January 30, 2005

And they wear sandals in the winter

Janet and I were having a discussion about writing and discussing in college classes today. We've been having talks like this more now that Janet is in class again. In engineering, there isn't a lot of opinion floating around, because it either works or it doesn't....end of discussion. In history, a lot more is open to interpretation. Who was right, Lee or Longstreet? Was Lincoln gay? These are discussion type questions.

We then got around to our previous college experience, and how different professors treat discussion and writing in different ways. Some are happy to hear dissenting views, as they want their students to think critically and for themselves. Others tend to get snippy when their opinions or ideas of what is important are questioned. This sort of professor starts to stifle his students, as students are quick to mold their writing and speaking to match that of the person in charge of handing out the grades that make up the ever so important GPA upon which all college students are ultimately judged in the search for that first job. I've experienced both in my quest to be liberally educated at Messiah College. I'm naming names, so buckle up. I had my dreams of critical and thoughtful debate squashed in my very first liberal arts-style class. English professor Dr. Crystal Downing taught a First Year Seminar course for Honors Program students entitled "Cinema and Semiotics." The goal of the First Year Seminar courses is to help teach freshman to write better while focusing on a specific subject. Every freshman sits in a smaller class doing similar, but different, topics. Ours was supposed to look at symbolism in popular media, with a specific focus on movies. It turns out, that wasn't really the goal of the class. Actually, Dr. Downing spent a lot of our time in class trying to push her version of feminism on the students. This was a bit of a shock, considering the title of the class, though she did adhere to it just enough to keep the title accurate. We had a large reader that we used for most of the class, and it had a lot of articles on varied topics, many of which were likely interesting and applicable to the topic. However, we read article after article on the role of women in media and discrimination. Needless to say, disagreeing with Dr. Downing's point of view was not looked upon kindly, especially if the disagreement came from an 18 year old wrestler who had the temerity to also be an engineering student (the philistine!). It finally reached a bit of a breaking point for me, and I piped up in a class discussion to wonder aloud why we were spending so much time in our class focused on feminism when there are so many other applicable things we could discuss. You can imagine how well that went over. I feel like I was never given a fair shake in that class, at least not as fair as that given to the female english major in the row behind me who lapped up every one of Dr. Downing's ideas. Finally, we had to choose a movie of our own in order to analyze the symbolism within it. I thought this would be my chance to express some original though and leave her gender wars out of it. I chose the excellent movie Wag the Dog. You'd think a movie that is nothing if not a treatise on manipulating the public and the media through disinformation would be the perfect choice for a class supposedly on symbolism in the media. She didn't bite. She didn't like my choice, and she didn't like me. I'm not saying the paper was great, since it probably wasn't, but my idea was dismissed before she even read the paper. No one else in the class wrote about a movie anything like this one. It's like the old saying about liberal thought: "Any view is valid, except the ones I disagree with." It was a rough class for me both in terms of fellow students and the professor. I haven't even told the story about our group activity where we each brought in an ad and analyzed them, but I had to explain to everyone why the color yellow is significant in an advertisement featuring Lance Armstrong. I know a lot of students at Messiah loved Dr. Downing, but, for my money, no professor I have ever had did more to inhibit the free flow of ideas in class than Crystal Downing. That makes her the worst professor I have ever had.

Two years later, I found myself in another Honors course, but the scenery was a little differnet. Dr. Dennis Hollinger, then the college pastor, was teaching a course on Ethics. Now, I am 100% sure that Dr. Hollinger and I have some very different views on theology. Go look up the differences between the PCA and BIC churches if you want to see some. Those differences didn't keep the classroom from being a place of open debate and discussion. The course covered many different topics, most of which I don't remember. What I do remember is that I didn't have to agree with everything the professor said, and I was also permitted to disagree with the other students in the class. He wasn't trying to win people over to his view as much as get people discussion their own separate views and why they held those beliefs. Additionally, grades on essays and papers did not hinge on holding fast to the professor's point of view. For our final paper, I wrote ten and a half pages on "A Christian Approach to War." I argued for the existence of just war and that the government is "an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil" (Romans 13:4). The doesn't really agree with the Anabaptist/BIC practice of pacifism, yet I was graded on the strength of my arguments and the quality of the written words as opposed to the grader's emotional response to my position. I would wish that any student could have Dr. Hollinger for ethics, but he has, alas, gone off to become president of Evangelical School of Theology, a post for which he is likely well-suited.

Finally, it was the very next fall I found myself in a standard Bible class, a requirement for graduation. I was skeptical entering a Bible course at the school, given my divergent beliefs from those of the Bible professors, but I hoped to make the most of it. The class was on some of the prophetic books in the Old Testament and was taught by Gilberto Lozano. Professor Lozano was a cheerful guy most of the time, but he ran a pretty awful class. I felt like I learned a very small amount, and I got nearly nothing out of the class. It was the sort of class that had an attendance policy, since it was so worthless as to drive students away. Ideas did not flow particularly well in this class either. The professor put forth a lot of ideas and theories about the authorship of certain books and the interpretation thereof, but he didn't really call anything he said a theory or mention the fact that some scholars disagree with the interpretation he put forth. I had to find out that some of the things he taught weren't 100% accepted by looking them up for myself outside of class and using my own resources. I wanted to question, I really did, but there just wasn't a place for it. What he said is what went, and it was what he put on the test. By this time, I was a senior in college, so I knew pretty much how it was supposed to go. You can question the professor, but at the expense of your grade. I did the math in my head and figured that the hit to my GPA was not worth winning an argument with a below average Bible professor, so I was a good soldier and did as I was told. I even tried to ask the professor for a little leniency on my grade because I had one bad test that contrasted with my good work the rest of the semester. I was very diplomatic. I sent him an email and asked if he would consider the whole of my work over a single test, even though I knew he didn't have to. He gave no response, never wrote back, never called, nothing. I would have been happy if he just told me no, but instead I got silence.

Maybe someone more skilled than I could have walked this tightrope of independent thought over the pit of acceding to the professor's point of view, but I did the best I could. As you can see, not all professors are bad, but there are bad ones out there. I would hope for any student that they would have at least a few of the good ones in their quest for the degree. I did, and I'm grateful for it and what they taught me.

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