When Class is Canceled Because its Too Hot

When I first came to Columbia, at the beginning of last year, I began as idealistic as any of you. I concluded that I had partied enough in high school, done more than my share of everything illicit, and was now ready to test myself, to buckle down, and work really hard. Naturally, I was expecting to learn. I assumed that learning was primarily what college was about. I was as earnest as possible.

While, I do not know if this earnestness is characteristic of most college fresh people, I do know that there is no more appropriate place for this piece than the Disorientation Guide -- because I emerged (and in many ways still am) completely disoriented.

I began by signing up for 18 credits, or five classes. My list encompassed both standard courses, and courses taken out of pure interest. They were: Lit Hum and L & R (of course), 4th semester Spanish, Inequality and Public Policy, and Colloquium on East Asian Texts. While there were some points of learning within these classes, I would like to share with you things that happened in almost each of them which I feel to be egregiously wrong. In one class, my professor went out of town for an entire month due to an "emergency." We later discovered that the reason for this excursion was the need to grade his graduate student's theses. We did not have a substitute; we were told to read the books and then we just didn't have class. Make-up classes were attempted to be held, but there was no rhyme or reason about who showed up to them. Furthermore, if you have only read a limited number of books, discussing these limited number of books in more depth does not make up for zero discussion about the others.

In L & R, my instructor fell ill and left in the middle of the semester. I do not blame her for her illness, and we were promptly assigned a new instructor. And yet the experience of two instructors showed me the truly bazarre nature of the course Columbia knows and loves and calls L & R. My first instructor operated under a "I know L & R is stupid so I will make this as painless as possible" mentality. This really meant a dumbing down of already dumbed down material. We had to write an essay where we created our own personal logo (similar to "the Pepsi logo" according our assignment sheet). When something has little inherent meaning, students have no choices but to churn out something mechanical. Can we learn the tools of writing separate from the substance of writing? My second instructor was more passionate about L & R than the first, which meant an obsessive concern with grammar and again, little to no concern for the content which might actually inspire people to write. But you will take L & R and see what I mean, or perhaps you will emerge with a different understanding.

In my Spanish class, we dedicated entire class discussions to a single word. My instructor would come, speak to us about whatever she felt like in Spanish, ask a few questions, and the time would be up. We discussed the material that was in the workbook so minimally that when I took Spanish the next semester, I had no knowledge of the concepts which other students in my class knew. One class was a senior seminar. Naturally, when I found out that our one grade was a 20-page research paper on any topic of our interest, I was intimidated as hell, and worked diligently for a few months. When I got an A, I was happy. But then I found out that everyone else in the class began one week (or sometimes even one night) before, and received the same grade. I also read my professor's comments and saw he did not read the paper at all. That was heartening.

After this experience, I resolved to do as little as possible in the second semester. I did this angrily, though I knew I was only punishing myself. The result however, was that I took more classes, and received the same grades. Therefore I have concluded that college is a system that encourages students to work to the lowest common denominator.

During the second semester, my first semester professor went out of town for another month again, though this time he could not claim it was an emergency. In another course, I had a TA who was in Brazil the entire semester. Supposedly this was an emergency too, but then why was there no other TA assigned to the fifty or so students who had her? We emailed her our ten-page papers, and would receive a plethora of in-depth commentary which ranged from "Nice paper. A." to "A." The other students in my class seemed to think her absence was funny, and were glad because it was an easy grade. In another class, I had an instructor who once canceled class because it was "too hot," and another time because she forgot to pay the parking meter.

In my few other courses where there were no blatant violations of academic integrity, I learned what you will probably read in other essays in this disorientation guide: that readings in course packets are like images of hanging clothes in a detergent commercial -- a line that is overwhelmingly white and completely dry.

I cannot being to tell you how many people I have approached about these problems, and how many have said, "Aw, its your first year, what did you expect?" I still don't know what that means. Is it wrong to expect academic integrity from a college of any stature, let alone this one?

I am beginning this year in a place that is worse than disappointment -- because disappointment implies expectations that I won't even allow myself to have (to avoid disappointment of course). These are not everyone's experiences, and perhaps they will not be yours. But their frequency suggests that rather than being specific problems, there is also something systemic about them. You figure it out.