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Academic Culture Shock

From Susan Parker
Tuesday December 02, 2003

Now that my first semester of graduate school at San Francisco State is winding down, it’s time to reflect on what I’ve accomplished and learned. Until Sept. 1, I hadn’t been back on a college campus in 32 years. It turns out that I had a lot of catching up to do. 

The first shock was registration. Instead of standing in line in a big gymnasium, I stood in line in cyberspace and got none of my first or second choices in classes. Finally, after weeks of visiting the Graduate Creative Writing office and asking permission from professors half my age if I could get into one of their workshops, I settled into three courses: Beginning Novel, Advanced Short Stories, and the Business of Writing. I had already started a novel so I wasn’t too worried about fulfilling the requirements of that class. 

But the trauma of having it ripped apart by my fellow students was something I wasn’t prepared for. Over and over my classmates told me that my protagonist was a witch, a bitch and worse. They disliked her so much they didn’t want to read further. Their criticism stung on a very personal level. I needed to learn how to write fiction. 

In short story class I learned to compose in the third person. I felt that I had made a giant step forward in my efforts to craft a fictional tale. But when I started reading my classmates’ short stories I realized that there was more to this class than just changing “I” to “Priscilla.” I had to study up on pop culture. I hadn’t a clue what song lyrics or bands my classmates were referring to, what movie scenes they were emulating, what authors they were copying, what drugs their characters were taking. I needed to know about Goth clubs, massage parlors, obscure British rock bands, new slang terms. I needed to read Less Than Zero or I was never going to make it in the class. 

When one of the students handed in a story about a young woman going to college in the 70s I breathed a sigh of relief. Now here was a narrative I’d be able to critique with knowledge and fairness. But he got so many facts wrong about clothes, hair styles, cars, drinking habits and music, I spent my entire critique correcting his historical errors, not his actual writing. It was disconcerting and sobering to learn that he considered me, the perky co-ed sitting beside him, a representative of an ancient and extinct culture. 

When I told a friend I was getting an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State, she looked at me quizzically. “What’s wrong?” I asked. 

Her reply was measured. “Oh nothing,” she said. “It’s just that I was under the impression that questioning one’s gender and sexuality were a prerequisite to the curriculum. Is there anything you want to tell me?”  

“No,” I said. “I’m not questioning my sexuality, but I am wondering about my sanity. I need new jeans and underwear. I’m supposed to wear low cut Levis that expose the top of my thong when I bend forward a fraction of an inch. I need platform shoes and multiple tattoos. It might help if I were to get my nose pierced and dyed my hair blue. Instead of a book bag, I need a large backpack or a suitcase with wheels.”  

“Suzy,” she said. “You don’t need any of those things, but your sanity? Well, that’s something you should have questioned a long time ago.” 

Now I’m busy trying to figure out what classes I’ll take next semester. I’ve studied the MFA curriculum as well as the undergraduate creative writing offerings and the nursing school’s courses in geriatric studies. Just for kicks I did a search to see what the history department was offering. What I found surprised me. There are no courses dedicated to the history of the 60s and 70s. I’m making an appointment with the chairman of the history department today and offering my expertise. These are classes I don’t need to take—these are courses I can teach.