Mi Paranoia es Tu Paranoia or, A Response to a Facebook Post

Thirty years ago, more or less, I took a seminar in college on Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49 for the warm-up and Gravity’s Rainbow for the rest of the semester. The professor teaching was a brilliant, goofy Virginian that everyone thought, as impressionable young students often do at other colleges of their Pynchon professors, that our man was him. It’s ludicrous, of course. But it was stoked even further when said professor went on sabbatical “to tour the South” and a few years later Mason & Dixon was published.

Some hangers-on still cling to the notion that our old professor was Pynchon lampooning as a Virginian with a PhD. I like to imagine that even Thomas Pynchon has his limits.

Anyway, I have since gone back to Lot 49 and GR several times over the years, and all his other books save Slow Learner in its entirety. My favorite is probably Against the Day. Vineland had its moments. Oddly enough, I didn’t enjoy Inherent Vice as much as I should have. Bleeding Edge had its moments too, especially the passage about people eventually submitting to surveillance:

“Dick Tracy’s wrist radio? it’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one,” decries Ernie, “handcuffs of the future.”

I wouldn’t be so flippant as to say Pynchon’s an acquired taste. Good literature as we all know has more to it than that. But if you’re like me and you memorize license plates of cars that pass your house more than twice in one day it’s nice to know someone out there knows, as William Burroughs once pointed out in reference to paranoia, a little about what’s going on.

But I Wanted an ‘A’ or, How to Avoid being a Tool


It’s three days before Christmas. I have survived my first semester as an adjunct English professor. Today, despite every hunch telling me not to, I logged into my email account at one of the schools where I work. That was two hours ago. I am still reeling from the various emails I had received since I posted final grades.

There was one message from Student A that stood out from the rest. We will call her Tsunami. Over the semester, Tsunami showed promise; but, somewhere in week ten, she shut down. Being the kindhearted, likeable fellow I am, equal parts fuzzy warm thoughts and fairness, I spoke to Tsunami about her lack of enthusiasm for two essay assignments; neither of which she turned in by the cutoff date (a rather liberal one that I would have never been afforded in my days as an undergraduate student).

“I just don’t get it,” came her reply.

So we talked some more. Our class was met twice a week. One of those days were devoted entirely to writing in a computer lab. Thinking this may be of benefit, since I am there with my students, I discussed this with Tsunami.

“I can’t write with other people around me,” she told me.

After that, Tsunami missed class quite a few times between that day and the semester’s end. Admittedly, I am not a believer in taking attendance. Nothing says ‘you’re not really adults, even though college is supposed to mean you are’ like taking attendance.

On the day the final essay was due, Tsunami came to class. She shuffled through some papers in a binder. When I asked her if she had her paper ready to turn in she looked at me with big doe eyes and replied, “No.”

Today, Tsunami’s email read as follows: ‘I am very upset about my final grade. I thought I was doing well in your class. I thought I would at least get a B. I need to keep my GPA closer to the A range.’

Well, I would like to have a winged horse like Pegasus to fly to and from work so I can avoid brain-dead drivers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I would also like to, in no particular order, do the following:

A) Publish my novel with a big-house publisher and make oodles of money, maybe even get a movie deal, and, if not, at least a television mini-series deal.

B) Eradicate cancer (even though I know next to nothing about the science behind disease eradication).

C) Own the aforementioned winged horse that would live in a posh stable located on the first floor of my magic castle (see D).

D) Live in a magic castle where it’s never too cold or never too hot, where the libraries (that’s right, plural) are made soundproof, and there are plenty of rooms with in-wall, state of the art gigantic flat screen televisions, where no one has to climb stairs; instead, the rooms shift like blocks in a Rubik’s Cube (it is, after all, a magic castle), and where many other fine accoutrements satisfy my every whim.

The list goes on, but for our purposes here these four items should suffice.

I am not sure where the disconnect occurred in recent history; the one in which college students have become obsessed with all things grade-point-average-related. Maybe they are victims of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ legislature. Maybe this culture of instant satisfaction we live in fostered these ideals. Or maybe they equate a high GPA and a degree with some magic elixir that will allow others to see them as ‘smart,’ land the job they dream about, and make a decent living.

The purpose of college, at its most basic level, is to promote a level of literacy that students need not only to function in society but to aid in developing changes. This comes not only from English composition classes like mine, but other disciplines such as mathematics, psychology, the sciences, and a host of others, both required and elective, that aid in shaping a still developing mind.

In helping to shape a mind, the job of the educator, as it was explained by someone dear to me and far more intelligent than I ever hope to be, is to take students out of their comfort zone and explore ideas that they would be unwilling to on their own. If an educator is successful, students will bounce back toward the comfort zone, but never occupy the same space again.

What will happen to students like Tsunami? They will be hard-pressed to become culturally literate, and while they may think they are free, they will remain unable to to contribute to society in the way people who live in a democratic society should.

Of course if there is a silver lining, it this: Tsunami, like so many others who desire fantastic grades and perfect GPAs without doing any of the work, will remain ignorant of the injustices being carried out within the society which she lives. She will remain a tool: an instrument used by others.

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