Sometimes I get ranty on my students. This happens, in particular, when they kvetch about having to take classes that are “stupid” because some courses “don’t have anything to do with what I’m going into.” Of course, were these students expressing their frustrations at the keyboard, that sentiment would read “tehy are stuppid cause they dont have any thing to due with WHat im goin in to.”
Whenever students act put out at having to take a range of classes, at having to study things they have no interest in, at wasting their time in classes like history, political science, and psychology when they just want to be nurses,
I have to clench my slapping hands firmly to my sides.
Every now and then, if I’m able to temper my reaction, I attempt thought correction (which is the agenda of every leftist Ivory Towered college professor, according to the Fox Newsian segment of the population). Calming my voice, I venture a, “You know, I viewed every class I ever took as an opportunity more than a burden. I always really try to remember that education, in any setting, on any subject, for any reason, is to be treasured. Specifically, if you are lucky enough to be in college, you shouldn’t start complaining that you are asked to take college classes. Of course, all of this is hard to see when you’re in the midst of it, so let me put it in more practical terms. Studies show that most people end up changing careers 5-7 times in their working lives. Thus, it is in your best interest to get the broadest base of education possible, so that you leave college equipped to take on any possible type of job that might put itself in front of you in the next 35 years. Certainly, you need very specific classes to become a nurse/phlebotomist/massage therapist/auto mechanic/firefighter. But what happens when your body gives out, or the economy becomes bad, and suddenly you are face with a change in career? What if you’ve only ever had phlebotomy-related classes? How are you going to sell books/dig graves/start a company/substitute teach/manage an office? More than knowing how to draw blood for the rest of your life, you need to know how to talk to people, how to communicate, how to think critically, how to analyze possibilities and pitfalls. See, the whole point here, with this college gig, is to lay down a foundation that can support you through all of life’s vagaries.”
And then I slap them.
With very small, gentle, invisible hands.
Here’s the thing, though: while I believe all of the above rant quite vehemently these days, from the comfortable perch of middle age, the truth is that when I was a college student, I got pissy about classes, too. In my defense, I will note I went to a liberal arts college, so the entire nature of my degree was broadly foundational. Moreover, it wasn’t that I was averse to the information in the classes I was required to take; it was that my brain was too busy processing Long Island Iced Teas to be up to the task of calculatin’ and hypothesizin’.
As a result, I still did my best to avoid classes in the maths and sciences–them mean classes that could hurt me.
However, the college hinged its degree awarding upon my having completed a variety of classes from all disciplines, so eventually, I had to sign up for numbers and theories and stuff, which seemed a shame when I still had Jane Austen to read.
Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in my recoil from hardcore math and science; in fact, I was in such good company that the college had been forced to create and offer watered-down versions of some classes in these disciplines. I took Math 10 one semester…we connected dots and made stars and pretty shapes, and at some point, we may have added up all our dots and stars, which, since we got to use our fingers, was a breeze, so long as the answer never exceeded ten. Hey! Math was fun!
Fulfilling the science requirement was infinitely more taxing. I thought I had it sussed when I discovered a class nicknamed “Physics for Poets” existed. Hell, yea, methunk. I could dig a class where “torque” and “vector” were part of the iambic pentameter making up a sonnet. So great was my excitement, I bought pencils. I bought pencils.
But. Hmmm. How to put it?
One time John McEnroe hollered at a line judge that he was “the pits of the world.” I would like to assert here that Nikola Tesla might have been a line judge. ‘Cause physics was the pits of the world.
Now, I already knew physics blew the shutters right off my weathered Queen Anne of a brain. In high school, fast tracked in all subjects, I had taken honors physics. My teacher then had served as an artillery sergeant in Korea. As I sat in his classroom, holding my head in my hands, stifling a wail, he would march up and down the aisles, whacking desks and hollering about how only dummies couldn’t get this stuff. Clearly a dummy, I started going in before school to have him work through the homework problems with me. It never helped. I remained a cringing, cowering mass of confusion. But he did smile once when I make a joke about my having “zero capacitance,” so I called it a victory.
Woefully, the college physics experience bore out my college experience. While the professor was a good man, he lived on Planet Throbbing Brain, unaware that we peons down in the mines, attempting to extract his brilliance, were gasping for air.
Full disclosure requires that I also admit I took the class Pass/Fail, so all I needed was a “D” to get through. At first, I aimed for my “D” by skipping lots of classes, which did the trick quite neatly.
But then we had the first test, and its return marked the single time in my academic career that I held and beheld the letter “F.”
Muttering a word that started with “F,” I realized I had to start cranking, start going to class, start attending study groups, start reading the text book.
And I did. Even still, I was profoundly bewildered and lost. Fortunately, I became just enough less lost to randomly encounter a path labeled “D,” and I made it through the class–a little closer to an ulcer, a little less buoyant, a little less certain I was a fan of this “take a wide range of classes” concept.
Leaving me faintly nauseous and listing slightly to the right, college physics was the worst experience of my educational life.
Until I took Statistics.
The upshot of my story is this: it’s Thanksgiving time; I don’t like holidays; and at some point someone will probably ask me to articulate something that I’m grateful for this year. Since my attitude is bad, it’s best to have an answer prepared. A prepared answer will get me off the hook, and, with words pre-packaged, ready to trip off my tongue, I can sidestep the strife that would ensue from me hollering, “None of your damn business!” or “How come you never ask me this in April? Or September?”
So here’s what I’ve got, in the off chance we all end up going ’round the table and forcing out statements of gratitude:
“I’m really, really thankful I’ll never again have to take a college physics class. Now stuff that in your turkey and gobble it.”
*This post is a re-run from a few years ago. I still hate physics. I still hate the holidays. But at least this year, we’re having Thanksgiving at our house, sharing the day with one of my college friends, her husband, and their two sons. We shall not go around the table and announce things about gratitude, unless the words uttered are “Thank you for the refill on my wine.”