The Magazine

A Little Learning

Beth Henary, slacker.

Mar 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 25 • By BETH HENARY
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NOT TOO LONG AGO I signed up for a correspondence course in fiction and poetry writing from the University of Texas, my alma mater. The idea is to get myself started on a new genre of writing. In the sixth grade, I won a creative writing contest with a story about a cockroach, and in high school, I wrote poetry as a way of coping with, well, Baptist adolescence. Those ventures aside, English 325 will be my first foray into non-nonfiction writing. And even though the course has nothing to do with earning a degree, I don't think I've ever wanted an "A" so badly.

This is partly because of my past experience with what is known as "distance education." As a harried undergraduate at Texas, I took a few home-study courses from an Austin community college to painlessly accumulate credits and speed my graduation. Last week, when the materials for English 325 arrived in the mail--I noticed a lesson on action development with illustrations from Ring Lardner, another on viewpoint using Charlotte Perkins Gilman, review questions, envelopes to mail completed papers in--I thought about my undergraduate days and cringed.

Back then, what I wanted from my distance courses was minimal interaction with anyone and machine-graded multiple-choice tests. It suited me just fine that grades in transfer classes didn't count toward one's GPA, and that the courses cost one-third what they would have at UT. I intended to put in about one-third the effort.

An Internet-based course for which I was given credit was Introduction to Physical Geography, a survey of things like mapping and fluvial processes. I had to summarize twenty chapters of a textbook and fill in worksheets. Each chapter culminated in a timed test on the course's website. In the wee hours in my pajamas, I would log on. As soon as I'd answered the last question, my grade would pop up. For the first half of the course, I actually did the reading. But as the end of the semester neared, with tests and papers for my six other classes bearing down, geography got extra-short shrift. I began taking the tests two a day, without even reading the chapters. I discovered that in a pinch I could scan the entire chapter to hunt for every answer. Today, I couldn't tell you what the last half of that course was about.

One of those six other classes I was taking was a distance course in American history up to Reconstruction. This time, I had to visit the testing center at the community college to take tests. I decided to see how I would do without reading the book, since--under the lenient policy of the instructor, whoever he was--I could retake any test if I got a bad grade. Some of the material was easy, a reprise of eleventh-grade American history. But then there were trickier, revisionist questions, all about the comparative impact of the Civil War on the domestic life of southern and northern women, for example. And there were plenty of these. The European "conquest" of America seemed to be taking a drubbing and minor historical figures were suddenly preeminent, and I wasn't sure how to respond. So in the end I gave up and spent spring break reading the textbook and doing take-twos, trying to bump my grade up to the "C" required for transfer.

It's easy to see why first-rate colleges give credit only for transfer courses taught in a classroom setting in the daytime. Distance education may help students who have to hold jobs, as I did, get their college degrees faster and more cheaply than they otherwise could. But now, knowing what I do about how I got it, my diploma itself seems cheapened--as if it should have been printed on copy paper at Kinko's.

Well, never again. I'm putting my sordid past behind me. English 325 is a traditional write-it-and-mail-it-in (or e-mail it) correspondence course, and this format should help me shed all the worst of my old study habits. The instructor will return graded assignments with comments--no more automated responses from a computer or Scantron reader. Besides, I actually want to be forced to sit down and write short stories, and receive criticism of my work. I'm not just trying to get done anymore.

True, I'll miss out on any sort of back-and-forth in class or peer editing of papers, ever the weakness of distance learning. But then most of us who went to large universities have sat through lecture classes 500 strong without ever talking to a soul. Even if no one but my new instructor ever reads the stories I write, something tells me this course will be bearing fruit long after I've forgotten I ever knew what fluvial meant.

--Beth Henary