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What really goes on between teachers and students? Susan Newark tells it like is, revealing the highs and lows of a university education through a series of journals kept during her junior, senior, and graduate college years. 

Who will be interested in this book? Students (especially those in liberal arts) who wish to challenge the relevance or biases of what is being taught, students who tend to interact with their teachers and classmates, teachers who like to understand student viewpoints, teachers who want to learn more about which methods are working and which are not, and students/teachers who wish to enjoy often-humorous conversations about the best and worst aspects of the college education system.

Finding Muself: The College Journals

(Sneak Preview Sample)

Foreword

 

 

I have always believed of education that people attain no true understanding of the world without it. Education comes in many forms, combining family or tribal heritage, intrinsic knowledge, formal learning, and world experience—both beneficial and detrimental.

As a young woman who had dropped out of high school at sixteen in rebellion and boredom, I worked a series of despised jobs, all the while regarding college as an almost magical source of rescue from my intellectual unhappiness. It was the one key element missing in my quest to become a proficient writer, and I fought my way out of an oppressive relationship to get there.

But what I did not realize then, as I insinuated myself into the systems of the academic status quo, is that—no matter how great the desire for learning and no matter how competent the student—education is always hard-won. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the better the student, the more difficult the experience may become, because competency by definition must embody the most logical path to success, even if that path challenges the established mores and all the ulterior motives that lurk beneath them.

Previous to my junior year, my intensive journal entries devoted little space to educational experiences, but as I became more intellectual, so did my private writings. This book therefore begins with my third-year transfer to California State University and comprises a series of excerpts dealing specifically with the affronts to achievement I encountered there. I had always expected my studies to be hard work, but I had never anticipated that the challenges would have far more to do with personality than they did with the actual education.

For reasons that will soon become obvious, I have changed all the names in this journal.

 

 

 

“But do not at any time be seriously swayed by words of criticism. The criticizer in the moment of his noise is not what you are in the silence of creation, i.e., a maker instead of a destroyer.”

 

Jack Kerouac, 1948

 

 

 

 

Fall 1985 to Spring 1986

 

 

11/18/85

Having just begun my junior year, I enrolled in a required upper level essay/grammar course, taught by Marty Fielding, from whom I took Humanities at the junior college last year. He was a favorite then. I admired his teaching and he praised my work in his class. But so far this year, we’ve done nothing but clash. It almost seems that he’s out to get me, but I can’t figure out why, since we always got on so well before.

Our first essay assignment was to write about an important event in our lives. I chose childbirth and so did one other woman in the class. She wrote about what a great experience hers was. I wrote about what a nightmare mine was—and he refused to accept it, giving it back to me ungraded with complaints that it was too negative and angry and slightly longer than required (he gave us a minimum of four pages but no maximum). I poured my guts into that piece . . . it was really hard to purge that material. I even cried when I wrote it.

I was infuriated at his response, but eventually after I calmed down, I went to talk to him about my writing, which he thinks produces a grammatical structure too difficult for my peers to understand. I pointed out in turn that I was writing for me and not them—in essence that I really didn’t give a damn whether they could understand it or not. (In our grammar exercises, I’m often the only one who knows the answers to his questions, but I don’t think I should have to write more simplistically just because the other students are less advanced.) I agreed, however, that I could if necessary conform to the same old basic structures that I learned as a freshman, though I said I had hoped to be allowed the luxury of experimenting more in the upper division classes and that I felt he was holding me back.

Our discussion was valuable, because after I wrote the next essay in the exact style he wanted and proved that I could conform if need be, he gave me a perfect “A” and said I was free to write whatever I wanted for the remainder of the course. I suppose we each thought about what the other said. I recognize that my sentence structures are often rather complex and that my writing might benefit from relaxing them a little. And he chose a few other good writers from the class and included them in the privilege he gave me, encouraging us greatly.

Since then we’ve done some in-class writing. One assignment was an appraisal of both the negative and positive aspects of something. I didn’t particularly like mine, but Marty did. He read it aloud and everyone cracked up. It was a satire on the classroom itself, which I hate. It’s long and narrow, about a third the size of a normal room, more of a cubby storage area crammed into the upstairs middle of the building where there was some leftover space. It’s hard to be inspired there, because we’re all sitting on top of one another.

 

So for the negative half, I attacked the room from the viewpoint of a claustrophobic mental case in an insane asylum ward, where the “Venetian bars” on the absurdly high windows prevented escape. And then for the positive half I complimented just as satirically what a gorgeous room it was, comparing it to that of my house as I praised its consistent atmosphere of unchanging light and mood, which would never affect my ability to be inspired. I concluded, “It’s nice that I’ll always know what to expect of myself in this room, because at home, there’s no telling what I might come up with.” The weird thing is that although everyone laughed at all my symbolic imagery, they took it completely as a joke. I was dead serious. And I don’t think anyone, not even the professor, got the barb about enjoying the conformity!

 

 

The Grading System

Angela bit her lip hard, barely noticing the cold sweat she had broken into as she stared nervously at her only close friend, Joanne. They sat on the grass outside the dorm, waiting for the mailman, who today would deliver the final grades.

“God, I don’t know why I even bother to sit here,” she told Joanne. “I already know what I got.”

“Are you sure?” the other girl asked.

“Yes, I’m sure,” grated Angela. “When I took that exam, I just couldn’t help it—I couldn’t bring myself to give them what they wanted. I don’t even regret it, you know? Why should I always have to give in to the pressure of their expectations?”

Joanne just stared at her friend. “You know why,” she answered quietly. Then angrily she added, “Damn it, Angela, you know this is going to split us up permanently.”

“I know. I’m sorry. But I just couldn’t abandon my principles even if it meant…”

“Don’t even say it,” Joanne ordered miserably.

 “Okay.”

There was a long silence, and both girls stared dejectedly down at the grass.

“It’s too late,” Angela finally said. “I couldn’t do anything about it now, even if I wanted to.”

Joanne nodded and Angela began to shiver noticeably in the warm sun. The admission somehow made it all seem more real.

“Maybe I should have listened to Professor Howard,” Angela suddenly cried. “She reminded me several times that the authorities gave strict orders to the schools, obligating them to turn over the names of those who failed to meet the established criteria. She was really worried about me—she kept warning me that my work wasn’t of the caliber they required.” She paused, sobbing hysterically, “It’s not fair!”

“Don’t torture yourself,” Joanne implored, grabbing her hand and squeezing it. “I hate what you did, but I admire you for it.”

Tremulously voicing her thanks, Angela motioned toward the approaching mailman. “Here he comes.” There was a stark finality in her words.

They watched silently as he worked his way down the row of boxes until he got to theirs.

“You get them,” Angela pleaded.

A minute later, Joanne returned with the envelopes. Ripping one open, she showed the contents to Angela.

“I got a C+,” she stated guiltily.

“Good, you’re safe then,” Angela responded mechanically, opening her own envelope. She stared at the grade with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

 “Is it what you thought?”

 “Yes.”

Moaning sorrowfully, Joanne stared over Angela’s shoulder, her eyes widening. “God, here they come. They don’t waste any time, do they?”

Angela turned and stared, horrified, at the two approaching men.

“No!” she cried, but they caught her up and began dragging her away.

The grade report fluttered out of her hand and floated to the ground. Joanne walked over to it and looked down. And there, in abnormally bold print on the page, the “A” mocked her from below.

12/10/85

I worked my butt off on my final essay assignment, which Marty said was allowed to be different, experimental. Well, I experimented all right. I wrote a piece called “The Artist’s Exorcism,” which employed a continuous metaphor of parasites symbolizing all the demands of daily life that can hold back an artist from achievement if she permits it, i.e. feeds the parasites. I started it out with a poetic little preface leading into the prose and thesis:

 

 

Preface to the Artist’s Exorcism

 

Potential born thousand-fold each day

A parasitic society leads astray,

And who of those with destiny sure

Dare resist such encompassing lure—

Bombarding, infinite, plastic temptation

Soiling ability for all creation.

 

The casket is lowered with lid nailed tight,

Earth obscuring the last ray of light,

The worms left to finish their ravenous chore,

Potential once born remaining no more,

Parasites feeding and taking their toll,

Destroying, alas, yet another soul.

 

I was pleased with my piece, but Marty hated it. In fact, he attacked everything about it. I wonder if it’s really that he thought it bad writing or perhaps just that he didn’t like what it said. I’ve often noticed that people can’t take it when I’m bluntly honest, even symbolically. He said it was pretentious, vague and that he didn’t understand any of it until the conclusion clued him in. He even said accusingly that it sounded like something Poe would have written, and I held back a grin at that—he couldn’t have paid me a nicer compliment than to compare my first symbolic effort with the work of someone as practiced as Poe.

Marty, however, didn’t intend it as a compliment. He complained that the essay was too negative and that the images were too strong. I got the impression that he was telling me that I had no right to feel that intensely about my subject. Then he said it sounded as if I was bitching and saying “poor me,” when actually I made it perfectly clear that I held the responsibility for my downfall rather than the parasites, which could only hold me back if I fed them. This was an exorcism, after all. But I don’t think Marty understood a word I said—surprising because of its innate existentialism, a philosophy that he introduced me to in the first place—or else he’s pretending not to get the point.

I wasn’t particularly offended by his criticisms, which I know were intended to help me, but I was worried about his saying that he didn’t understand a word of it. I decided to get a second opinion, so I called Mom, who knew nothing about the essay and hates gross images. I said I wanted to read something and have her explain what she thought it meant (I didn’t even tell her I was the author). I read it only once and then asked for an honest opinion.

 

She said she was uncomfortable with the images of tapeworms and the like but felt she understood it. She pointed out right off that it was about conformity, a word not used once in the text (ha-ha Marty), and the only difference between my meaning and her interpretation was that she saw the conformity more along the lines of what the artist has to put up with in the publishing field, whereas mentally I was thinking of the demands of daily bullshit. But then she said it also represented all the pain-in-the-butt daily things that create obstacles to achievement. Thank you very much.

She proved the point I was trying to make to Marty—that anyone who had the desire to write (and probably any other artist) would relate to this symbolism right off. Since that was my intended audience, I feel I succeeded. Marty, however, feels that I failed. He thought it was too long (six double-spaced pages) and again refused to accept it, which means that I’ll have to do another essay to meet the final course requirements. So now I must be unfaithful to my whole theme, because to get an “A” from Marty, I will again have to conform to the same old bullshit. I told him that I’d write the new version of the essay but would always prefer the original.

In conclusion, it’s rather annoying that people love the stuff I dash off unedited and hate the stuff I work my butt off on. I somehow have the feeling that this is only the beginning. When I produce honesty, people are insulted (Marty must have been offended because he thought I was targeting him as one of the parasites—I wasn’t, but if the symbolism fits, wear it).

Softcover $6.95

Finding Muself: The College Journals | Mysite (susannewark.com)

Kindle eBook $3.95

Amazon.com: Finding Muself: The College Journals eBook : Newark, Susan: Kindle Store

 

 I must agree with him. I’m now convinced that he’s prejudiced against my essay sim

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