A Little Knowledge Can Be a Fortunate Thing

When I was an undergraduate, I had a fantastic professor named Dr. Bryan who taught Art History 101 in a large auditorium that could accommodate a couple hundred students.[1] I learned so much in his class, which featured a superb, richly illustrated textbook that I perused religiously whenever we had an assignment.  I took meticulous notes during his engaging lectures and tried my best to keep up with his rapidly administered slide shows projected on the giant screen behind the podium. 

I remember that a missed more than a few identifications on his first test, a midterm exam; however, my essays on that exam so impressed him that he awarded me extra points, so I ended up getting an A despite than more than 10 points of deductions on the objective portion. However, somewhat surprisingly, I received a B+ on our one outside paper (some damn TA graded it), so I had an A- going into the exam.

Perhaps, to keep students interested, Dr. Bryan would occasionally announce that if a student could answer some obscure question he threw out, he’d give them an A for the semester no matter what grade they had earned. Well, a couple of weeks before exams, he said, “If anyone in this auditorium can tell me who invented kindergarten, I’ll give them an A on the exam.”

My hand shot up, but he ignored me, until I leapt to my feet, waving my arms above my head, and the auditorium started booing him.  “Okay,” he finally said, pointing to me, “Who started the first kindergarten?”

“Fredrich Froebel,” I hollered. I had learned this bit of trivia literally the day before in my History of Education class.[2]

“Okay,” he said. “I can’t give you an A on the exam.” 

The auditorium erupted in a chorus of boos, so he relented a bit. “Meet me in my office after class and bring your midterm and essay.”  

Thunderous applause.

So later that day, I met him in his office with assessments in hand. I explained that I had an A- average anyway, so he allowed me to exempt the exam, which I really appreciated given the load I carried (see footnote 2).

Anyway, when I began teaching myself, I would occasionally follow Dr. Bryan’s model and announce that I’d give a student an A for the year if he or she could answer an obscure question, which I made damned sure no one would get right.

E.g., “Okay, if anyone who can name the comic butt in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, I’ll give you an A for the year. You’ll still have to do the work and try your best, but you’ll get an A.”

Then a volley of incorrect answers would ricochet off the walls of the room.

Ophelia, Bottom the Weaver, Falstaff, Casca, etc.

“Time’s up,” I’d say. “Sorry. You were so close. It’s Thersites, who spoke these immortal lines: “Great Agamemnon has not so much brain as earwax.”

However, one time, I came really close to blowing it. I gave the A option to the question “Where did I see Dr. John perform the last time I saw him, and to my astonishment, a student answered correctly Newberry.

“Oh shit,” I thought, then said. “Great! Where in Newberry?”

“What do you mean?”

I mean the venue. What building?”

“Um, the Newberry Auditorium.

“Sorry. It was at the Newberry Opera House.”

I can’t remember if I stopped asking A questions after that close shave. I wonder if Dr. Bryan did. I, however, did dub for the student a compilation c.d. featuring some Dr. John tunes, which in the long run was probably worth more than an A.

Newberry Opera House

[1] An unfortunate event occurred at another one of these auditorium classrooms when I fell asleep during an astronomy film with my legs draped over the two empty seats in front of me. When the film ended, the student to my right roused me, and startled, I leapt to my feet. Unfortunately, both of my legs had fallen asleep, so I immediately collapsed and fell to the floor. Again, I attempted to rise and again I fell, so students began to gather around me, thinking I had had a seizure or stroke. Luckily, class was over, so I sidled over and sat down until blood returned to me feet.

[2] I didn’t declare my major until the second semester of my junior year, and because I had dropped several courses and never attended summer school, I had to take 21 hours that semester to graduate on time. The good news that most of them were basic level freshmen courses like Music Appreciation or fairly easy sophomore English courses like Contemporary Fiction, so it wasn’t all that burdensome taking such a massive load.

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