Sunday, May 21, 2006

Worst college class

I talked to my In Law today. First, let me say that IL is FABULOUS in every way I can think of. IL's caring, thoughtful, smart, a great conversationalist, fun, witty. And, IL started back to college this January, having completed two years elsewhere. Now IL's signed up for a summer course, and called to chat about it. The instructor sounds less than ideal, but I have confidence that IL will do well in the class and make the best of things.

Our chat got me thinking about my worst college class, at least the one that most comes to mind as bad. No, it's not the 1 pm genetics class in for which the two instructors who team taught the course had written the text book and during which whichever was lecturing that day would turn down the lights and project illustrations from the book onto a screen before droning about the chapter we'd read. Though that one was painful in a lot of ways, it wasn't the worst.

Nor was it a Russian culture class I took during which we were somehow supposed to learn to love Mussorgsky without ever listening to his music (or ever mentioning any other Russian composers or writers).

Nope, it was my very first class on literary theory, taught by a full professor at a school where most of my instructors were just wonderful.

We spent about half of the semester learning about hermeneutics. Actually, we spent most of our time learning what hermeneutics was not, because the professor refused to actually define the term for us. And it wasn't in my ten year old dictionary. (Nor did I know what an OED was at the time.) This was in the days before the internet, so it's not like I could just google it, either.

Admittedly, I probably should have known about handbooks of literary terms and such, but I didn't.

The problem for me was that all the things he said hermeneutics wasn't, my car carburetor wasn't either, but I was pretty sure it wasn't hermeneutics.

The other half of the semester we spent reading and "discussing" the poems of some poet whose name (and works) I've completely repressed. We would read a poem; then the prof would ask some interpretive question, and a student would proffer some answer.

Since I have no memory of poems or student interpretations, I can't assert that we were brilliant. Certainly, I was pretty unequipped to read poetry at the time. But I had a fairly decent vocabulary and had done well enough getting through Chaucer and Shakespeare the semester before to assert that I was probably reading sentences in a basic way, getting the basic grammar and vocabulary to understand on the literal level at least.

Almost without exception, though, the professor would dismiss the student's interpretation, explaining that he KNEW the poet, and offering a reading based on his knowledge of the poet's biography, life, poems, and conversations.

I came away from the class frustrated, and convinced that I hated poetry and theory.

The professor of that class mystified poetry reading as something to be done only by those "in the know" about the poet's personal life, rather than showing and teaching us how to interpret the text before us. He acted as if there really are "hidden meanings" IN texts, and never helped me see the complexity of making meaning between text(s) and reader(s).

And rather than defining his terms and helping us understand hermeneutics, or methods and practices of (poetic) interpretation, he made theory incomprehensible.

I should reread the poet in question, and think about his stuff more, perhaps. But I'm convinced that what counts as a "good" poem for me doesn't depend on knowing the poet's biography or conversations. Rather, having a good vocabulary and willingness to look up words, and an understanding of the cultural contexts, one should be able to make basic sense of a poem. If one can't, then I don't think it counts for me as a good poem.

And still, when we talk about hermeneutics in theory class, I get the heeby jeebies. And I make sure to define it as clearly as possible because I still have doubts that I get it; the definition seems clear enough in my dictionary and handbooks, but that only makes me wonder why he couldn't make it clear.

I'm not sure what he got out of teaching the class the way he did; I'm sure we were incredibly frustrating for him, stupid lugnuts that we were. A few students were worshipful, thinking that he held the keys to something, which may have fed his ego. But most of us were just frustrated.

FSM, protect me from ever teaching like that!


  1. In the best undergrad lit class I took, the professor dismissed hermeneutics as "passing one's hands mysteriously over the text in an effort to understand it." That's the only definition of the term that has stuck with me over the years.

  2. The worst class I ever took was an upper-div history course that was nothing more than a vanity forum for the professor. Of course we had to buy her books, and her lectures were only about how everyone else was wrong, unless they footnoted her. I can't even remember anything else about the course.

    Another old joke on hermeneutics: just keep reading until you find the ithyphallic imagery, which will explain everything. It's a pun in Greek (google: herm statue).

  3. At my religious undergrad, the only hermeneutic was biblical exegesis. Their approach was threefold:

    1. divine revelation--what it said in the text--literal and word for word

    2. divine example--act accordingly

    3. necessary inference--I loved this one...basically, whatever isn't told or shown that the powers that be think should be in there...


  4. I think my worst class was one - a small seminar - "taught" by someone who obviously fancied himself a researcher and NOT a teacher. His solution was to cancel class for the entire second half of the year so we could work on our own research. When really all he wanted was to work on HIS research, and not to have to do the piddly amount of prep it would take for him to lead a seminar of eager,upper-year students. That, frankly, sucks for students who are hungry to learn, and who want their professors' guidance in that. He was so transparent, in retrospect. Ugh.

    This is just another version of your worst's narcissism and self-indulgence, I think, Bardiac.

  5. ah yes, hermeneutics--always a slippery one. for some reason the phrase that sticks in my mind from one of my grad school classes is "hermeneutics of suspicion," not that I have any idea what that means...