rage building up within me.  Not towards the professor but towards my High School teachers for not giving me any basic syntax, grammar or pagination skills whatsoever.

I was angry and humiliated.  It was yet another glaring example of the anti-arts, pro-math/science bias that my school system had subjected me to.  Oh yes, there had been ample talk in Advanced Math about preparing us for Calculus but not one teacher of mine cared to instruct us on the civilized way to submit a properly documented, scholarly report.      

The year I'd spent at home after graduation I'd written a short story and submitted it to a contest through the CBC.  It was rejected outright and now I know that likely it wasn't even looked at.  I still have the submission.  I'm looking at it right now.  It's effin' embarrassing, folks.  Although it's devoid of spelling errors, the margins are out of whack, there are no spaces between commas and sentences and the friggin' apostrophes are hand-written in! 

This is the point I'm trying to make: I was a nineteen year old High School graduate who didn't have faintest clue about grammar, punctuation and formatting.  I'm still bitter to this day that the school system and my teachers failed us so badly.

When I re-submitted the paper I scored and "A" on this and most of my subsequent works.  But the lesson was hard learned and the implication wasn't lost on me. 

I'd successfully navigated my first year of university.  I felt flushed with academic success but everyone I spoke to warned me that your first year was a joke.  The sophomore year often separated the wheat from the chaff.  Was I going to be up to the challenge?

EPIC: Painless Grammar (Painless Series)


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