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Now if Only I Could Convert Apathy to Cash…

October 29, 2007

I have discovered the reason why it is hard to care about 2/3rds of my classes. It is because 2/3rds of my classes do not involve improving myself. They involve ingesting information, and then regurgitating it on command.

For example, I am currently writing a paper comparing the opening passages of two of the works from two of the different genres (in this case epic poetry and 19th century realist novels) we have read in my global lit class. I am to analyze them for content, reflection of the following narrative, and thematic importance. I do not give a flying fuck about any of it. First of all, to pretend that in the space of 4 to 6 pages I can draw meaningful conclusions about the structural nature of not one but two entire genres by examining the opening passages of a single example from each is absurd. The sample size is too small by at least an order of magnitude, and even if that weren’t true, 2 -3 pages per genre would be far too short to go into any depth. And yet despite the farcical nature of this assignment, I am expected to actually put some thought and effort into it. Why? I’m not getting anything out of this, and neither is the teacher. It’s just an empty kabuki dance we have to go through so that the TA can justify filling out a form that tells a computer to mark a certain letter after my name on the grade rolls.

And it’s not just the assignments that are bullshit, the reading list is too. We read boring books that are considered good because they are old, and then little or no effort is made to link the material to our lives. Why is The Epic of Gilgamesh important? Just because it is old? Or did it have some lasting impact upon civilization’s subconscious that I may benefit from learning to recognize? I don’t think I’ll ever know, because this was never the point of the lecture.

My other class, Overview of the Universe, had the potential to be so much better, but it too failed. Mostly this is because even though it was advertised as being a science class for non-science majors (read: bad at math) there is a disgusting amount of equations I have to wrestle with. When the professor is talking about the basic concepts and ideas in astronomy (you know, giving an overview of the universe) I really like the class. I feel as if I’m actually learning and being improved by studying the broad concepts. But that’s maybe 20% of a given lecture if I’m lucky. The rest is just math, math, math. But wait, why do I need to be able to calculate the luminosity of a star that is half as hot as our sun? Is that going to be on next year’s tax return? The specifics don’t interest me because I’m not an astronomer, and I don’t intend to be one. So again I’m forced to wade through useless academic exercises that don’t have any bearing on my day-to-day life and do not do anything to help enlighten me more generally because it is inevitable that I will forget these things as soon as the final is over. All that I’m getting out of this is a little bit of general enlightenment buried under a whole lot of math anxiety, and for the price I’m paying to attend this school, that is just not enough for me to really value what happens in that class.

But what about the part of my classes that aren’t soul-crushing wastes of time? Well it’s pretty simple: I like my writing class because I can see the point of it. I want to be a better writer, so I write things and then have other people read them and make comments on them. And then I take those comments and I rewrite the piece, and not only is it a whole lot better the second time around, I have learned from my mistake. So I have improved myself.

Have I encountered anything like this before at UCSC? Why yes, yes I have! The example that springs to mind is Japanese class, where I came in having forgotten most of my Japanese, and left with the ability to make basic conversation. But Japanese isn’t the only class I’ve had like that; I’ve had lit classes and general eds that also had that wonderful feeling of noticeable gain. And now that I think about it, those were always the classes that I enjoyed the most. So from my experience, it is clear that an educational process that leaves the pupil better off than he was before he subjected himself to it seems more satisfying than than just running out the clock in a lecture hall. Imagine that.

If only this was how classes normally ran.

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