…to both instruct and delight…

This week’s question, tersely fished from the mind of The Wonderful Mojave66:

What were your five favorite classes in College (or in the highest educational institution you completed), and why?

This, for some people, might be an easy question. Most of my friends in college seemed not to like many of their classes. For me, though, it’s a tough one. Five years of undergrad, two more years of grad school coursework, and in general, I found I enjoyed more classes than I disliked. I suppose it’s like for some people who get asked, “What are your five favorite books?” It’s hard to make a list that actually makes sense: after all, what good is Donne without the King James Bible? What use is Ezra Pound ‘s Cantos without the Terell Companions? Does it make sense to mention My Name is LEgend and neglect Bram Stoker’s work?

What I mean to say is that for me, my classes actually tended to connect to one another, forming these massive meshes of interrelated study. I was learning counterpoint in one class—how to use lines in music in such a way that you can fit lines together in interesting ways—at the same time that I studied harmony—how, regardless of how interesting they are, lines and combinations of notes must follow certain rules to fit this or that rigidly defined traditional tonal system. Music history and Religious Studies intersected on a number of occasions, and I found that my music composition courses and my Freshman Lit composition courses fed one another as I learned to use and manipulate fairly similar structures. When I examined medieval literature, I had a lot of what I’ve learned studying medieval music at my disposal; when I had to do a presentation of Elizabethan culture in my Shakespeare class, I taught the class an Elizabethan court dance out on the campus greens. After a certain point, everything just sort of meshed together and it was all just this massive, complex well of learning going on, with portions of science, philosophy, history, art, music, and literature all fused into “stuff worth knowing about”.

To pick and choose from that what I enjoyed most is, therefore, very difficult. But I’ll limit myself to specific courses and try to say why I think they contributed most to this mesh of learning that I experienced.

  1. Chaucer and His Age. This was a class taught by a Medievalist, I believe in his first year out of grad school, named Andrew Taylor. I’ve written about Taylor and his class in a previous Friday Five post, so I won’t belabour it except to say that the main benefit of this class was Taylor’s energy, his engagement with the material in as many interesting and unusual ways as possible, and his encouragement of us to get engaged with it in the same way. I loved how much history, politics, art, theology, fashion, military history, and “other areas” he brought into the lit class. I felt like I learned about England in general, as well as learning about the writings of Chaucer. This also solidly put me on the path of criticism I still adhere to today, in which historical context is of the utmost importance and critics who neglect it risk saying absurdly stupid things about the texts they examine. (Like the student in this class who suggested that The Wife of Bath was a proto-feminist character and Chaucer had written her as a favorable type. Taylor’d nicely, politely, but intelligently interrogated the idea to the point where anyone with a brain could see it made no sense at all.)
  2. My Geology 101 class. Why? Because it was a break from music, music, music. Sometimes, when you study one thing and one thing alone for too long, you need a break. One summer, I took my required science course in a fast burst of daily classes. Geology actually fascinated me all through the course and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The prof, by the name of Stauffer, was a not the most excited fellow; he lectured from his standardized course notes which were, apparently, the same each semester, and had remained unchanged for years. But in general I was almost never bored, and at least a couple of times he launched into anti-superstition rants which were wonderful, intelligent, and funny.
  3. My composition lessons. Each year I had these with a different teacher:
    • David Scott gave me lessons in my first year of composition study (which of course begins in the second year of college)… this was an exception to the standard handling of 2nd year students who normally attend classes but don’t get private lessons. He made the exception because, unlike other 2nd year music students, I actually had been composing for some time and had a dreadful, messy, but substantial portfolio to submit to him. The group classes focused on the problems of notation, and in private we worked through all kidns of other approaches to writing music. A lot of what we worked on was how to make the sound you want, and how to write it down so others will make precisely that sound that you want.
    • Gyula Csapo the second year, which was, well, it was an intense experience, though I learned a lot by extracting it from the man
    • And in my last year of composition study, my lessons with Robert Lemay, who taught me a lot about texture and about strategy in composing, as well as to really try to think of the instruments for which I was writing.

    These lessons were the heart of my musical training; regardless of how important history and theory were, regardless of the discipline (and sometimes torture) of my saxophone and bass lessons; regardless of everything else that benefitted me when I studied music, it was my private composition lessons that made music so much more clear, so much more alive, and so much more interesting for me.

  4. The Life Writing seminar I took in my final year of undergrad, which was also the first year I studied literature with any seriousness. I took this a the same time as I took the Chaucer class, and it was intense. There was so much reading, so much thinking to do. It was in this class that I began to learn how to make an academic argument about a text. Lisa Vargo and Anthony Harding both were very encouraging and intelligent critics of our criticism as well as of the texts we studied, and I really enjoyed the big discussions we had in this class. I think the few things I’ve ever had a chance to say that were really really spot-on about books I’ve studied, I said in this course. And I also loved tearing apart a lot of ridiculous pseudofeminist pseudotheory for the racist, sexist claptrap that it was… using William Wordsworth, no less, to illustrate that no, white males aren’t somehow magically able to maintain “unified selves” where black women just somehow can’t, because, well, because they’re poor and we need to, like, instantiate a theory of victimhood that castigates all white male literature so as to, you know, empower black women and reify the study of literature in such a way as to interrogate the processes of Othering and disable the Otherers of forcing others to submit to their systematic colonial agendas, causing signifiers and signified to… NO! NO! NO!
  5. Kevin Pask’s Youth Culture class, in my last year of coursework at Concordia University. (Sorry, no prof page link but he did write this book.) I was getting near the end of my Creative Writing Degree and found myself in a class that was half-full of bright people and half-full of idiots. For some reason, I’m not sure why, something inside me cracked about midway through the semester and I began handing out harsh comments to anyone who said anything remotely stupid or even just objectionable. I remember at some point actually telling the professor himself that he was romanticizing his youth and that the punk rock era was also as full of sheep and losers as the romanticized hippie era, the time of the mods and rockers, and so on. I told him he only thought otherwise for sentimental reasons. He took it pretty well. He was that kind of a guy: open-minded, intelligent, willing to criticize and ask questions, and willing to have his own stance interrogated. Unlike in a lot of the academic classes I took in that program (the non-workshop classes), what we dealt with in that class made its way into a lot of my creative writing at the time. But mainly I just enjoyed being the guy who was likeliest to tell someone that what they’d declared in a long string of polysyllables was actually retarded bullshit that made no sense if you actually thought about it.

There would be too many honorable mentions for me to ever stop if I started, so I’m going to end this here. If you’re curious (and you ought to be) the other Friday Fivers’ links can be found to the right, in the sidebar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *