Saturday, October 3, 2009

Thank You Sir, May I Have Another?

Since beginning blogging, and paying a bit more attention to writing related issues, I have been hunting for a box that contained old high school and university papers. I even paid my son to search the crawl space on my behalf. He could not find it but, in Quasimodo fashion, I searched the smelly little space until I found pay dirt. Not only did I find the papers, but also 3 short stories that I wrote in the early '90's while meeting with our creative writing group in London. That was called AWOL--Anonymous Writers of London, not to be confused with the other AWOL in town, Adventurous Womyn of London.

To the right is the first of 4 papers I wrote for my first year English professor. It was regarding the Captain's double in Conrad's short story "The Secret Sharer." The words written by the instructor (whose name I have stricken from the top of the page) are probably not very clear. But his sentiment is. My writing skills were lacking somewhat in September 1980, just shy of my 18th birthday. Being a sporting chap, he gave me a chance to re-write the paper for the next class. I won't bother posting it here, but the amount of red on the page indicated he was again down a pint of blood.

The semester played out pretty much the same for each of the papers and their re-writes I completed for Dr. xxxxx. They had to do with scenes in such classic novels as "In The Penal Colony" (Kafka), "The Turn of the Screw" (James) and "The Sun Also Rises" (Hemmingway). I was trashed and drowned in a sea of red with each paper and re-write I completed attempting to improve my writing (and grade). Keep in mind that I attended school to study sciences, not English. and had classes in chemistry, biology, physics, geology, calculus and of course English. I also had to attend 3 hour lab sessions weekly in chemistry and biology.

I'm surprised that I maintained my sanity during the first year. A 5th paper and subsequent re-write may have prompted me to the clock tower, sniping at bearded, tweed-coated academics that bore a resemblance to Dr. xxxxx. After the final exam, I was presented with my 48.5% grade; good for a chance to enjoy his class another semester. I did, however, discover that I could take the other first year English class. I wrote my papers for Dr. yyyyy and was given a C+ grade. Perhaps this English shtick wasn't so bad after all? I'm hoping that the first semester professor wasn't biased against me because his ex-wife was my English teacher in high school.
The bottom line? I deserved a poor grade for that ill-fated English class because my written skills probably did suck back in 1980. They still leave a lot to be desired as I'm the first to admit that I have difficulty telling the difference between a preposition and a proposition...and I'm constantly reminding myself: use the active voice dumb ass! I just tend to go with what sounds good and flows. Grammar be damned.
I wish he could have used a bit more compassion at conveying his criticisms. Offered more encouragement. Or at least less discouragement. I think my love of horror began that year as I imagined evil ways of dispatching Dr. xxxxx with his own red marker. But I suppose that I really shouldn't judge him until I've walked a mile in his shoes (yep, I do know what a cliche is).


K.C. Shaw said...

Very few students can write a decent college paper at 18 years old. I sure couldn't. Fortunately, I started out as an art major and didn't switch to English until my sophomore year, so I had two full semesters to be gently broken in by my comparatively kind freshman core curriculum teachers.

Your Dr. xxxxx sounds a lot like my hated Dr. xxxxx, whose was dean of the English dept. and whose classes I couldn't avoid. I loathed that man, my goodness. I would have happily joined you on the clock tower. :)

Laura Eno said...

At least you gained a love of horror from him. :)

Natalie L. Sin said...

I blame the fumes from the red ink.

Jarmara Falconer said...

I wonder what he would think about your work now?

Elspeth Antonelli said...

I have always found it interesting that students graduate from high school and 2 months later are expected to be working at a completely different level.


Alan W. Davidson said...

KC-Hmm...another victim of the system.

Laura-You're a 'glass half full' sort of lady, aren't you?

Natalie-It's ironic that I use red pens a lot to check over the work of junior draftsmen. The fumes are still at work.

Jarmara-I dare say he would rightfully lambaste me with his red pen. I still have a lot to learn.

Elspeth-I guess this butterfly is yet to emerge from the coccoon as a full-fledged writer. I've never understood it either. I suppose each prof may have their own standards.

Kat said...

Hey Alan!

I agree with you about the lack of compassion, but in a way it's good though, because you probably learned a lot. And as you look back on your older stuff, I'm sure you can see how much you've grown. I know I can when I look at my older pieces...

All the same, I bet you're glad to have escaped his class, lol. I had an art teacher who was brutal, I got an A, but I busted my butt. Spent hours and hours chained to an easel, lol. It is what it is, right? Lol.

Aaron Polson said...

As one who bleeds ink on student papers (albeit high school papers...and we do try to "get them ready"--trust me) it's hard on the other end of the pen, too. How do I write comments which the student will read, comprehend, and put into practice without crushing their spirit and making them gun shy?

I use green to score papers. Red is so...angry.

Anonymous said...

Alan - maybe he was being hard on you because he saw your potential and only wanted to spur you to greater efforts. I fancy he had you marked for his protégé. Is he still alive or did he die still heart-broken that you rejected him as a mentor? ;)

Alan W. Davidson said...

Kat-I think that I learned a lot of self-restraint. I suppose I have grown, but there's still miles of room for improvement. I think every subject has its hated Dr. xxxxx.

Aaron-I was hoping to hear from somebody on the other side of the pen. What you say makes perfect sense. And it's amazing that a teacher has to get their point across to so many students in such a small time frame. In my opinion, educators a far too underappreciated (ie. under-paid as well).

Anton-At the end of the first sentence I thought you were serious. He was a Shakespearian, so probably came to a poetic demise (yes, heart-broken at my rejection ;0)

Danielle Ferries said...

Thanks for sharing, Alan. I think it's good to look back and see how much you've learned.

katey said...

Like you, I had some papers get bled all over in college. I took an upper level art history course my first semester (it's just a specialized English major, frankly) and had a professor who was also curator of the American collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art-- which has great collections-- and he would bleed all over my weekly papers (but not in such a mean way). Then I had a meeting with him in his little office, sweater-vest and all, and he kind of blinked at me and went, "Oh, you're a freshman? Well then, that's not so bad!" He helped me so much, and I've (obviously) never forgotten him for it.

Too bad most professors aren't like that-- I think a lot of kids would be better writers today if they were.