Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Del Mar Disaster

Having dropped out of high school and joined the Army at seventeen, I took the GED Tests and had no trouble with them. A few years later I began taking some junior college courses. In 1965 I found myself in Corpus Christi, Texas, and enrolled in a US History course at Del Mar Junior College. It was a disaster.

Our "professor" was a retired Colonel (Air Force I believe), and he knew absolutely nothing about teaching. His approach was to read aloud to the class, all students sitting at their desks, books open to the page he was reading from, reading silently what he read aloud. For the entire duration of each class. For the entire duration of each wretched class. Well, some days chicken, some days feathers, and I don't think anyone dropped out because of his approach.

I think several did drop out after the first exam he gave. He had actually managed to find an approach to exams that was worse than his approach to teaching. The exam was a trivia test. Here are two of the questions, word for word, that appeared in the exam, along with the correct answers so you won't have to sit there with them on the tips of your tongues.

    Q. Who (sic) did Frank Lloyd Wright call "der Meister?"

    A. Louis Henry Sullivan

    Q. What is the width of the standard railroad tie in America today?

    A. 56.5 inches

Now when you are being bored to death reading along with a nitwit's
studying "architecture in America," however briefly, you are going to be exposed to any number of architects, some or all of whom will be praised. It is one thing to know and appreciate the facts that Sullivan was a more than competent architect and that Frank Lloyd Wright admired his work. It is quite another thing to consider important the fact that "der Meister" was a phrase used by one architect to express his admiration for another. Unless maybe it's an in thing with architects, I dunno.

But even worse, and possibly the most useless bit of information requested in the exam, was the width of the railroad tie. It is interesting that private railroad companies laid their own tracks, that the tracks were of different widths, and that consequently one company's trains could not use most other companies' tracks. It is also interesting that someone finally realized this was not a very good approach and that eventually a standard track width made its appearance. Absolutely the least important bit of information about all that is the width finally settled on.

In those days smoking was considered a lesser crime than . . . oh . . . say . . . being a straight white male, and in the school you could smoke in the hallways if you were taking a break. I zipped through the exam - seventy-five questions if memory serves - and was first in the class to finish. I do not mean to imply that I found the exam easy, only that these were not the sort of questions that allowed you to reason your way to the correct answers. Either you knew or you didn't. I no longer recall how many correct answers I submitted, but I suspect that mostly I "didn't."

Incidentally, in case you are thinking gleefully that I "still know" the answers, I hasten to confess that I Googled them.

I went out to the hallway, lit a cigarette, and contemplated changing courses, perhaps to something more useful, such as Left-Handedness Among Readers of Braille Sanskrit. A moment later I was joined by a young woman who was furious. She was taking the class because she wanted to be a teacher, and to get a teaching certificate in Texas you had to have taken American History in a Texas school.

"I graduated with honors from Northwestern, a HISTORY MAJOR! If I flunk history in this shitty little junior college . . . ."

We rolled our eyes and commiserated with each other about retired colonels who decided to teach. I suppose this was unfair to retired colonels in general, but I do believe that you'd have done the same thing at that time, in that place. Unless of course you were a retired colonel.

However, we learned the following week that he graded on a curve and that she and I had scored A's.

Vietnam called and I had to take an incomplete on the course. I shed crocodile tears and then smiled bravely while I waved the flag and cajoled Del Mar into giving me the incomplete.

The good news is that, for me at least, Vietnam was decidedly less unpleasant than that class. The bad news is that by the time I got back to the States I had lost whatever motivation I needed to continue my education.


Kathy said...

I hate to say this, but that standard railroad tie width question is sure ringing a bell. I hope I didn't learn the answer in my US History class in 1985. I think I like the Texas Dolly stories better.

BrokenDownProgrammer said...

A couple of bits of trivia here:

For a whole day I wondered why the words "Texas Dolly" sounded so familiar. Overnight, the answer has percolated to the top. Doyle Brunson, a several time world poker champion, is from Texas and is sometimes referred to as Texas Dolly.

As for the railroad tie, I've always wondered why the word "width" was used in the question. Shouldn't that be "length?"

bonboncho said...

What's the difference ? Does the railroad tie have a different width than the railroad straight line ?

BrokenDownProgrammer said...

I'm not sure what you're asking.

If a train passed and then you stood on the tracks and watched the train move away from you, I guess you'd be looking down the "width" of the tracks.

But if you were able to pick up one of the railroad ties and view it as simply a piece of wood, you would instinctively consider the 56.5 inches the "length," not the "width."

And the width of the track - more specifically, the distance between the rails - would be something less than 56.5 inches, because the ties do protrude beyond the rails on each side.

bonboncho said...

Ok i get what you were wondering about. I think it should be the length as you said.