Friday, April 29, 2005

Why I’m Not an English Major

From the diary: “February 23, 1982

“I feel like talking to someone, but everyone’s gone to bed so I think I’ll talk to myself. I slaved over an essay for American Lit. I worked hours on that damn thing for Mrs Lennox. I handed it in proudly. I was positive I would get at least a “B” if not a “B+” and who knows – if I was lucky I could’ve gotten an “A-“. It was that good. When I handed that paper in I handed Mrs Lennox a carefully guarded piece of myself. I had poured at least three hours of my soul into that essay. I didn’t happen to like it too much. I couldn’t care less about John and Elizabeth Proctor [of The Crucible]. I hate analyzing and dissecting stories. It ruins my enjoyment of the story. Sometimes I enjoy a good discussion of a story. What am I leading up to? Well, when I … handed in [the first version of] that essay I hadn’t spent many hours thinking about what I was writing. I wasn’t the least bit excited about what I was writing. When I got my paper back I wasn’t too surprised to see a “C+” on my paper. But I was determined to raise that grade. I took all of Mrs Lennox’s comments and incorporated them and I improved on the characters’ sketches and spent hours trying to think of how they related to each other. Maybe it didn’t show how much time I put in it – but I had.

“When she attacked my paper with her infamous red pen she gouged me and wrote in my blood. I have been feeling depressed ever since 2nd period. I wanted to cry as I sat there and looked at my second “C+”. She had written “B-“, but had crossed it out and put in the “C+”.

“What’s so tragic about a crummy “C+”? What’s so damn tragic about that? Why should I feel so down? Why do I feel sick and useless? The whole world is whirling about me and I’m just bumping around with nothing to hold onto.

“I’m going to Berkeley and the Model U.N. conference in two days. With Mrs Lennox.

“I feel so nothing … I know limbo just opened up and swallowed me and now I’m wallowing in it and it is nothing. My throat’s dry.”

C+, huh?

I resisted taking literature classes in college because in my experience you’d be asked to read a decent book then forced to batter out of it any pleasure in it you’d thought you’d gotten. There’s a Billy Collins poem that captures this pedagogy.

During my years at university nearly everyone I talked to assumed I was an English major. I suppose that was natural enough considering how focused I was on poetry or how much I would read. But if there’s anybody to blame for my fear and loathing of the essay it’d have to be my high school English teachers. I gradually came to recognize Mrs Lennox was a nice person, especially once I was no longer her student. And, curiously perhaps, I did just fine in all the literature classes I took at SRJC or Cal, including the Brazilian lit class that was taught in Portuguese. I will even allow that I enjoyed these classes and found at times that my appreciation of literature was deepened rather than destroyed.


hbjock said...

Hmmm now how is it possible to get a C+.. and follow all your teacher's comments and recommendations, and still end up with a C+? That just seems totally wrong =)

David Lee Ingersoll said...

That's the absurdity of it. I bullshitted my way through Mrs. Lennox's class. I got As. I couldn't tell you how I did it. I'm the inferior writer.

I got bored reading Moby Dick. Never finished the book. I wrote an essay on what a great character Queequeg was. Of course, I did think Queequeg was a great character. But damn, Moby Dick was a boring book.

I purposely avoided as many of the literature classes I could for the reasons you mentioned. They tended to take the fun out of reading. All that looking for meaning and significance and theme. Gah.

David Lee Ingersoll said...

And I still haven't read The Crucible. It always sounded too much like reading it was supposed to be good for me. Like I hadn't noticed that people are stupid and do mean things that have horrible results for innocents? Double gah.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

D, I remember seeing you reading Moby Dick. It looked so awfully long! I didn't know you didn't finish it. I read Moby Dick a few years ago during my lunch hours at Nolo. I enjoyed it. But I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading it for the style, for the language, that the plot was secondary. I liked it fine that way. Reading the thing mainly for the adventure story leads to frustration.

hey bfl, yeah, I'm still mystified. I wonder what was going on? Sometimes I could figure out what a teacher wanted and just give it to them. I think the problem here was I cared so tried to do what made sense to me, rather than what teacher wanted. My mistake!