As I've mentioned a time or two, I have a recurring dream that I'm giving grad school another try but have to drop out again because I can't bring myself to do any of the work. I guess that part of what prompts these dreams is the fact that for the past six years I've been going to classes at Cal and not doing any of the work. Good thing, too, because last week the professor of the geography class I've been auditing passed out a sample final exam and it looked really hard.

This caught me by surprise because I remember college being really easy. And that was when I was like 16, 17, 18, 19 years old and didn't know anything. Now I'm closing in on 40, and while my memory isn't as sharp as it used to be, I feel like I generally have a deeper understanding of stuff. So why did this exam look so tough? For a moment I thought I had the answer: of course! I've just been going to lecture! I haven't done any of the readings, or studied my notes at all... but then I remembered that I didn't do those things when I was enrolled either. In fact, I didn't even really take notes back then. So how did school get so much harder in 20 years?

Some of it might just be the difference between the level of knowledge required in the humanities classes that I took as a student and that required in the social science classes that I've been taking as an auditor. But I think there's another answer. Mike D'Angelo recently posted a link to the syllabus from David Foster Wallace's literature class at Illinois State in 1994, which explains what a thesis is, then adds:

And your claim must be interesting. Asserting that the theme of Homes' "A Real Doll" is "Sex is often an icky theme indeed" might not be wrong, but it's so boring that nobody's going to want even to read your paper, much less be persuaded by it.
      The trick to coming up with a good thesis is that you have to find some middle ground between a wacko thesis that you can't defend ("A major theme of 'A Real Doll' is that Antarctica is a major base for alien spacecraft") and a boring or too-obviously-true thesis that doesn't have anything in it to argue about ("A major theme of 'A Real Doll' is that sex can have some disturbing aspects to it").

I still have some of my college papers, and looking through them again, I see that the papers for my lower-division classes virtually always fell into that "who the fuck cares" category. "The way each character speaks reflects his or her nature!" "These two books by the same author have similar structures!" These papers were all quite handwavy, but because I could wave my hands in fairly fluent English, I tended to get A-minuses on them. By the time I started taking upper-division classes I could usually work in one decent idea, padded out to whatever length the assignment required, and these papers got A-pluses. So there you go! College is easy! What made it seem hard last week was thinking about the depth I would need to go in order to come up with something that I would be satisfied with now. If I'd received a handout like this when I was a student, I would have looked at the questions, quickly come up with some half-assed responses, thought, "Yep, this test'll be a snap," and spent all my time until the final playing Tetris. And thereby not learning anything.

And that was basically how I handled school from the time I was but a wee bairn. In elementary school, we frequently had to do presentations on various topics, and I got A's on all of these, but I never actually learned anything about my topics. Instead I'd spend all my time trying to come up with some way to dress up what I already knew with jokes and songs and whatnot. For instance, I spent a lot of time looking at atlases, so when I got assigned to do a report on Canada, I brought in a bunch of stuffed animals and did a little puppet show about polar bears chasing them from Arctic island to Arctic island, the names and areas of each I would dutifully rattle off. I learned nothing at all about Canadian history or culture... and I wasn't penalized for this in any way. I could rattle off the provinces and their capitals, and my presentation was deemed "creative," so I got top marks. Which was perfectly fine by me at the time — I was far less interested in learning anything than in having adults tell me that I was smart. In retrospect, I really, really wish that someone had challenged me.

Which is why today I'm thankful for the teachers I had over the years who saw through the glib surface of the work I was turning in and got on me to apply myself and make it better. I can't list them all here, but as a for-instance, I'm thankful to Lynn Lorenz, my eighth-grade history teacher, who gave me my first C because I'd turned in an essay that, despite its relative eloquence, didn't reflect much understanding of the actual history I was supposed to be writing about. I'm thankful to Kathleen Moran, my honors thesis advisor at Cal, who had a knack for bringing up inconvenient questions like what evidence I had apart from anecdotes in pop sociology books for my generalizations about the character of entire decades. Hell, I'm even a little thankful to the grad student whose name I've forgotten who gave me a B-minus on a paper for using too many "book-jacket superlatives" — at the time it pissed me off, but when I go back and look at a lot of the stuff I wrote in the '90s (and even afterward), there they are, taking up space and being smarmy.

As for the teachers who didn't challenge me... well, that's understandable. One of the more memorable conversations I've had over the years was with my tenth-grade English teacher, a few days before I was about to graduate from high school, in which she apologized for not really teaching me anything. She was responsible for 150 students a year, trying to get them on track to eventually do college-level work, so when kids showed up in her classes who could already write like undergraduates, it wasn't an optimal use of her limited time to help them with the weaknesses they did have. This sort of thing is only encouraged by high-stakes tests that place paramount importance on bringing students from "unsatisfactory" to "satisfactory" and no importance on getting them from "satisfactory" to "proficient." Which raises the question of what grading is even for. I flippantly called this article "I'm thankful for bad grades," remembering that C in junior high and musing that I probably could have used a few more wake-up calls like that over the years... but I don't actually mean to argue that harsh grading is the best way to motivate complacent students. I also don't mean to endorse the overbearing perfectionism that is stereotypically associated with Asian parents. All I'm really saying is that I appreciate having had some teachers who, even as busy as they are, have tried in any way to help me improve rather than looking at my work and filing me away as one fewer kid to have to worry about.

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