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Volume 4, Issue 2                                    University of Houston

One bad class can sour the college experience

Ellen Simonson

Well, this is it. The last Christmas break of my undergraduate career. (You can make melodrama out of anything if you try hard enough.) Three more credit hours, and they'll be handing me a diploma. I don't really believe it. Diplomas are myths, like Valhalla, Atlantis or Michael Jackson. They're not real. Certainly not for me.

Three more credit hours; one more class. One more class. I've taken more classes than I'd care to count (OK, OK -- I'm just very bad at math). I'm going to miss them -- the potluck, the whimsical randomness of UH classes.

You never really know what a class offers until you sit down for the first lecture. The course title is often abbreviated in the schedule, meaning a class you thought was called "The Novel" might actually turn out to be "The Experimental Czechoslovakian Novel of the 1950s." And some classes that seem extremely relevant to your purposes can turn out to be, well, not so relevant.

For example, during the brief, heady, youthful period I spent as a history major, I took a class called Well, I don't want to personally attack anybody, so I'll call it "What Historians Do in the Real World." I had just changed my major to history and was curious about what exactly that might entail in regards to job opportunities.

The class touched on that, but it mainly focused on the differences between public and private history. Private history, as I remember, is the job of historians within universities: lecturing, publishing, that kind of thing. Public history, on the other hand, is what librarians, museum curators and other non-university historians do.

Public history is just as valid as private history. Did you know that? I do, thanks to the vehement insistence of the instructor, who had worked as a public historian for some time. He had a grudge against what he perceived as the condescension of private historians, and this -- not the actual career choices -- quickly became the focus of the course.

It was without a doubt the absolute worst class I have ever taken, and in retrospect I'm pretty sure I made that opinion known pretty clearly by never attending. I took the tests, did the work, wrote the paper and got fairly good grades on all of them, but my final grade in the class was, well, significantly lower than my average would have indicated.

This experience led me to change my major back to creative writing immediately, thus ending my six-month stint as a budding historian. That's how bad it was. It was so abysmal that I no longer wanted anything to do with the field. I even decided not to minor in history. That's what the wrong class can do.

But the right class does exist, and it can be stumbled upon just as accidentally. Much, if not all, of the quality of a class depends on the instructor. There is a gentleman in the English department whose class on Chaucer will blow you away, and another whose "History of the English Language" class is astonishingly far from boring. (Plus, he sounds just like Jimmy Carter, which livens up the lectures considerably.)

In the end, that one terrible experience is the only terrible experience I've had with classes at UH. Yeah, some have been much better than others, but the talented, hard-working, sympathetic instructors who really like to teach outnumber the less competent. Part of that, of course, has to do with the fact that I'm an English major, and if you're teaching English at a school that seems to slash its budget for the subject more voraciously every year, you've gotta love your work.

But teachers in other disciplines have astonished me too -- even history. Take Robert Buzzanco if you get a chance; you'll learn protest songs as well as time lines. I'd say you should take geography with Michael Doran as well, except that in the worst decision in recorded history, UH dismissed him.

Shop around. There's a mediocre education to be found at UH, but there's also an excellent one. The education you get is up to the instructors you choose. Choose wisely.

Simonson, who's freezing to death on the shores 
of Lake Michigan, can be reached at

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