Raph al Guul
In the spirit of the no-longer-so-recent Tag der Lehre, let us think about the experience of being a student at the English Seminar. I can obviously just speak for myself, hence the title, but feel free to give us your own take in the comment section below.
Every now and then I happen to meet relatively new students who tell me about how they experienced the beginning of their studies. Too often these tales are marked by a stinging sense of disillusionment. One student told me that the introduction to textual analysis had single-handedly ruined her enthusiasm for studying English literature. Another student is interested in something very specific in the broad field of English studies and can’t help but ask why the Bachelor curriculum forces him to take on all the things he actually isn’t interested in exploring. Apparently, some don’t even feel like students at all during their first years at university. All these stories are a bit painful to hear because I personally feel rather enthusiastic about what I do on a daily basis and would like for my fellow students to feel the same. Yet, I remember how it felt to start my BA in English and film studies; like everybody else I found out that what I had imagined wasn’t necessarily what I got and like everybody else I questioned my choices early on. And I had every reason to do so, considering how unlikely it had been that I would ever find myself studying English in the first place. To show you what I mean, here is my story:
Before high school it was always clear to me that I wouldn’t go to university. I had about enough of the teaching environment, the endless piling up of knowledge I didn’t want or think I would ever need. I didn’t even want to go to high school in the first place, eyeing an apprenticeship at an IT firm. It was my own insecurity and a healthy dose of parental guidance that eventually led me to abandon that thought and spend the next three years in high school instead. There are many ways in which those three years were critical for my future, but the one I should highlight in this context is that at some odd point I realized that I actually wanted to know more about some of the things they taught us. Specifically, I got immensely interested in the treatment, interpretation, as well as production of literature. And suddenly education didn’t look so bad. Well, I still hated math and physics, the subjects which, by a stroke of pure genius, I had picked as my main subjects at the time. I started fantasizing about a school week that would only consist of the one subject I started excelling at: German. About a year before the end of high school, I could actually see myself studying literature at an academic level.
Early on I did just about well enough in English to not fail, and French, well, don’t even ask. It never occurred to me that I might want to study literature in any other language than German until right before I decided to matriculate at the University of Zurich. By then, and for a variety of reasons, I had suddenly become helplessly enamored with the English language and when I made my final decision on my subject combination, I almost whimsically ditched German in the last second. Even though I hadn’t thought it through, and even though it was not exactly the “safe” choice, considering my grade sheets, I still believe that it was a great decision, if not the best I could have made. Despite my past frustration with being stuck in the educational system, I was suddenly looking forward to being taught more. The Utopia of a teaching environment where all the boring subjects are cut and I get to only focus on what I was really interested in seemed just around the corner.
It wasn’t like that at all. In fact, most of what we did wasn’t what I had hoped we’d do. There was Study Skills, a bore beyond compare; there was the Introduction to Linguistics, a most basic course on a field I knew I wasn’t going to spend too much time in; there was Language Skills & Culture, not boring, but not what I wanted to do, either. Of course, there was also the Introduction to Textual Analysis. Some of that seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. But even there it was only “some”. I didn’t enjoy the lecture part of the module whatsoever, and the seminar had its moments, but often focused on “the wrong kinds of issues” in my opinion. It took me a very, very long time to realize that I had become a picky douchebag.
The truth is that it didn’t matter how focused my studies were on English literature. Now that I didn’t have to do physics anymore, I suddenly forgot all about it. I forgot the Utopia I lived in and I started finding other things I didn’t like, things that I would still have preferred if they had been offered in high school. Only studying linguistics and literature, I suddenly found myself dividing those two up the same way I would divide high school subjects into those that I liked and those that I didn’t. And even now, whenever I am in a particularly enjoyable seminar, the thought creeps up on me that I wished my entire week would consist of this seminar only. But by now I know that if that were the case, I would start getting picky about that very seminar, as well. I’d still find something to complain about even if I was doing my dream job. I will always find something I like less; if there’s nothing I absolutely hate, I’ll make myself think that the thing I didn’t like quite as much as the others was the worst thing ever. It sounds both complicated and absolutely silly, but it is important to understand this process and to counteract it. Think about all the things you don’t have to do at all; maybe you hated biology or French back in the day. You left those behind you and that’s a victory. Maybe you’re not quite living a dream, but always remember that it could be a nightmare.
And of course that might not always be enough. I get them, too, the rainy days when I ask what the point is and why the hell I’m doing this. These are the days when I don’t focus so much on my yearning for knowledge and instead wonder why I am not enjoying myself. And while the most common answer is that I am just being silly, this revelation offers little consolation in the moment. There are always things we don’t want to do, and just because we know that we should be grateful that it’s nothing worse, we won’t embrace them. Looking back, I have to say that it was something beyond the mere content of the lectures, the Latin courses, and the compulsory linguistics modules that carried me through. It was the friendly faces, the people who went through the same thing with you, who understood exactly how it felt to do what you thought you loved and get hit in the face by disillusionment. Sometimes I’d go to a seminar looking forward to seeing my friends again rather than actually learning anything. Then I’d stick around for the seminar anyway – and not too rarely we’d engage in a communal rant of complaints afterwards, taking the edge off our frustration and carrying on for another week. It was also the teachers, especially those who’d manage to be engaging even when I wasn’t particularly interested in what they had to say. A professor like Allen Reddick can still get me enthusiastic about the 18th century novel, even though I’d prefer contemporary literature any day, which I believe is as much of a didactic achievement as actually passing on knowledge is.
For me, clinging to these little things long enough eventually paid off; like I said previously, I am now quite enthusiastic about my studies, despite the rainy days and bothersome compulsory modules. Obviously, I can’t promise that this is the way things are going to go down in every case. This is just my story and it’s not even particularly interesting. But it is one that seems to have worked out in the end and that’s why I felt like sharing it today. Only six years ago, not even I myself would have imagined I could possibly enjoy what I am doing today. So if you’re the kind of person who has been looking forward to studying for a long time, don’t let your high expectations ruin your experience. Hang in there and focus on whatever does the trick for you. And of course, keep complaining to your fellow students and teachers; it helps taking the edge off and it might even inspire those in charge to change something for the better. But also remember: you’re most likely being a little bit silly.