I recently received a personal e-mail from Evans Young, assistant Dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, that went something like this:
“Dear current/former first-year seminar participant: Our records indicate that you are/were at some point enrolled in a (few) first-year seminar course(s) here at the University. We are very interested in hearing what you think/thought about it/them, so we”ve set up this on-line survey. Please fill it out. Love, LSA Undergraduate Education Assistant Dean Evans Young.”
I didn”t fill out the survey. I couldn”t. The questions were too general, too open for misinterpretation. But since I am never one to ignore a personal e-mail, I feel I owe Assistant Dean Young (and anyone pondering the first-year seminar experience) a few words of explanation. So here they are: Interpret as necessary.
You remember first-year seminars from Freshman Orientation they had their own little booklet, separate from the course guide. They had colorful names like “Psych. 192: The Psychology of the Zoot Suit,” “Geology 157: All About Mantle” and “Philosophy 188: Knowing You Know that You Know, Ya” Know?” They fulfilled valuable distribution requirements like “Race and Ethnicity” and “Introductory Composition.”
Ah, the first-year seminar a group of 15-20 wide-eyed freshpeople paired with a wise, mentorly professor who would ease them gently into the harsh realm of academia. Small classes, personal attention it”d be just like high school, only with small classes and personal attention. There would be profound conversation, dramatic pauses and widespread chin stroking.
At least, that”s what it said in the booklet.
Things didn”t quite work out that way in my first-year seminar English class. Putting aside suspicions that my professor was a Martian, I still don”t think she liked us much. Her eyes could and I do not mean this metaphorically bore a hole through even the thickest skull in 1.5 seconds flat. When she didn”t look vaguely annoyed, she looked specifically annoyed. But who could blame her? We students were certainly no match for the green-but-eager young intellectuals pictured in the booklet we were a bunch of inarticulate just-out-of-high-schoolers, full of ideas but lacking technical know-how. If she wanted to engage us in meaningful dialogue, she was going to have to teach us something about it first. And that wasn”t going to be any fun.
Of course, “fun” takes on a whole new meaning when you”re an English professor.
There”s a wide misconception that English professors are born with psychoanalytic readings of “Hamlet” in their hands. On the contrary, I think most English professors used to be normal people. They were undergraduates with minds of their own. They defied convention, rejected old interpretations and wrote papers about it. They got C-pluses from tyrannical teachers who just didn”t understand. They longed to infiltrate and overhaul the system.
Then, in grad school, their professors locked them in dank, murky basements where there were large rats and refused to feed them (the grad students) until they started using words like “germane” on a regular basis.
I like to think this is what happened to my professor.
So, did I learn anything from this course?
Sure. I learned how to stand proud at two inches tall. I learned that being persistently wrong (“You are grasping at straws! There is no way the tabby cat had an Oedipus complex! No!”) is more interesting than being apathetically right (“Oh, puh-lease, how banal”), to embrace the mundane and to appreciate people who smile.
I promised myself I would never call a fellow human”s thoughts “banal.” Not even if she deserved it.
In the end, I took my English credits and ran. Traumatic though my experience was, it didn”t kill my interest in the field of English. Far from it There are too many conventions left to defy, papers to write and C-pluses to earn. That said, I”m thinking I”ll pass on grad school.
Aubrey Henretty can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.