Posts Tagged 'classroom'

Go Find Your Lolita

Logan Rutherford

This semester I took “The Art of Vladimir Nabokov’ with Professor Sergei Davydov. First of all, Dr. Davydov is not only an inspired teacher, but he’s also one of the funniest professors on campus; if you get the chance, take a course with him. Of course, we read Nabokov’s most infamous novel, Lolita, during the course of our studies. So, I thought that seeing as it is the 50th anniversary of the novel being published in the United States, it might be appropriate to exhort people to (re) read Nabokov’s great work.

It seems that most literate people in the English-speaking world are familiar with the “story” of Lolita. My dictionary yields the following definition of a “Lolita:” ‘noun; a sexually precocious young girl.’ The notion of Lolita being nothing more than highbrow pornography is thus reinforced by the definition. However, any reader of the novel owes it to Nabokov to be more honest than that, and to give Lolita its due.

The frame for the story, which any review will more than likely present, is that Humbert Humbert, a European genius with a sexual penchant for “nymphets,” has come to America and houses with Charlotte Haze because, ostensibly, the rent is cheap and the neighborhood quiet. But the truth is that Humbert is primarily concerned with rakish ruminations involving Charlotte’s daughter, Lolita. Humbert marries Charlotte so as to be closer to Lolita. When Charlotte meets an unfortunate death, Humbert becomes Lolita’s sole guardian, or rather, she becomes his captive.

The book’s title is in a sense ironic because we never really get to know Lolita herself. Lolita the novel is really the story of Humbert Humbert, told through the prism of the character Lolita. There are only flashes of the real Lolita, as opposed to Humbert’s solipsized version. The real Lolita is discernible in her graceful tennis matches; one catches a glimpse in her joyful bicycle rides; her sorrow is painfully palpable when she reflectively discusses her battered childhood with Humbert. But this is one of the reasons why people continue to come back to the novel: we search for Lolita, but somehow she’s always out of reach. Lolita is in no way definitively delineated.

Another reason the novel has such staying power is because of the way Nabokov manipulates the reader. Comfort with the novel is never achieved because Humbert’s love is inextricably linked to the ghastly things he resorts to in order to consummate that love. Humbert is such a cunning narrator that it is easy to forget Lolita’s age. At times, particularly for the first time reader, Humbert is practically absolved of guilt because of his self-deprecation and hysterical use of language. A perfect example of Humbert’s humor dissolving his guilt is found when he describes how he had begun to pay Lolita for sex: “O Reader! Laugh not, as you imagine me, on the very rack of joy noisily emitting dimes and quarters, and great big silver dollars like some sonorous, jingly and wholly demented machine vomiting riches.” Of course, there is nothing funny about this situation, but Humbert makes it seem that way with his style as he is a master puppeteer.

The prose throughout Lolita is not only funny, at times it is wonderfully poetic: “Through the darkness and the tender trees we could see the arabesques of lighted windows which, touched up by the colored inks of sensitive memory, appear to me now like playing cards…” The image of a brush touching things up in mutable memory is both aesthetically inspired and philosophically suggestive: perhaps the most powerful artist of all is Mnemosyne herself. Poetical pearls abound in the novel. The prose poem that is the last paragraph of the novel is wonderful. It is humbling to think that English was not even Nabokov’s mother tongue.

I have now read Lolita six times, and it is always a pleasure. As I continue to evolve as a person, the novel subjectively evolves with me, and there is always something new to be discovered— some unexplored alcove where I find more laughter and even at times, alas, more confusion. Go read this one. Or if not Nabokov, give some other writer unfamiliar to you a fresh chance. In a college environment that leaves us with such little time for free reading, it’s a treat to take a break with an engaging novel. So go ahead and find one.

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Alleviating the Pain of Finals Week

Logan Rutherford

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Finals week. It is a necessary evil. None of us looks forward to it, but we all know that we have to take our medicine. We all know that, no matter what we might want to believe, an evaluation at the end of the term is a logical conclusion to a semester.

However, as the situation now stands, the powers that be get to tell us from “on high” when we have to take our exams. This seems asinine, and only an added agony to finals week, so I motion for changing Middlebury’s final exam format to entirely self-scheduled final exams. It solves problems, while causing none.

Self-scheduled exams reward the student who has stayed on task all semester. The student who has kept up on their assignments, who has actually read Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Post-Script, has the option of front-loading his finals week. He can get the more difficult exams out of the way first thing if he wants to do so. If not, that’s still his prerogative. I like the idea of having options during my finals week— being the master of my academic destiny.

Inevitably, people have conflicts during exam week. They have multiple exams scheduled on the same day, or they have two scheduled at the same time. This would never happen with self-scheduled exams. Students could create their own timetable and decide what works best for them. In the current status quo, professors have to give alternate times for exams anyway. Why not just make the not-so-difficult leap to having only “alternate” times—in other words, self-scheduled exams.

Self-scheduled exams would also give professors a more manageable task in regards to grading finals. Surely, only a few kids would elect to take any one final on a given day. The professor could then grade just those few exams the next day. As it stands now, the professor gets flooded with a bunch of exams all at one time. If every one takes their exams at a different time, the professor is left with the more manageable task of grading small bundles of exams at a time instead of reams of them.

Another issue I’ve always had with our system is that some people have a longer vacation than others (as an extreme example, my freshman year I had my only two finals on the first Tuesday of exams; this year, I have my last one on the second Tuesday of exams— I get a full week less of vacation time). This seems preposterous in the highest degree. Why should the Fates decide who gets the long break?

Some professors might object that this will lead to mass chaos and people cheating on exams by giving their friends a wink and a nod and telling them “what to concentrate on in their studying.” Well, we have an honor code for a reason. It is supposed to foster trust between the students and professors. If we can’t trust students to keep mum on the contents of final exams, why would we trust them to write their own papers or do their own problem sets? I think the students of Middlebury College can conduct themselves ethically.

So the next time finals roll along, just think to yourself: “This wouldn’t be such a veritable pain in the rear end if I could have chosen my finals schedule.”

Whose Language is it Anyway?

Tristan Axelrod

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In my previous article for this magazine, I published a humorous description of a stereotypical, ceaselessly annoying college student whom I termed the ‘classroom douchebag.’ This student tends to desperately seek attention by steering class discussions towards his/her own interests, life experiences, sexuality, etc. I was proud of this article, and feedback was overwhelmingly positive—I also submitted it to Collegehumor.com, where it garnered a ‘national featured article’ distinction and was published on the front page.

I thought that my article was relevant, witty, and innocuous. But of course, someone rained on my parade. Not a big surprise. Criticism came in the form of a comment on the Debatable website. One reader wrote:

At the risk of Tristan calling me a “douchebag,” I will now steer the conversation toward gender issues. The word “douchebag” is a term which is offensive to women. To call someone a “douchebag” is to suggest that that person is only worthy of cleaning out a dirty vagina. I appreciate that Tristan is trying to be humorous, but “douchebag” is by far not a humorous word. There are a multitude of other words which Tristan could use and I highly encourage him to do so. Given the current discussion on campus about appropriate terminology, Tristan might as well have said, “Those who steer the conversation toward gender issues are so gay!”

Now let me be the first to say that I apologize to anyone who was truly offended by my article. I was not targeting individuals. I hinted in its closing that I am guilty of many classroom douchebag tendencies as well, and I at least attempted to avoid using discriminatory terms. I think the real issue raised by this comment is that of language appropriation. At a place as demonically politically correct as Middlebury College, it is often difficult to tell if certain words are acceptable at certain levels of discourse. I’d like to examine a few contentious words here and share with you what a few minutes of internet-searching can tell us.

Douchebag: Coming from the French verb meaning to shower or wash, douching is the practice of cleansing the vulva with a mixture of sanitary liquids (water, vinegar, iodine, others depending on preference) that are squirted into the vagina from the aforementioned bag. What my smarmy dissenter failed to mention, however, is that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the majority of doctors polled recommend against douching as in fact being unsanitary and causing serious health risks—douching may clean the vagina in the short-term, but it also undermines the body’s own cleansing process, killing ‘good’ bacteria and skin cells and washing out natural lubricants. This can lead to greatly increased risk of infection and birth complications.

Similar to baby formula and pesticides, douches are marketed to consumers as a product conducive to good health and safety, while in fact they can cause serious harm. So, far more than suggesting that a person ‘is only worthy of cleaning out a dirty vagina,’ I was suggesting that the actions of those described in my article are not only distasteful, but also misguided and detrimental to the general well-being of the public. Is this not a fair suggestion for certain individuals?

There’s a specific reason that I still want to use words like ‘douchebag’ and it is personal, having nothing to do with denotations and connotations. It happens that I’m a musician. I’ve also dabbled in poetry on occasion. I love languages because of their innate beauty, and I take a very musical approach to any speech or text I create. As a musician, composer, poet, and writer, I get good grades, good audience feedback, and I’ve won my fair share of awards. So I feel qualified to say that there’s a reason words like ‘douchebag’ are staples of my repertoire. They are rhythmically and melodically satisfying. You’ll notice that those who propose alternative terms (like “jerk”) tend to propose words or word combinations that are cumbersome and flat.
You can see, perhaps, a reason why “The Classroom Douchebag” would be a bigger hit than “The Classroom Jerk” or “The Classroom Asswipe.” The first is rhythmically unsatisfying, and the second inserts a distracting rhyme and ends on a weak syllable. In contrast, the word ‘douchebag’ is connotatively perfect while providing the proper rhythmic and melodic contour to the title.

That brings me to the real point of this article: language is not and should never be overly concerned with denotation and connotation. People who pretend it should be so and attempt to force their will on others are gay. Ha! I’m so sorry.

Language is the property of people who use it. Obviously, if language is employed in political or other discourses, the boundaries are more restrictive because strict denotative and connotative substance can have real-life implications. But the vast majority of the time, language is merely self-expression— awesome in its power to uplift the self, but not so important in the grand scheme of things-to-be-offended-by. I would not argue that people have the right to offend others while expressing themselves. But people do have the right to make the choice to risk doing so if there is an expressive need to employ language in a certain way. To simplify: I am going to do what I want with my language, and I dare you to try and stop me.

Competition in the Classroom

Max Mackinnon

“Competition” in the classroom has taken over, creating an environment where learning is no longer of primary concern. At this point, it is beyond any doubt in my mind that the mastering of a certain subject or concept is no longer any student’s first priority. It has become about making yourself look better or sound smarter than the person sitting next to you, whether that person is your best friend or someone who you had never seen until the first day of class. Where kids once walked into the classroom with a goal of absorbing and analyzing as much material as possible, we now see a stage where each individual looks to display his or her knowledge and abilities, trying to stand out as the best and brightest. I think it is time to look beyond the other students in the classroom and throw away competitive, bitter feelings. Do not measure yourself against your fellow students. Accomplish goals and look to learn for learning’s sake.

Intellectual Snobbery

Jeff Klein

You know what really gets on my nerves? The intellectual snobs at Middlebury. Those who feel the need to continually tell people about the 75-page thesis they are currently writing. Those who will bust out a comment like, “I completed 15 pages of my paper earlier, but now I’m being totally unproductive. I have to get back to work.” Those who look down upon people that choose to go out and have a good time on Friday and Saturday nights (and Wednesdays, if you go to Wednesday Night Beirut). Hey, relax. There’s nothing wrong with chilling out and having some fun every once in a while. Of course, work is important; we wouldn’t be at Middlebury if we didn’t feel that way. But there’s more to life than work, and if you don’t feel that way, you’re missing out.

The Classroom Douchebag

Tristan Axelrod

Are you an attention-seeking whore? Do you feel like the only way to reinforce and validate your identity is through conspicuous conduct in the classroom? Do you have an overblown sense of self-consciousness that can only be alleviated by projecting your neuroses onto your peers at wildly inappropriate times? Have no fear: these simple instructions will lead you to the highest echelons of douchebaggery. Soon enough, your self-satisfaction will blind you to the disgust and disdain of your professors and classmates.

Add to the discussion only to show how smart you are. Bonus points for starting your inane rambling just as class is ending, so that it is plain to everyone that you are trying to make up for your lack of attention and participation, and that you don’t care at all about taking up other people’s time. Your commentary should be only vaguely relevant to the discussion, making it clear that while you know what the discussion is about, you haven’t been listening to anyone. If possible, intentionally obfuscate your point because you’re sure that in doing so, people will just assume that you’re too smart for them.

Always direct discussion to your pet issue. Are you a WAGS major? No matter what class you’re in, be it music history, microeconomics, or modern architecture, be sure to steer all the conversation in your class towards gender issues. Never stray from your belief that gender issues (or concerns regarding homosexuality, Judaism, socio-economic classes, profit motives, or theater) create the conflicts that define all life experiences. Try not to allow anyone to speak, on the assumption that other opinions, in any discourse at all, are irrelevant.

Make plenty of references to your previous life experiences. Nothing brings out the best in a class discussion like hearing about how you sailed the Indian Ocean on a 12-meter yacht, or spent last summer working with HIV-positive albino orphan sex workers. Also, make your reference just random enough that everyone is pretty sure that you are lying.

Make plenty of references to previous classes with the professor. You and the professor are in a secret, super-awesome club. Make sure everyone knows that. Quote lectures from the previous class and try to turn it into a discussion just between you and the professor, and include as many in-jokes as possible. Only talk about books, movies, and other media from the previous class, and let everyone know that you have mastered all of them, and that this class is child’s play. Do your best to convince everyone through your insightful commentary that really, you could essentially teach this class. And don’t even limit yourself to previous classes with the teacher: claim to have memorized the bible, written a doctoral dissertation on the rights of women in the court of John of Gaunt, and discussed the finer points of constitutional law with your friend William Rehnquist. The more you impress people, the better. And remember that your professor is your personal buddy who is endlessly proud of your scholarship, wit, and insight.

Dress for success. Inappropriate clothing is what takes you over the top: for guys, the loafers/slacks/collared shirt/sport coat combo is pretty popular. Just make sure that if it rains, you wear a suede overcoat and velvet gloves— extra points for a tailored felt hat. For girls, the uggz/stockings/miniskirt/tanktop/scarf/gaudy earrings/too-much-makeup combo is very prevalent and highly successful. But there are numerous variations on these themes—my favorite is the skin-tight faux turtleneck with corduroys on a guy; it really draws out the femininity while still showing how much he works out. Anything will work as long as it conspicuously reinforces the self-image you are trying to validate with your behavior.

Variations on a theme

There are other ways of proclaiming your douchebaghood:
Jock Douchebag: Only wear jerseys, workout clothes, ball caps, etc. If you are called upon in class, try to convince everyone that you can barely read. Before and after class, banter loudly with other jock douchebags about the latest sports figures, a recent game, or the party over the weekend. You’ve discussed these things already, but now other people can hear you, so it’s special all over again.
A Capella Douchebag: Sing. Sing loud. Sing whenever you can, at inappropriate times. Try to pick pop songs everyone has heard, but don’t talk to anyone else: you can only associate with members of your a cappella group, which everyone knows is the best one on campus.
Drama Douchebag: Your personality cannot be contained in the iron cage of the real world! It can only be liberated by that airy bastion of artistic purity, that Mecca for all that is too truthful for reality, that glorious freedom, that fiery ensemble of divine expression— the theatre!

So, do you see yourself doing any of these things? Then maybe I’m speaking to you. But perhaps, on the lower frequencies, I speak to myself…

See you in class.

The Dangers of an Overworked Student Body

Grace Duggan

Earlier in the semester I attended the town hall meeting regarding homophobia at Middlebury. A number of students, professors, and faculty members showed up to the McCullough Social Space, but quite a few chairs were empty, and the majority of individuals who showed up were not students. One professor asked the audience, “Where are all the students?” Rather than ask the students where their peers were, the professor at the town hall meeting should have asked her peers, “Are we partly to blame?”

Middlebury prides itself on having a student body comprised of well-rounded individuals. But in an environment full of over-achievers, the vast majority of the student body does not have much in the way of free time. Students juggle classes, homework, jobs, sports, music, clubs, plays and a slew of other activities. When you factor in all of the lectures, screenings, and talks open to the student body each week, it is no wonder that few students showed up to the meeting. There were several other events scheduled at the same time as this town hall meeting, including one with a similar subject matter. Also, the meeting was held at 4:30, when a significant portion of the student body was heading off to team practices. We are all overbooked, and we live in an environment that encourages this kind of scheduling.

Merilee Jones, the former dean of admissions at M.I.T., was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying that our generation is “the most anxious, sleep-deprived, steeped-in-stress, judged, tested, poorly nourished generation.” Students rush from one commitment to the next, study late into the night, try to let off steam on weekends, and generally burn the candle at both ends. If the college likes a student body full of well-rounded individuals, then why does it continue to endorse a notoriously heavy workload, often to the detriment of the health of the student body?
More than once I have been told that it is not the job of the professor to make the student’s life easier. At the same time, it is not the job of the professor to encourage an environment overflowing with stress. We cannot deal with issues affecting our community if we do not have time to be a community in the first place.