Why I dropped out of English - Macleans.ca

Why I dropped out of English

It wasn’t the prof. It wasn’t the material. It was too easy.


Relaxing at Simon Fraser U. (Simon Hayter)

There’s a point in most fizzling relationships when the magic is gone and everyone is just going through the motions. My relationship with the University of the Fraser Valley’s English department reached that point in a Fall 2011 class when, like a threadbare superhero plot, everything just became too easy.

It wasn’t the prof. He was great. It wasn’t the material. I loved that too. I think it was the fact that I scored an A- in the course and knew I didn’t deserve it. Or that we all were scoring grades we didn’t deserve and that the department was convincing us that we earned them.

I remember my friends and I swapping stories about late nights, unfinished readings, rambling and incoherent essays. We attributed our successes to what we called the ‘bullshit’ factor. Our pride protected us from the truth: that we were victims of a system that was exploiting us for tuition.

I should not be able to get an A in an English class without having read most of the texts. If I can, I’m probably some sort of literary prodigy. But my friends also got good marks without having read much. Are they prodigies? What about the girl who sat in back, never talked, and skipped roughly half the semester last year? How did she even pass?

The other explanation is that our professors see our offerings as bullshit and yet still give us As and Bs and then shunt us through the program. We want to believe we are uniquely gifted but in fact we’re just part of a system that encourages mediocrity. They sit us down like monkeys at typewriters, accept our pages of nonsense for four years and then hand us our certificate at the end. The problem is that the certificate was never the goal to begin with, since it’s the monkey who must apply the learning, get the job, and live the life.

Admittedly, I loved many of my classes. I became a better writer, and I am proud of the short stories and plays I wrote under encouragement from my professors. I loved reading texts, debating them, interpreting them, and writing on them.

Yet I struggle to understand the pedagogy. We would read texts that were sometimes centuries old and were expected to interpret them with only a smattering of historical context. We would ignore the entire history of scholarship on a text and were applauded for it. Dozens of liberal arts apologists speak of the importance of critical thinking development but in post-modern discipline that does not believe in authoritative answers and can barely even agree upon rules, how is critical thinking encouraged? One student may write an interpretation of Shakespeare through an historical Catholic lens; another may reinterpret The Tempest as a communist allegory, anachronisms be hanged, and both will receive the same mark becuase both are assumed to have ‘critically thought.’

A few semesters ago some friends and I took an upper-level English class together. We each attended the class, participated to a greater or lesser extent, and wrote a large final essay. After that we discovered, except for one person we asked, we received the same mark on the final essay: 93 per cent. The individual who did not receive 93 had written his in about four hours. And he got a B. I strongly doubt we all deserved 93 but I don’t even know even now how we were graded. I would hope my mark would reflect my comprehension of the course material but postmodern theory has rendered such judgments subjective and difficult. Was my grade indicative of my writing? My formatting? My use of adverbs? It felt like a sham. It destroyed my sense of accomplishment.

I could have stayed in the program, skipped readings, written rambling essays and honestly still have somewhat enjoyed myself. Yet when I realized that much of the acclamation, the ease, and the grades are the product of a system that encourages mediocrity, it seemed wasteful to stick around.

In university, I want to be part of a department that makes me better, that challenges me and fails me when I deserve to fail. Most of all, I want to be part of a department that calls me on my bullshit.

Paul Esau is completing a fifth year in the Bachelor of Arts program. He now majors in History.


Why I dropped out of English

  1. Whip me, Beat Me, Make Me Write Bad Essays

    Dear Paul. I am sorry you are leaving our department. We will miss you. You were a good student and we wish you the best.
    But before you go, a word or two. I am puzzled by some of your comments. Perhaps you can clarify them for me. You say your English professors were good, that the material was good, that you loved many of the classes, that taking part in them made you a better writer, that you love reading, interpreting and debating the texts, and that you are still proud of the short stories and plays you wrote. My first response is, what more do you want?
    You say you got grades you didn’t deserve and that you and your classmates were victims of a system that was exploiting you. I don’t understand. How is the system exploiting you if you’re not doing the work, not reading the texts, “shoveling” as you say (and bragging about it!)
    I remember you as a good student and as an exceptional writer. You could do a mad imitation of Dave Barry’s style that made me laugh every time. I also remember you as a thoughtful student who often contributed mature insights to class discussions. But you say “I don’t want to be told how good I already am.” You never mentioned that to me. If you had, I would have pushed you a lot harder. I might have even given you a C+ instead of that B+ I gave you, even though you stubbornly resisted my suggestions for clarification of your theme. Was it at that point I should have called you on your bullshit? I don’t think so. It would have felt counterproductive to me. But if that was what you wanted, I wish you would have said it.
    It’s odd that you confess trying to cheat the system and then blame the “system” for allowing you to cheat. “I was bad; why didn’t you punish me?” First of all, teachers are not necessarily trained to uncover cheaters. They tend to give students the benefit of the doubt. A bad habit, I admit, but probably necessary if teachers want to concentrate on teaching and not policing. Most of us don’t like thinking that the students are pulling the wool over our eyes. Your example of the 93% awarded to several students for what you considered to be inferior work is lamentable, if accurate, but it is after all only one anecdote. And it doesn’t seem to mesh with the fact that I regularly get complaints from students that I’m being too harsh in my grading.
    I understand that you are disappointed in the education you have received to date as an English major and that you feel it has been time wasted. Forgive me if I appear too harsh, but the wasted time is time you wasted. You say that you should not have gotten an A- if you didn’t read the text. I agree. So you must be very good at bullshit (only using your word here). And whose responsibility is that? Surely not the professor’s. What’s missing in your argument is the understanding that a student chooses to go to university, and that it is the student’s responsibility to make the most of that rare opportunity. The student is expected to meet the professor halfway, and that means reading the texts! Otherwise, it surely is a waste to be in a classroom; that is where I totally agree with you.
    Now that it’s out–your confession, I mean–I for one am very willing to challenge you and fail you when you deserve to fail, as you request. But I guess it’s too late for that.
    I wish you well in your new major, but let me have one parting shot. I argue that this article you wrote about changing your major is as good as it is–as articulate, as capable in its critical thinking–because you did spend some time as an English major. However, there are some flaws, structurally, a few logical fallacies, an insufficient amount of specific support for your argument. At present, you’re hovering around a B- or C+, but I would certainly give you the opportunity for a rewrite.

    John Carroll
    English Department
    University of the Fraser Valley

    • John, I think you’re missing the point. Paul clearly loves English as a subject, he likes his professors as people, and he enjoys writing, as I would hope all English majors do. What he doesn’t like is being rewarded for doing next-to-nothing. Why should he work tirelessly on a paper when a fellow classmate could put in little effort and be rewarded with a similar grade? He isn’t “pulling the wool over [y]our eyes,” you and your colleagues are pulling it over your own. I’ve heard similar stories from other students attending UFV, and although I’ve never attended myself, it sounds like a problem plaguing the entire University. I hear friends from high school who attend UFV tell me of their seemingly incredible grades, but once I’ve engaged in a conversation with them about it, they show little knowledge of the topic, and/or seemed to have put little effort into the class. My only guess as to why this has developed is the culture of everybody being rewarded, the type of culture that has brought us sports leagues that do not keep score and where “everybody wins, no matter how much you suck.” But that’s just my opinion.

      • I actually agree with your point about being rewarded for little work, and I think that was the strongest part of Paul’s argument. And you’re right–it seems to be systemic. I know many professors who are fighting against this trend, but there are strong forces pushing in the other direction.

  2. Lol, you put him on blast, not cool.

  3. At the risk of sounding flippant, Paul just got pwned.

  4. lololol at the professors rebuttal. it’s so true…the time wasted was paul’s own doing. I’ve wasted so much of my university career, but at least I recognized it as my own fault and didn’t blame “the system.”

  5. Here’s what I think.

    This is an interesting article, and there are some interesting remarks. All I would like to add is the point which is being danced around: student engagement. Yes, it’s annoying when a classmate does just as well as you do for reading the spark notes edition of the book, and yes many students walk away without an in-depth knowledge of the subjects they’ve studied. However if YOU actively read the texts and engage in class then you are doing something remarkable for YOURSELF. You’re actually learning whereas the others are simply being “monkeys”.

    While I can sometimes understand the analogy of being a “monkey chained to a type writer” myself as an English Major I think there’s a misconception here—I think that all the writing is just how it goes for getting your BA. How I “deal” with the systemic issue of “it’s not hard enough” is to continue doing my best, even in the face of “easy grades”. I always challenge myself to pick off-beat topics for my essays and really try to pick a difficult angle to work at. If your writing isn’t challenging you anymore, perhaps you should challenge yourself. Professors have hundreds of papers to mark and critic every semester, you only have to write a fraction of that.

    So instead of complaining that the professors mark too lightly, or that the work was too easy, or that everyone must be prodigious in their intellect for being able to regurgitate spark notes factoids to sounds like they’ve read the work, do something about it. Challenge yourself to work on your essays without the internet to guide you. Try not reading a ready-made criticism of the work in question and try to make your own critic beforehand. If you’re not doing that then yes, the work is easy. You can search for a dozen articles all saying the same thing and you can quietly agree with them. Or, if you want to actually get the education you’re paying for meet your professors half way– they don’t’ want to read the same paper thirty five times over. Challenge yourself to be the stand out essay in the pile.

    University professors aren’t here to hold your hand. If you need to be challenged, ask to be challenged. If it’s too hard, ask for help. Your University experience is dependent on YOU as the engaged learner, and only YOU know what you need.

    I’m a third year English Literature student, and I love the UFV.

    • The problem is that while perhaps you may learn more and get more out of your experience, in the end you’ll recieve the same credential as someone who put in the “sparknotes” effort. Universities aren’t supposed to just push people through and throw diplomas at them; that piece of paper is supposed to mean something about your ability and level of understanding. Grade should be solely based upon the value of the work, not on how your professor percieves you.
      It’s great that you’re pushing yourself in the face of a system that seems to overvalue effort, but let’s be pragmatic; at the end of the day (at least to an employer) your efforts and the efforts of your sparknote friends are deemed equal by the light of your credentials. So what happens when those who put in the minimum effort end up getting chosen for employment over you?
      I love UFV too. I’m didn’t graduate from the English Department, but I know quite a few involved with the department. There are great, thoughtful, and intelligent individuals there. However, when work or a degree is inflated, it depreciates the reputation of the institution and the degrees it confers.

      • I do agree that “when work or a degree is inflated, it depreciates the reputation of the institution and the degrees it confers” however my point is that instead of giving up on a degree which you may love challenge yourself to engage with it more. You’re right about the fact that “Universities aren’t supposed to just push people through and throw diplomas at them; that piece of paper is supposed to mean something about your ability and level of understanding” however I disagree with you about future employers not caring about how you’ve engaged.

        I feel, and this is purely a matter of opinion, that if you do the work you’ll now the material better. If you know the material better, when you finally go after the job you want, you’ll be able to talk to your future employer in a knowledgeable manner. THAT, I think is what will make even bothering to get my degree worth it. No matter what the degree is. If an employer is interviewing two applicants and one can’t talk reasonably about their knowledge they’ve supposedly acquired I think it’s clear who would get the job.

        Another aspect I think that is getting overlooked is this: if you work hard your professors WILL notice. If you keep working hard they might even agree to be a reference for you. Now, if you were an employer, who would you pick? This articulate applicant with glowing references or the one that has a degree and nothing else?

        So yes, let’s be pragmatic about why one would spend the time, effort, and energy into getting a degree. Employers don’t want people who scraped through when there are oceans of graduates to pick from. They want someone who knows how to work hard. That is the only thing that can distinguish you from the others to help you attain a job in the field.

        Otherwise, what is the point of getting a degree? What’s the point of throwing tens of thousands of dollars at a piece of paper? If it’s so bad, so sytemically corrupt that it’s now pointless to try, perhaps we should all give up and stop trying. Or, we can challenge that system and make it better.

        I think it’s clear where I stand.

  6. Most of your classmates routinely received As and Bs? Grade inflation must be as rampant at certain universities as it is at high schools. I was a TA at Western for three years in the 1980s, and the vast majority of students got Cs, with a handful of Bs and a very rare A. This grading pattern was common in most tutorial sections, by the way, not just mine.

  7. There seems to be three separate points being made in this discussion:
    1. The grading is too easy
    2. The grading does not distinguish between good and bad work
    3. The quality of academic discussion in class is frustratingly low, with faculty and students both ignoring basic historical contexts and critical thinking.

    I won’t discuss #3 since it varies widely across instructors and universities. As for #1, it’s an important concern, but generally not the fault of the faculty and there’s little that the English or any other department can do to reverse the trend. I think, however, it’s being conflated with #2 in the discussion here, and #2 is both far more important and far more reversible.

    Yes, Paul could have read the texts, engaged in class discussions, and genuinely tried to learn. But why should he spend his time on these if it is completely irrelevant to his grades (which in turn is a major part of his career) in the end? The educational system should not be stacked against students who wish to learn.

  8. This happens ALL THE TIME, in several disciplines. Out of my entire graduate class of 20 students, only 3 failed, and they did not speak English at even a high school level. Probably 13 or so all got honours. Most did not earn it, did not work hard. And we were certainly not all equal students. But the program is set up in such a way.

  9. Education should not be about marks. In my opinion, education should be about you challenging yourself to be your best. If you feel a need to compare, compare what you have learned with the effort you have put in. I never understand why students play the mark game. Did you go to university so you could compare yourself to others, or did you go to earn an education? Cheaters will always exist: people that shortchange themselves by not giving their absolute best because they can get away with it. Some of those people will successfully cheat their way through life. Good for them. The only thing I can truly control as a student is how much I challenge myself: read every book, attend every lecture, and complete every assignment. If in my heart I know I have done everything I can to better myself, then I should be proud of my accomplishments. If you are reading this, I encourage you to stop asking the person beside you “What did you get?” And, if someone asks you that same question, reply with a simple “I got an education.”

  10. Dear M:

    You say you are a third year English Literature student. I ignored all advice to study English and took a degree in engineering instead. Yet, even in my third year, I knew the difference between critic and critique.

    • Sadly one can’t always catch auto-correct errors in a first draft. Sorry if that offends you and your first drafts are always perfect :)

  11. You said it in paragraph 3:
    “Our pride protected us from the truth: that we were victims of a system that was exploiting us for tuition.”
    There is no gentle way to say this; there are post-secondary institutions with reputations for greater rigour. Lovers of UFV will go nuts here.
    The professor’s response is bizarre, amounting to “if you wanted to be judged on merit, you should have said so and calling you on your bullshit would have felt counterproductive”. Give me a break.

  12. Dear Paul & Others,

    As an English Honours student, though enrolled at a different institution, I can certainly feel sympathetic to the feeling of worthless achievement that comes from inflated grades and post-modern structures of relativism. I often struggle trying to convince myself that I am actually learning and becoming more knowledgeable in face of the miser attention I pay to my classes and little care I have about my own work ethics. How is it that without actually reading a book I got a prize for a research essay I wrote analyzing some of its themes? Yes, I did my research and read all of my secondary sources, but read not more than perhaps two or three pages out of the 600 pages volume of primary material, and only looked over these because I was searching for quotes. Isn’t there something seriously wrong with a system that awards my lazy behaviour, while elevating it above the work of my classmates, some of whom might have actually put a lot more thought into their work? I would not consider myself either a prodigy or a literary genius, yet it is better to believe that my professors think so rather than the alternative that tells me no one really cares about the quality of either our work or our education as a whole.

    The same holds true in relation to most of my other classes. How will I ever improve my writing or ability to analyze a text if a paper I know is mediocre, perhaps due to the short amount of time I had to properly develop my topic, still receives a grade in the A range? The minute that realization takes place my motivation to put thought into that class vanishes completely. From this arises the deadly thought: why should I put so much effort into this if a mediocre paper will suffice? Shouldn’t my professor actually give me a proper mediocre mark for a job not so well done? While I know of my responsibilities as a student, it is against my nature to work harder than I have to in order to accomplish my goals. The mentality we’ve been growing under exalts efficiency. Is this not a means of being efficient? Perhaps not in the long run, when one is looking into actually publishing their work. However, what young adults would ever have the discipline and motivation to behave properly when there’s a shorter road ahead of them? I’m certainly one of those who believe in always working as little as possible while still getting by with the highest level of accomplishment possible!

    Like Paul, I have taken courses in other departments, and I must admit that I have found that the level of “bullshit” tolerated in the History department is significantly lesser. I actually had to work hard to get my A there. Instead of sharing in the policy from the English department that students should have a chance to express themselves and move on, even if their work is not to the standards expected or does not present a serious analysis of the facts, the History department seems to take their stand seriously. Students are only rewarded if they actually do their work and well.

    While I am not ready to simple blame one department and acclaim the other, so far it seems to me that the grades in the History department indeed reflect the students’ capabilities better than those in English. I might be wrong, and I am totally open to this idea. However, having had classes with almost all full-time English professors on campus, I must say that while my 97% average will likely get me a nice scholarship, it is hardly a reflection of my commitment as a student or the quality of my work in general!

    When students complain about getting low marks in classes where I’m barely doing any work yet still find myself amongst the ones with the highest grades, my thought is always something along the lines of “you probably deserve it, because you’re not that smart” or “your paper probably sucked.” My clearly disturbed judgments aside, should we really level our standards based on the mediocre, so that more students will pass with satisfactory grades? I think not. I’m tired of being congratulated on being smart. I want to be congratulated for having actually learned something. Perhaps this will change with Graduate School. Well, I can only hope!

  13. To start, I think it is worth pointing out that I have never seen such a sophisticated textual body of comments on an online forum, until I clicked this page – it’s pretty clear that the demographic engaging with this article is most likely an exclusive group of English/Humanities students.

    Despite this article being published 4 years ago, I COMPLETELY agree with Paul and fully support his claims about the problems that are occurring within ENGL departments in universities. I quite literally just graduated with a B.A. Specialization in English a few days ago; with honours, Magna Cum Laude, and an award for highest academic standing in my year. I did what Paul didn’t always do – I read every text that was asked of me. I don’t think I have missed a class in three years, and even then, maybe 1 or 2 because of a funeral in my first year.

    As the guy on (somewhat of) the opposite end of the spectrum, I still completely agree with everything written
    in this article. I think Paul was hinting at and tapping into an extremely problematic phenomenon that I have witnessed for the last 4 years: the dimensions between an A – B for ENGL students are generally inconsistent and usually thinly veiled.
    Scenario: I read a 250 page text, attend all classes, plan and execute an extraordinarily written essay: critical thinking via deep exploration and explication of themes, symbols, literary devices, tropes, etc. I get a 95%. Yet the girl who sits next to me, who maybe attends half of the classes, reads 50/250 pages of the book, skims the paratext and some online Sparknotes, and writes a sufficient, yet insignificant essay, receives a 78%. This is a true story, as my best friends are in the program and this happened for 4 years. I know for a fact that people wrote about books they did not touch and used Paul’s notion of the ‘bullshit’ factor, because there are very scripted and pre-disposed tools that a lazy and unintelligent writer can use to make it ‘seem’ that they have read something.

    My solution – the gap between an A – B needs to be far more punishing. A+ seems to hold true to its value, but it seems to me that as long as the student has produced something decently coherent with the proper word count (despite not reading the text), will receive a 70%+ as a grade. That is seriously disheartening to the real students achieving the degree at a scholarly level. A lazy student who rarely attends class and doesn’t read the texts can obtain the degree almost effortlessly, when they should not be.

    I think my point stems from some insecurity about the way in which English Literature is regarded by other programs. The English course Syllabus’s are generally extremely demanding in terms of weekly readings – I would argue on par with a science or engineering student’s study schedule. Why can’t English be regarded as a serious discipline and synonymously elite with a physics or nano-science program? BECAUSE of Paul’s identification of ‘the bullshit factor.’ Professors see a 5 paragraph structured essay with a thesis that makes enough sense, and award students with a 75%. In the eyes of the A+ student, that person should have failed – but professors don’t mark like that in this presents day, when they should.

    To end, Paul also mentioned another huge annoyance that ENGL professors regularly practice and can easily get away with (only the bad profs do this). Not including a rubric or at least a checklist with comments about HOW the assignment was graded is an extreme breach of academic integrity. How do you expect the student to get better without some sort of oral or written feedback. Many times, I would just receive an essay sent back with a comment ‘Grade: 91’. Please tell me what separates that 91 from a 93. What makes it 91 instead of 90? If I handed in that EXACT same essay to another professor, I am certain that it would not be a 91. The flexible subjectivity that Paul mentioned is a problem of consistency within the ENGL department, that makes it so prone to weak students resorting to bullshit.

    TLDR: If an engineering student does not study for an exam, they will generally fail. If an English student did not read the text for a Final essay worth the same weight as an exam, they still have an almost guaranteed chance of at least obtaining a 70% +. This should never be the case. English could be an elite field that is taken more seriously by Universities, but it is Paul’s recognition of the bullshit factor and professor’s leniency that is holding is back from being what it is – the language that is the crux of several universities.