Tuesday, September 2, 2014

That things are rarely as we expect

I recently read a memoir by Rebecca Mead, a lady who is just a little older than I am. She studied English at University in the mid 80s because she loved books, but quickly found that being a book lover didn't really have much to do with it, because the course was nothing like she expected.

'The mid eighties was the era of critical thinking,' she wrote. 'Scholars were encouraged to apply tools of psychoanalysis or feminism to reveal ways the author was blind to his or her own desire or prejudice. Books weren't supposed to be merely read, but interrogated as if they had committed some malfeasance.'

Yes! That brought back clear memories of my late teens. How I used to hate that! Mead might have been describing my experience in the late 1980s. There were no tertiary creative writing courses back then, so I chose English as my major, expecting to get guidance and valuable tips on how to write the novels I intended to write. Instead, it was just as Mead described. I often used to complain, 'Hey, I didn't sign up for this so that I can criticise Charles Dickens and the Brontes, and highlight their perceived failings and limitations. I like Dickens and the Brontes. They're better authors than I am. If I'd known it was going to be like this, I might have chosen something different.' But as it was, I went in like a lamb to the slaughter.

That became my standard complaint all through Uni. Straight out of High School, I'd chosen a list of subjects I thought would suit me to the ground. English, Pyschology, Anthropology and Philosophy. But instead of just looking at people's motivations and attitudes, Psychology was full of more Maths, Chemistry and detailed brain structure illustrations than I cared to dive into.  And rather than just studying different cultures, Anthropology delved into symbolism and all sorts of deep linguistic studies I hadn't expected. As for Philosophy, I thought it was off this planet! What I remember most is that all of the male staff seemed to wear long, bushy beards as apparent status symbols, and the female members had long, long hair to compensate.

My best memories of those Uni years was sitting in the basement of the Barr Smith library, tracking down and devouring ancient, out-of-print novels. They were totally unrelated to the course material I was studying, and I used to put off what I was really supposed to be doing for as long as possible.

I don't think this discovery that things are not what we expect was limited to the late 80s. This year, my older son started his degree at Adelaide Uni, (which makes me feel very proud but quite old.) I'm finding out that the place has changed a lot in several ways since I was there, but in other ways, it's much the same. Some courses still turn out to be nothing like what they sound like.

This semester, Logan has had to tackle a compulsory subject called, 'The Enquiring Mind.' On the surface, the name sounds quite alluring and intriguing, but some of his friends who had tackled it in first semester warned him that it was full of 'arty farty stuff' as they call it. Even the lecturers must have known that word of its true nature had spread. When Logan showed up in the crammed theatre, with students spilling out into the aisles, the lecturer introduced the topic by saying, 'I know many of you are here under sufferance, but I hope you'll overcome any prejudice you may have at the start and get something out of this course anyway.'

And has he? Well, after a couple of weeks I asked, 'What's it all about?'

'I still can't figure it out,' he said. 'Nobody can.'

I read the first few paragraphs of his introductory handout and knew what he meant. It seems to be one of the subjects which are designed just to be a pain in every way. For example, when Logan went to purchase the text book from the faculty office, he was told, 'No, we can't take your money. You have to buy it online and bring the receipt in to show us before we give you one.' And the shelves behind them were piled high with this text book which nobody really wants.

But when you think about it, this quality of not entirely living up to rosy expectations isn't limited to tertiary institutions alone. In fact, maybe it's a feature of life in general. When we decide to get married, we have wonderful images of a 'happily ever after' scenario without the 'barefoot and pregnant at the sink washing dishes' one which is almost as well known a catch-cry. When we decide to have babies, we daydream about their cute, sleeping faces without dwelling on the screaming, colicky fits and stinky nappies which are also part of the story. Maybe the study experiences which don't quite live up to expectations are just like almost everything else. When we dwell on the flip side, we realise there have been quite a lot of good aspects too. In fact, sometimes expectations are turned on their heads the other way, and we are pleasantly surprised by good things we hadn't expected.

This happened to me years ago when I was doing Year 12. I was told that my timetable was too heavy with humanities subjects and I had to drop one to replace with a Science subject. That made me grumble, but I picked Biology, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, easy to pass subjects that year. More so than Drama, which I'd expected to be my favourite subject but turned out to be a terrible drag. If asked, I could rattle off the titles of many novels I've started reading with low expectations and discovered they were brilliant. As for Logan's experience this year, he admitted that although 'The Enquiring Mind' is full of arty nonsense, it does have it's lighter moments, which turn out to be the fun his discussion table have with their jokes at the tutor's expense, while he thinks they're really getting right into it.


  1. I would never have survived Uni in the 80's. They'd have chucked me out for making a mockery of the subjects. Logan has my utmost sympathy.

  2. Hi Lyn,
    I was there from '88 to '92, and being pretty young back then, it was a bit of a shock. Yes, sometimes when I get a bit nostalgic for those days, I look at Logan's text books and think, 'Oh, yeah, that's right.' He's writing an essay for 'The Enquiring Mind' which I've offered to proof read for typos. Can't say I'm looking forward to it :)

  3. Hi Paula, I just love the line 'interrogated as if they had committed some malfeasance' and had to chuckle at your experience of the subjects that seemed nothing like what their names suggested. I'm back for a second dose with my Masters but though I believe we can desconstruct deconstructionalism and reveal reveal ways the theorists are blind to his or her own presuppositions and blind spots - studying theory and theology have given me a more nuanced way of looking at the world :)

  4. That one got me too, Jenny. Your Masters sounds more well balanced. I've thought so before, and it's a good thing to see. Of course, Logan isn't studying creative writing at all, and his Media Studies degree is reminding me more of my old Arts degree in the days.


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