Monday, June 28, 2010

Skool Daze : Part IV

Welcome Students of the Persistently Silly.

My fourth and final year at St.Mary's was also characterized by considerable upheaval.  The owner of our house on Lucknow opted to repossess it at the end of the year, using the giant mound of cash six students had given to him in rent money during the school year to evict us, refurbish the entire place and move in himself.

This killed us.  In the south end, we'd lived just a few minutes walk away from school.  During the summer I was forced to crawl home again to save money while a few friends of mine went hunting for a new place to live.

With a smaller pool of us committed to live together and thus share expenses, they really had to scramble to find a new place.  As it turned out, everything close to university was way too expensive.

So the following September I found myself moving into a house on Chebucto road with three other confirmed room-mates.  Speaking as someone who'd only lived in the south end for the past three years, I was really freaked out.  At the time, the new house seemed so far away from the university it might as well have been  forty-five minutes away in Truro.

They guys really didn't have much time to find anything else, so in that light, they did an admirable job.  But the house of Chebucto Road was nothing like the grand, old Victorian on Lucknow Street.

I fact we were soon to learn a disturbing story about it's genesis.  Next to the house was a block of cheap and slummy-looking flats.  Long after we'd moved in it was revealed that it was a low-rent housing complex that had become an ersatz halfway house for recovering drug addicts and people with mental disorders.  Rumor had it that the city wouldn't allow the notorious owner to construct the cheap tenements unless he lived in the neighborhood himself.

Well, good to his promise, the landlord built a home for himself across the street and moved in.

But he only lived there for a year.

Since that was always his plan, he'd built the house as quickly and cheaply as possible using the shoddiest methods and raw materials possible.

I remember being up in my room one day when I heard a crash and a friend down in the kitchen screaming for help.  I ran downstairs to see him trying to hold up an entire length of kitchen cupboards which had popped off the wall.  Cans of waxed beans and corn were sliding off the shelves and hitting him in the head.  Between the both of us we managed to gingerly pull the cupboard out of the wall and sit it on the floor until we had a chance later to mount it properly.

Turns out that the yahoos that had built the place hammered the shelves into the plaster board, missing the studs in the wall completely.  If not for the fact that we were starving students at the time who could barely afford to fill our pantries it would have fallen off the wall a lot sooner.

Our next door neighbors also proved to be a colorful lot.  One day one of our room-mates was home alone taking a shower.  He'd made the mistake of leaving the door unlocked.  When he emerged from the bathroom and turned the corner, he ran smack dab into one of the residents from next door just hanging out inside the house.  He grilled the guy as to why he was in there and all the dazed intruder could do was repeatedly ask for a smoke.

Needless to say, he was thrown out on his ass and we never made the mistake of leaving the door unlocked again.

Not that it mattered much.  One or the other scary residents who lived next door was a heinous tobacco hag who looked like Horatio Sanz in a fright wig.  Normally she was quite harmless, sitting on the step across the street with her legs splayed out like an obese cat, chain smoking all the while.  Some days when the unemployed guys I lived with spent the day tanning in lawn chairs she'd just sit there and stare holes in them.  It was gross.

One time while four of us were walking out to the car she tried to stop us and ask for a smoke, which we sometimes gave to her.  This time we were either in a rush or just didn't have any so we told her "no" and got in the car.  She promptly flew into a rage, then tried to rip the door open and crawl inside.  Everyone in the back seat started screaming like the "Simpson" kids as the car tore off, dragging her a few meters because her pudgy mitts were now wedged into the door handle.  It was terrifying.
Mercifully I didn't have to deal with too much of that crap since I'd met a girl that year and spent half of my time at St. Mary's living in her dorm room.  Convenience thy name is mooching! 

It was under these circumstances that I tackled my final year of university.  Mercifully most of my academic heavy lifting was done so what was left were a few mandatory courses and credits needed to graduate with a "Honors" certification.

As if that meant anything special in the long run!

Anyway, this is how things went:

HISTORY 221 - The British Isles from Earliest History to the Present

I revisited the subject of History again, this time in a course dedicated to a genuine area of interest.  For reasons that I would eventually characterize as "ancestral recall" I really had an affinity for British history, especially the medieval period.  I'd made the first stumbling efforts to write a book set partly in an historical fantasy setting and I really thought that this course would inspire me somewhat.

It certainly did but by now I was clearly becoming burnt out academically.  My essays were showing signs of creative fatigue.  Towards the end each paper I turned in began suffering from the inevitable law of diminishing returns, kinda like a scholastic version of the "Highlander" films.  Also I'd taken so many English courses that by that time I was completely stuck in "creative analysis speak" which really didn't lend itself to scholarly historic examinations.

It was also the first instance in which I turned in a essay late.  It was an overview of the Viking influence on the British Isles, a subject that I'd actually been highly interested in.  But due to unforeseen illness (shingles of all things!) the project was harshly judged after it was slid clandestinely under the prof's door a few days late.

"Generally a well written account," he begins charitably but goes on to say: "Nevertheless your paper...does not have a central question and it's arguments are derived almost entirely from your dictionary entries.  This does not qualify as research!"   Youch! 

Some of my tests also reeked of study fatigue.  Early exams were marred by "x" marks, zeros and descriptors like "confused" or "inaccurate".  A "C+" mark is further burdened with comments clearly inspired by a prof's low tolerance for bull-s#!%: "Your narrative is reasonably sound but contains a few factual errors and lacks supporting details.  You have not addressed the question."

"Stupid profs and their unreasonable expectations!" I railed. "Want me to 'address their questions' do they?  We'll I got his friggin' address right here!" (cue obscene gesture)  

I had to face facts.  I wasn't analyzing poetry and prose with my own practiced eye anymore.  I was attempting to memorize hordes of dates, names and events in the hopes of putting it all into some sort of context.  And I was failing miserably.

But I persevered and, slowly but surely, I began to see results. A paper about "The Contemporary Rogue" in English culture was returned to me christened with a solid "B".  The comments still made me bristle, since by now I was really putting my back into it.  "Your discussion raises many important issues but you rely too heavily on the language of your sources and fail to identify relevant passages.  Work on your organization!"

In Part II I talked about a certain organizational bias amongst different departments of the Faculty of Arts.  What was earning me an "A" in one class was getting me in hot water here.  In addition to my mental exhaustion I was beginning to get frustrated.

But eventually I puzzled out just what the prof wanted.  "Literacy in the Viking Age" came back with a newly-minted "A" with the comment: "Excellent!  A well-organized and well-written analysis."  Wow.  Was this the same prof?

My exams also bumped up to the "A" realm and I was back on track.  I finished off nicely with an "A+" for an assignment about "Prostitution in the Victorian Age" (Don't judge me!) which carried with it the comments: "Excellent discussion, well supported with references and examples."

It's weird that I had to struggle so much here.  Frankly I don't see a lot of difference in quality between my earlier efforts and my contributions towards the end.  I still don't get it...   

Y'know I probably would have made my life a lot easier by actually talking to some of these profs versus using my spotty-at-best psychic powers to try and puzzle out what they wanted from me.  Problem was, I often equated this to sucking up, which some students around me did with less shame than Jenna Jameson.  My reasoning is that if I couldn't let the works speak for themselves and succeed merely from it's own merit then I just didn't care.  I've never been good at toadying or boot-licking.

Probably the reason why  I now find myself at a crossroads even at this advanced stage in my life. 

I managed to salvage a "B-" out of this one by some miracle.

ENGLISH 356 to 357 - The Development of Science Fiction and Recent Science Fiction

Since most of my floor-mates were either commerce or science students, this was the only English course I ever took with a close friend in the class, which was supposed to be promising.

The guy I knew in the class....hmmmm, wait a minute.  That's too unwieldy.  I need a alias.  For the sake of anonymity what do I call him?  How about Greg?  Whoops, that's actually his real name.  Crap, I shouldn't have said that.  Okay, we'll call him Manuel.

Anyway the concept of attending a class with a buddy was supposed to be the bee's knees.  After all, you alternate going to class and always still have notes.  At least that was the theory.

Manuel had signed up for the class because he was a huge fan of things like "The Terminator", "Aliens", and  "The Twin Stars" (both the "Trek" and "Wars" flavor).  When he found out that he'd be reading early Gothic novels like "Frankenstein", cyberpunk mind-f#@% works by William Gibson and books by egg-headed scientists turned writers like Isaac Asimov he quickly lost interest.

"This entire reading list sucks," he'd gripe.

"What the f#@$ do you expect?  Did you think we'd all be sitting around discussing James Cameron's latest shooting script or debating whether or not Picard is cooler than Kirk?"

But he did help out when my old bugaboo from first year Sociology reared it's ugly head (see Part I).  My good buddy from "Early Novel" Margaret Harry betrayed my trust and demanded that we do a group presentation about J.G. Ballard's "The Terminal Beach" in the second half of the semester.  Would I be crippled by my deathly fear of public speaking and bow out again?

But I was now a different person.  I'd completed a dramatic personal arc and was much more confident by then.  I was also fortified by Manuel's considerable experience doing group presentations in the Commerce program and eventually he persuaded me to "grow the f#@$ up" and do it.

Looking at the roster of names in our group, I chuckle to myself as I recollect.  One guy pulled a "me" and didn't even show up to help with the content.  One girl's English was so bad we shelved her during the presentation portion and one girl was so nervous she didn't want to get up lest she risk public enpukenation.

I also get a kick out of Manuel's hand-written speech notes which I'm sure he's thrilled to know I still have (for some unknown reason).  Now keep in mind this was the same notorious bad speller that had "Milk and Cereal" (a.k.a. Mike and Cheryl) working together in the Student Elections.  I love where he writes that every sensory experience the main character has in the story can be tied to some "tramatic and tourcherous" experience in his past.  Money.    

Despite bad nerves and comically poor spelling, the Dave n' Manuel show went off without a hitch and we did well.  I'd confronted and conquered another major fear!

Even though Manuel's appearances in that class became increasingly rare, I went just because I loved the books.  I was getting academic credit for reading  Wells, Orwell, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Heinlein, Aldiss, Ellison, Ballard, Herbert, Spinrad and Gibson.  I was making out like a bandito!

To this day I can still cite George Orwell's "1984" as my favorite novel and I consider it to be more topical today then when it was first published in 1949.

My final mark was in the vicinity of a B+ or A-, I can't remember which.

ENGLISH 406 - Renaissance Literature

Like Dean Larsen,  the reputation of the instructor proceeded her.  Professor Janet Baker was a ray of sunshine who taught us to relish art and culture amongst all the stuffy analysis.

A genial and soft-spoken lady in her forties at the time, Janet (and I call her Janet just because "Professor Baker" seems waaaaaay too staid for her) was genial, sweet, enthusiastic and knowledgeable.  If they made an action figure out of her, it would come complete with a short hair bob, colorful sweater vests and accessories like the King James version of the Bible (for all the wonderful examples of the iambic pentameter, natch!) and an oft-kind and helpful black pen.

Her untethered passion for Donne, Shakespeare, Bacon ("Mmmmmmm...Bacon"), Spenser, Milton, Shelley, Marlowe, and, er...Jonson was contagious.   She often gave students cool little cultural "brownie points" for doing brief and (mercifully) hand-written reports on things like attending a chorus of live medieval Christmas carols or catching Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" which featured her boyfriend at the time, Mel Gibson.

I'm telling you right now if Mel left his wife for Janet instead of some random Russian tart he would have been much better off.  SHE'D set his ass straight. 

Janet instilled in me a love of lyrical couplets and elegiac verse.  Even when I write what barely passes for poetry these days, it somehow always seems more legitimate to me when it rhymes.

I scored an easy "A" in this one.

ENGLISH 440 -  Theory and Practice of Criticism

If you read Part III you'll recall that I could barely remember anything about 440's pesky little brothers, 323 and 324.  I'm even foggier here.  Whereas those prerequisites redeemed themselves somewhat by allowing us students ample opportunity to completely crap on works we hated, I seem to recall 440 mainly concerned itself with studying writings about theory and reading one treatise after another by "respected" critics.


You know you're in trouble when the introductory notes are completely indecipherable, like watching an episode of "A Shot At Love with Tila Tequila" run backwards, upside down and in Swahili.

Try as I might I just couldn't to bring myself at that late stage to wade though countless tracts of boring philosophy.  As an example of what I'm talking about strap this little bit of Jacques Derrida on for size:

"Writing thus enlarged and radicalized, no longer issues from a logos. Further, it inaugurates the destruction, not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the de-construction, of all the significations that have their source in that of the logos."

Okay, can anyone tell me what the f#$% he's on about?   Seriously, anyone?  Little help?

But even this course taught me a valuable lesson: if you want people to read your s#!^, don't write like a pretentious twat.  I'm not saying that you should be embarrassed for having a vocabulary but the general rule is: take the clear and concise road versus dropping $5.00 words around like business cards.  

My contempt for this was often palpable in the papers I passed in.  Here are a few comments from my prof concerning a protocol we had to write applying impenetrable theory to the works of Wallace Stephens: "Funny when you keep 'theory' out of it, this is quite good, perceptive, sensitive and well written.  But 'theory' comes in piles of awkward phrasing and sheer misuse or misappropriation of the 'facts'.  You'll have to go through the readings many more times."

But how could I do that if I couldn't  even get through it once?   

He goes on to make some very telling remarks that speak volumes about how shy I still was: "I hope next semester you will become an active member of our seminars rather than the occasional visitor.  This paper shows you have valuable things to contribute.  The moral contract of a seminar is that you will."

But I didn't.  In spite of this I still crawled out from under the crush of 440 with a "B".

And with that my university days were over.

I remember two distinct thoughts that were paramount in my mind at the time.  One was coming to grips with the realization that I was academically (and financially) burnt out and mentally unable to move on to more education next year.  But I was also laboring under the truth that I wasn't done quite yet.  And if to you harbor any doubt to the veracity of that last claim, here's a l'il secret: I didn't even  go to my own graduation ceremony! 

Well, I appreciate the indulgence, Kind Reader.  You've listened to my residence and academic war stories with tremendous patience.   For the continuity freaks amongst you, you can now go back to my "Lowered Expectations" blog series and pick up the story thread right from there.

So why dedicate so much time and effort to talking about my studies?  Because I have to put the tales I'm telling about the "real working world" in context.   It's important to remind both myself and  potential readers that I was once one of those new, hyper-specialized, freshly-scrubbed go-getters that our universities continuously discharge every January and April like frightened Marines from the front of Higgins boat.   

Hopefully some of you will relate to these stories, take them heart and scare you straight if you feel like settling comfortably into a rut.

Stay tunes, folks.

I've only just begun... 

Childhood's End (Del Rey Impact)Nineteen Eighty-FourDune, 40th Anniversary Edition (Dune Chronicles, Book 1)I, RobotNeuromancer



1 comment:

John M said...

... Just arrived here after following the bread crumbs from your 21 Nov 2010 effort. Interesting stuff. Too bad your last course put you off "theory." Have you ever seen this? Roland Barthes is more fun to read than Derrida, at least to start. A couple of weeks ago I picked up this sucker at The Last Word on Windsor St and have been discovering that those mid-20th Century French guys had some pretty neat stuff to say.

In fact I was (briefly, until 1st year Ancient Greek did me in) one of those annoying mature students hanging around St Mary's English classes. Felt a little weird in the 17th C. lit class being fifteen years older than the Donne-specialist instructor twenty-five years senior to everyone else in the room.

Enjoyed your crack about magnetron vs. Megatron in the late '10 post. Few people know how critical those little suckers were in recent history. Back in the '50s my family hung out at church with Frank Lewis and his family (similar aged kids, dads were in similar work). Wasn't until years later I learned he'd been the manager of Alfred Loomis' private lab at Tuxedo Park and had been sent to Cambridge to help set up the Rad Lab.

Anyway, reading a half-dozen of your efforts this evening has been time well wasted. Thanks for sharing!