1. Foxxx

    Foxxx Knight of Faith Contributor

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    Thesis and College Writing

    Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by Foxxx, Nov 23, 2020.

    Read boldened parts for tl;dr.

    So my semester is coming to a close; I've just wrapped up my final paper and exam for my Intro. to Literary Analysis course.

    As somebody who prides myself on being good with words, loves reading and really any form of storytelling, and who thinks of myself as an excellent A-grade writer, this class was a big kick in my ego's nuts.

    I put on my anonymous teacher-survey: I am walking away from this class a bit discouraged, and a bit worried, as I still do not understand what the professor wanted from me.

    Now, I haven't gotten the results of my final paper or exam back yet. But they're both submitted. Thus the class is over for me.

    It was organized as follows: each week you submit a four point paper on the textbook content discussed in class (literary theories like psychoanalytic, feminist, marxist, etc.). So for example, you read a few short-stories and one overview of a literary theory; for the 400-word paper that week, you select one of the short-stories and apply the concepts.

    But let me tell you, were the freaking expectations for these papers obscure. Not to mention there were no opportunities to draft and get direct feedback in advance, so if you do bad on it, you're screwed. And it would take him at least two weeks to get them all graded, at which point you've already submitted one, possibly two more of these weekly papers with no idea how you're performing.

    Anyway, this thread isn't just me bitching. I know there are other college students, college graduates, and even English teachers here on this forum. I really have no idea what this professor wanted from me, even in spite of attending the lectures, and during the second-half of the semester I met with him on three occasions to discuss individual assignments and trying to get his help. But I felt like he just spoke in vagueries and used $25 dollar words. His expectations, grading criteria and prompts were all impenetrable, and likewise with what little feedback he gave.

    He was a smart guy, but not a good teacher in my estimation. I ended up walking away from his course feeling like an idiot. It wasn't that I couldn't understand what I was reading in the textbook, and I could usually work-out the theme in a short-story or poem.

    But it started to seem like whether or not he agreed with what I was saying in a paper was part of the grading process. For example, I wrote an essay about Auden's "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone" and how the poem's tone contributes to its theme. I came away with a Christian understanding of it; I was already a little bit familiar with Auden and knew he went to church, etc.

    I was meeting with my professor and discussing the paper, and he basically said that that was wrong. The idea that an interpretation of literature can be wrong is a bit confusing to me. On what basis? According to who or what? I mean, if the purpose of interpreting literature is to come to a *functional* understanding, and if a religious interpretation of Auden's poem is functional even though it may not be what the author intended (and my professor explained to us that "the author is dead" anyway, so not like that even matters), how is that "wrong"? The only thing I remember is he said that I should treat it as a math problem, which implied that there is only one correct answer. He also said something about if he, and his fellow faculty in his department looked at a poem, they should expect to all walk away with the same interpretation. The way he explained it sounded a lot like science-by-consensus.

    He said that my thesis needs to be something disputable, and I agreed with that, I already knew that. But it was like if he *did* disagree with your thesis or your interpretation or whatever case you're making in the essay, the more he disagreed, the worse of a grade you got. So what in the Hell kind of a Mickey-Mouse grading system is going on here?

    My interpretation about Auden's poem was that it was about a falling out-of-love with God, essentially. My professor's interpretation was that it was the loss of a love that constituted the speaker's whole world. I mean, honestly after talking about it for 30 minutes it sounded to me like we were splitting hairs, and that our interpretations may have been different in-part due to what we ourselves brought to the work.

    It was a pretty slippery slope from "the evidence doesn't support this" to "this is my interpretation and I'm going to assert it as the right one by way of argument-from-authority".

    I mean, the dude was smart, and I tried my best to work with him. But his expectations were unintelligible, and every paper I wrote, spending hours combined on reading the material and then trying to formulate and write a paper, seemed like a huge waste of time because I never once got WHATEVER IT WAS that he wanted me to be getting. Including the fact that there are still three that he hasn't graded, which I submitted back in OCTOBER. How am I supposed to improve if I still haven't gotten feedback on assignments I submitted on time, even after the class is done?

    For the final paper he said that the thesis needed to be something more than just "the poem uses x, y, and z to do x, y, or z." Like, I don't even know what to say about that. He explained that it was a comparative essay, and so that's what I did. He said that the thesis needed to be something that compares the two poems I chose. And honestly, after a semester of pure frustration and headache, I didn't even want to write the final paper. After three months I still had no idea what he wanted and so I know this final paper will go just like the other ones, whenever he gets around to grading it.

    Has anybody had similar experiences? Does anybody have advice? Should I prepare myself for more theories-classes where the expectations of the professors are impenetrable? I really tried, but I'm walking away from this class bitter and feeling like a failure, and dreading future classes of this kind.

    It's worth mentioning that I'd looked him up on ratemyprofessor I think it's called, and I'm far from the only student who's felt this way. He's not a bad person, and I think he was trying to help, but I didn't learn a damned thing about writing. All I learned was the content from the lectures, which was more or less regurgitated content from the textbooks that we were supposed to have already read. But in terms of applying the content, I do not know if I was misapplying the content, or if he just didn't like how I was applying it. I am uncertain if I'm a shit-writer, or if I'm just shit at writing how he wanted.
     
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  2. EFMingo

    EFMingo A Modern Dinosaur Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Literary theory classes and impenetrable expectations go hand-in-hand. I literally just finished my English degree this morning, and I had a Hell of a time with Contemporary Literature Theory and the History of Literary Theory, as well as Gender Theory and Literature. Only A- was in the first, but the other two were A's. They are a bastard to get through. The reading is unbelievably dense, sometimes to the point of almost unintelligible, as with Derrida or Butler, but can be quite rewarding. I've had that with professors before, but honestly, it's dealable. Just get real comfortable with reading the texts five times each and researching interpretations of it. Theory classes are some of the most painful for a literature degree.

    I get to look forward to the MFA version of this pain next year...
     
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  3. Foxxx

    Foxxx Knight of Faith Contributor

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    I don't know how you got an A, because I feel like I pulled out all the stops and will be lucky to get a B- in an introductory course. But I'm glad to not be the only one. Good luck with the MFA next year.

    I have found solace in reading the reviews about this guy over the past half-decade. I don't have a problem with my writing being criticized when the criticism is clear, and the guidelines by which that criticism is being made are clear. Unfortunately, that just wasn't the case with this dude. If the manner in which grading were conducted could be summed up in a word, at BEST his would be "amorphous".

    At worst, I don't think I could put how bad it was into one word.
     
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  4. Zeppo595

    Zeppo595 Contributor Contributor

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    I never really cracked how to write a 'good' essay. I was always writing acceptable stuff that was around the 'B' margin but every time they complained about different things. I never got personalised feedback on how to really make any of it better, so I just wrote the same passable yet flawed thing again and again and again.

    The few times I received 'A's' it was clear that whatever I wrote had resonated with the prof for it's originality or imagination or whatever rather than being 'better.' The times I got lower scores - C's and lower - it was clear the prof just didn't find my ideas interesting and was critiquing it more for it's issues with structure or lack of 'depth.'

    I was a terrible student anyway. Often I just had my own ideas about a text and then I'd read all these books just to pull some quote from another person who had the same ideas. I basically just wanted to write my opinion!

    A lot of my essays I wrote very quickly - in one sitting or so - often feeling guilty when I heard classmates saying they stayed up all night on assignment. I was always thinking...doing what? I just didn't have the discipline to really focus and research and 'play the academic game' and all that.
     
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  5. ruskaya

    ruskaya Senior Member

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    I am not an English Literature major. But from what you write, to me your and his interpretations sound completely different: your interpretation requires the piece to use a symbology and expressions containing religious meaning while that of your professor moves more on a worldview (philosophical-ish) premise. Could this be the reason?

    Literary theory like any other tool for analysis requires students to learn about the themes/keys of interpretation in which a specific piece can be found, and that might differ from what a piece looks like to you. It is not about what you think, but about you understanding why a piece can be found there and not somewhere else. Literary theory shapes a framework within which you make interpretations, with the tools you find in there. It is about you demonstrating how the keys of interpretation make sense for each specific piece. It's not about you developing new interpretations, but about understanding why it should be interpreted that way. He gave you the keys and the piece, you need to show how that matching makes sense. If you have done that well, then you should get a good grade. If you went your way making your own interpretations (unless your interpretations match those of the theory already accepted), you won't get a good grade. Again, it is about you learning, understanding and applying the theory, not you going off your own road of what "seems" to you the proper interpretation. This is true especially at undergraduate level.



    This is my experience in general in college with humanities subject. But others might have a better grasp.
     
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  6. Foxxx

    Foxxx Knight of Faith Contributor

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    I understand you're just making an observation and explanation of how it is, not necessarily how you personally feel about it. I agree with your assessment.

    "what 'seems' to you the proper interpretation"

    I mean, at the risk of being pedantic, I don't necessarily think there is *one* proper interpretation of a work of fiction or poetry. I mean, even back in high-school when I took honors and AP English courses, the works that we'd read and analyze had numerous themes woven through them.

    So the fact that my professor said to treat this like a math problem where 2+2=4 minus 1 that's 3 quick-maffs was very strange to me. It was like his interpretation was the right one, because it was the one that was chosen via science-by-consensus, but who the scientists are and how they're determining truth is totally unknown to me.

    I'm not trying to pretend like I know more than him, or anybody else, because I don't know that. But there are some seemingly contradictions or issues with this course that I couldn't get over. For example, the author is simultaneously dead and we shouldn't make an argument-from-author, and yet in a private conversation with me my professor was trying to do exactly that, saying that the reason why there is one correct interpretation of a text is because the whole point of writing is for the author to get across something specific to the readers.

    I told him I understand that, because I write in my free-time, it's a passion of mine, and I share it online for strangers or friends to look at. What I intended with a piece of fiction, or with poetry, or even with a piece of non-fiction, does not always perfectly get across to the reader. Sometimes that's a frustration, but other times when a person can just find something to relate to from within themselves, and have their own *meaningful* and *functional* interpretation, then I don't see the harm in that. It may not be ideal or what I wanted, but I've always felt that that's how language works. Haven't you listened to a song, or watched a movie, or read a story or a poem, and then when you're talking with people, whether they be acquaintances or friends or internet strangers or whoever, isn't it interesting to see the different ways that people take it?

    So in the case where you mentioned my religious interpretation vs the instructor's interpretation for Auden's poem, either way, as far as I can tell the fundamental idea seems to be the same: the speaker lost a relationship that was his world. For some people, God is in everything, and is their world. For other people they might dramatize a lover as being that. It's possible that the religious references were just supposed to be metaphorical, or it's possible that they were more literal. Auden isn't around to be asked, and we were told not to ask him regardless.

    Anyway, I do find your insight useful, and I thank you for sharing it. I'll be ready to have less freedom to explore in some of the upcoming courses. It feels a lot like telling people what they want to hear, with theories and lenses that hardly seem different than pre-assembled confirmation biases. Of course if you read a given work with a Marxist lens, you'd be more prone to come away with a Marxist understanding of it, but I feel like that presupposes that the author wrote it with the knowledge and intent of writing a Marxist piece.

    This is why I found it bizarre that there were no counterpoints to any of the theories. There wasn't a capitalist lens or literary theory, or a "traditionalist" or "conservative" or "religious", but only specific theories that all leaned in a common cultural direction. And then you stack "there's only one correct interpretation of any text" on top of that, and the whole thing starts to smell in my opinion.

    Give a person only a hammer and a sickle, and everything starts to look like nails and blades of grass to them. As the hip kids say: I'm not about that.

    The approach you're describing seems a lot more reasonable for exploring and understanding the true tools of literature, like symbolism, figurative language, speaker, rhetorical setting, voice, rhythm, rhyme, and so on. Those are literary tools with intended purposes, but not specified ends. A hammer is for hammering, but it doesn't say whether to build a house or smelt a sword with it.
     
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  7. big soft moose

    big soft moose An Admoostrator Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Welcome to academia... a certain sort of professor thinks that they are the fount from which all knowledge springs ... they abound especially in the arts where in honesty there is no right answer to most questions.

    The wise student realises that there is no point in tilting at windmills and that they can't fight city hall (I know i mixed my metaphor), if they want a good degree they work out what the prof wants them to argue and say it, regardless of what they really believe...

    That aside Funeral blues is one of the most analysed poems out there so your professor probably is right to say that it is wrong that it was about Auden falling out of love with god... it is widely accepted in the literary community that it was written as a satire of contemporary blues lyrics, so while it is possible that the entire literary establishment is wrong and you are right, your prof is probably wise to point out that it isnt likely
     
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  8. EFMingo

    EFMingo A Modern Dinosaur Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I do this stylistically, but not content-wise. Most professors appreciate a brief style that doesn't get lost in preaching or wordiness. Straight facts backed up through what you can prove.

    As for content, I try to bring something fresh to the table and explain my understanding of difficult items using research. They may not always agree entirely, but if you work out the holes they'll give you a decent grade. Ive written some pretty wild essays, such as my last one, that tend to get a bit esoteric, but they're widely popular with high marks usually. Professors like to see new things or attempts at the difficult as long as you can back it up heavily and don't fluff an essay. I've had more successful essays on the lower word/page limit than the higher.
     
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  9. Stormsong07

    Stormsong07 Contributor Contributor

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    Reading your post, I am very glad my English: Creative Writing degree did not include any literary analysis courses. Bc I would have been hilariously bad at it.
    Sounds like you just got one of those professors who wants things done his way and to hell with the rest. I mean, interpreting someone's writing should not be a single answer. A good professor should have taken several points of view about a single work and compared them to show that not everyone reads and interprets things the same way.
    I took a Political Science class where the required book for the class was literally authored by the professor that taught it- talk about no other viewpoints tolerated!
    As for the vague-ness of his instruction, I get that that is highly frustrating. But it sounds like you did your best to work with it. I wouldn't beat yourself up. Just maybe avoid any of this guy's classes in the future, if you can help it.
     
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  10. EFMingo

    EFMingo A Modern Dinosaur Staff Supporter Contributor

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    These are the worst professors out there. I avoid them at any cost.

    Though it is usually easier to get a good grade out of them if you have no shame in going against your own beliefs and writing what they want to hear. You know what they want to hear based on their book. I, however, can't do that.
     
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  11. Foxxx

    Foxxx Knight of Faith Contributor

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    It wasn't funeral blues but "Stop the clocks, cut off the telephone".

    But I completely agree, and it's good advice. I guess the real frustration is I couldn't work out what the professor wanted no matter how hard I tried, even after meeting with him several times for an hour, and reeling in my writing to try and appease him. But after he took Austria, he just kept taking and taking, and no amount of appeasement seemed to change things.

    If I were him, I'd fail you for that abomination of a metaphor. There's only one right way to use it!
     
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  12. EFMingo

    EFMingo A Modern Dinosaur Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Well, since you struggled with eliciting the interpretation from the poem, could it be you just need to choose topic stories or poems better? Sometimes I survey as much work as I can early just to find one that has a smoother idea I can work out and connect with instead of forcing an essay out of a topic. I tend to choose something I generally like, but may not be my favorite of the group, then go outside an research interpretations and a little analysis involving it. Then I look to the paper topics and discern what is workable from my understanding. A lot of times the problem with the essay is it isn't something that fully applies to how you think, so it comes out clunky. Or you force an interpretation you want without back up. That can lead to this issue. I usually try to move on from poems especially that get this way because the essay turns into a black hole.
     
  13. Foxxx

    Foxxx Knight of Faith Contributor

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    The funny thing is, I literally felt that the Auden poem in question was "a smoother idea" that I could "work out and connect with instead of forcing an essay out of a topic." I liked the poem, and found a religious theme. Who among us is the Moses who will ascend to the mountaintop and tell us if I found something or imagined something? Or is it as finnicky as whoever happens to be the self-appointed literary leaders at the time? Or even who happens to be the professor, or who happens to be auditioning for Moses?

    And I know you may just be speaking as a devil's advocate to some degree with "eliciting THE interpretation from the poem", but I don't particularly think that a piece of literature has a singular, sole, only-interpretation. That's just not reflective of my experience in both writing and reading works, or extracting meaning from a film or a work of art.

    That's why I said that even though I came at the poem with a religious angle, and picked my evidence and made my evidence around that, the general theme is still the same: speaker loses relationship that was his world. At some point, to me, it seems of no consequence whether the relationship was a gay lover, a heterosexual relation with a woman, or a relationship with God. Whether it's a log cabin, a hut, or a tepee, it's made of wood and you can live in it.

    We can start getting into territory where we start keeping score and saying "well, there's 5 pieces of evidence for this, versus your three", but ironically I think that'd make for a poor essay argument as to why my interpretation is flat out "wrong".

    EDIT: If it were clear that I was to be graded on whether I got the common interpretation or not, that's one thing. This would all make at least a little more sense. But the common interpretation and the-one-and-only interpretation are very different things.
     
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  14. big soft moose

    big soft moose An Admoostrator Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Same thing essentially - Funeral Blues is the title given to the four stanza version of Stop all the Clocks that Auden revised in 1938 ... the original 1936 version didnt have a title per se because it was written as part of a longer work... many sources use the two titles interchangeably.
     
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  15. Foxxx

    Foxxx Knight of Faith Contributor

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    Ah, I did not know this, thank-you.

    If what you said is true though, then my professor was also just as I wrong as I was lol.
     
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  16. EFMingo

    EFMingo A Modern Dinosaur Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Sure, that's Reader Response, and I get that, but driving a separate interpretation from one firmly established is still difficult. This is why I tend to choose more metaphysical works because they are less rigid.

    I'm not sure how you came at that one with a religious angle. Seems a bit of a stretch that would be a hard argument. In the end, I would just need to see what you have and point out any holes if they are present. I can't argue with you on an essay I haven't seen, but it does sound to me like you have a pretty rigid interpretation and it wasn't opening too much to pretty evidenced general interpretations. But I don't know, I'd need to see the evidence.

    An evidence amount is irrelevant, it's the strength of the evidence put forward.
     
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  17. Foxxx

    Foxxx Knight of Faith Contributor

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    True, it is a bit unfair to be talking about all this without me even having presented the essay. But I guess my concerns were less about this specific example and more about the bigger picture, now that I think about it.

    And the strength of the evidence seems to vary from jury to jury. So I guess really this is all just to the practical, utilitarian point that it's the professor who is the final authority, and if I want to pass their class then I need to do things in the way that they ask them to be done, even if it's just to get through it and never do it that way again.

    I suppose my concern was that more professors would be like that, and that it was an issue I'd have with literary courses in general. But by the sound of what you and others have been saying, and also reviews of him by other students, he is actually just particularly bad when it comes to this. Past literary English classes would also seem to indicate that some teachers are more flexible with the interpretation, and more concerned that you are able to make a coherent argument. Different teachers look for different things.
     
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  18. EFMingo

    EFMingo A Modern Dinosaur Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Throw out most of those reviews. Most people who make Professor reviews are just mad they couldn't hack it in their class. A lot of those tend to be generals clearing students of other majors who had no idea what they were getting into. I never use reviews. They tend to favor the super lenient ones who toss A's and hardly teach.
     
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  19. Foxxx

    Foxxx Knight of Faith Contributor

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    Fair point, but I know how to sift through them. I had a photojournalism professor I really enjoyed with an even worse score than this guy, and consequently I wrote a letter to his bosses defending him and why I thought he was a great teacher.

    The difference is that there was no obscure interpretation in his photojournalism class. He wouldn't arbitrarily mark down because he doesn't like the color blue, or that you took a picture of a tall person. To be blunt, his directions, expectations, examples, demonstrations, grading criteria, and feedback were all perfectly clear and accessible, with opportunities to revisit work with said feedback. People just marked him down because they didn't like his personality or how he stuck to his rules or that his class did involve quite a bit of challenging work. But it was challenging because you're building a new skill you don't have; not because he sucked at teaching the course.

    In spite of attending lectures, meeting with him one-on-one for an hour at time at several points over the second-half of the semester, this English professor's directions or prompts often felt like they had to be deciphered themselves, his explanations and expectations felt wishy-washy intentionally vague, he'd give feedback three or four weeks later that was denser than the textbooks (and in some cases he still hasn't graded things I turned in on-time) so that you've already made the same fuck-ups in three other papers in the meantime, with no opportunities to draft or re-write. I've got nothing new to say about a piece of literature if I'm going to be wrong on the basis that it hasn't already been said.

    And the fact that a lot of students say the same things over and over, even students who earned B's or higher, suggests there is in fact a problem.

    But yes. There's always reviews like the one that said something to the effect of "this guy hasn't written anything in years; what a fraudulent pseudo-intellectual" which only made me laugh.
     
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  20. ruskaya

    ruskaya Senior Member

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    My advice for you to take the most out of your university experience is this:
    1. professors are people too, with their own ideas and beliefs. So, choose classes based on whether you like a professor's teaching style, one that allows you to learn the most and with the most satisfaction, rather than based on the content of the class. In the end, unless you have specific plans for graduate school, it won't matter what classes you take--the department has laid out a plan of studies that will allow you to acquire the core principles and ideas of the field anyway. Big intro classes often rotate professors, if next term you see a class you want/have to take is taught by this same professor you know you don't particularly like, then wait out one term if possible.
    2. I know you are right when you say that there are more than one interpretation. But the professor expects you first to demonstrate an understanding of the theory. So do that, present the arguments that you are supposed to have learned and then at the end illustrate how you think the argument extends to include your idea, in this case the religious interpretation. Even if you are right, you need to build the argument from existing ones to show that yours is not just an impression but an analysis. Analysis are always based on existing theory, even if you were to knock them down.
    3. try to accept the argument the professor is making first. I found when I was in college that I was so caught up in my own ideas, I often missed what my professors were telling me and try to show me. I had to take a step back, set my ideas aside and then look genuinely with interest at what my professors were saying to accept a different idea from mine. It was not as easy and straightforward to do as one might think. I am just saying to try. He might very well be stubborn or uninterested in your idea at the end of it all anyway, but you can learn to think differently, and that is important outside of class. I always thought to be very flexible, until I realized how and to what extent I wasn't.

    these are just suggestions of course, and I am not saying you are not right, just to focus more on what you can get out of your college degree. You can spend your time fighting and resisting, but that won't change the professor or how things are done. hope this helps :)
     
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  21. Foxxx

    Foxxx Knight of Faith Contributor

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    Location:
    The Heaven and Hell in my mind.
    I completely agree, and this helps a lot. Thank you. :-D
     
    ruskaya likes this.

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