Friday, August 10, 2012

Flashback Friday - The Time I Became One of THOSE Students......

I was a senior in college, and my friend from high school, Mack, and I were taking a course in Chaucer from Dr. Shaw.

A whole course in Chaucer. Ponder on that for a moment.

It must have been one hell of a scheduling nightmare, or I must have already taken every other course for an English major that didn't involve medieval poetry. I have no other explanation for why I would have voluntarily signed up for an entire course in Chaucer. Unless Mack peer-pressured me into it. He's the sole reason I was an English major in the first place. That and college calculus. And chemistry.

I don't remember a lot about Dr. Shaw. I remember her wearing a flower, either in her hair or on her blouse, and I don't remember whether it was a single occurrence or if she wore it all the time. I also remember that Mack would always turn to me in class and whisper, "Do you think she ever thinks about sex?" I had no idea what the right answer to that question was. Maybe he was referring to the flower.

The other thing I remember about Dr. Shaw was that I was terrified of her. She came across so stern and smart and knowledgeable and no-nonsense that I wouldn't have approached her on a dare. And I was a daredevil.

At the end of the semester, we had two (or was it three?) days of final exams. Exam periods were three hours per class, and the schedule was determined by what time your class was normally held. A 7:50 class (isn't that a dumb time to have a class?) might have the 8-11 slot, an 8:50 class might have the 12-3 slot, and so on. (I'm working on very poor memory of the quarter system, and almost every college in the free world has converted to semesters now, so I don't have anything reliable on which to base my examples.)

Many professors used the last day of classes to give their final exams, even though they weren't supposed to change the schedule. Professors who did that probably wanted to get their grades in (particularly those pesky English teachers, who gave such horrendous essay exams in the first place), and they may have wanted to get a jump-start on their short between-quarter vacations too. We didn't mind not having to show up for a 3-hour exam, and we were ecstatic if OUR breaks started a day (or two) early, so we didn't complain.

Dr. Shaw, however, threw a monkey wrench into the whole mess. She decided our final exam (over Chaucer, remember?) would be administered on the last day of classes (yay!), but it would still be a 3-hour exam (boo!).


By doing that, she was completely ignoring anything we might have in our schedules beyond her class: other classes, jobs, a social life. If someone were unlucky enough to have Dr. Shaw for, say, a 2:00 class, and then someone else for a 3:00 class, then her plan did not allow for a student to attend that 3:00 class on the all-important (sometimes) last day of classes.

Personally, I had a job in the afternoons, and while it would have been a simple matter to rearrange my work schedule to accommodate that final exam, I disagreed with it on principle. I didn't think she should move the final exam to the last day of classes instead of the assigned day just because it fit HER schedule better, and then not take OUR schedules into consideration for the last day of classes.

So I called the chairman of the English department.

I know, right?

I've always thought it was significant that when I called to report my problem, the secretary asked what year I was. Perhaps if I had been a freshman instead of a senior, my message may never have been delivered.

I made the mistake of telling Mack what I had done, KNOWING he couldn't avoid looking my way if the phone call came up in class. But another student saved me.

When Dr. Shaw walked into class the next time, a blond-haired guy who was either a swimmer or a diver spoke up and said, "We're a little concerned by this final exam thing."

She retorted, "You're damn right you are. SOMEONE called the head of the department."

Don't look at me, Mack. Don't look at me, Mack. Don't look at me, Mack. Don't look at me, Mack.

I probably gave myself away, sitting there in the front row, because I DIDN'T look around and make eye contact with anyone else. Especially Mack.

Boy, was Dr. Shaw peeved. It had never crossed my mind that she might retaliate by creating a final exam that no one with an IQ less than 534 could pass, but that was water under the bridge at that point. The horse was out of the gate and charging down the backstretch. (Forgive the mixed metaphors. Dr. Shaw would probably crucify me for them.)

Dr. Shaw must have had some serious out-of-town plans, though, because her solution was still NOT to move the exam to its scheduled time, but instead to give us a take-home exam. I've heard horror stories about take-home exams in college and have always heard they are to be avoided like the plague, but it was fine with me. I didn't have to sit in a classroom for three hours, whether on the assigned day OR on the final day of classes, I didn't have to worry about Dr. Shaw finding me out, and I didn't have to wonder about her flower and whether or not she ever thought about sex while I was churning out some pithy remarks about Chaucer.

Looking back, I have mixed feelings about what I did. There may have been a better way to approach the problem, including going to Dr. Shaw during her office hours. But did I mention I was terrified of her? And in the late 70's and early 80's, students didn't have the kind of collegial relationships with their professors that I think are more common today. (Or perhaps that was just me. I still held professors up on a pedestal, something better than us mere mortals.) I was amazed the blond-haired swimmer/diver even had the nerve to speak up; but boy was I glad he did. Even if I HAD summoned the nerve to go to her office, I had the impression she wouldn't have changed her mind based on the opinion of one student. And we didn't have time to organize any type of group effort; exams were upon us.

I've tried to put myself in Dr. Shaw's position. It must have been embarrassing for her department chair to call her in and chastise her (if indeed he did), but to this day I think she was in the wrong.

I don't even remember what grade I got in that course. Now I'm curious, though, and I may have to go look up my undergraduate transcripts just to see if I got an "A" or a "B".

No comments: