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If you feel lost, overwhelmed, confused, drowned, or frustrated in a Newhem class, ask yourself:

1. Could this be Newhem’s plan? Does he want me to ask these very questions I’m asking myself about the subject matter? Could it be that if I’m asking fundamental questions about the subject matter and the reading material, and I might be “found” instead of lost?

2. Am I a slave to the silver-platter teaching method? Do I want Newhem to tell me straight out what to think, or at least what he thinks about the material, so I can safely agree? Could it be I’m lazy or afraid of my own opinions?

3. Am I taking copious notes? Am I trying to organize in my own notebook and my own head how the material is beginning to fit together?

4. Am I listening to Newhem’s instructions about assignments? Am I asking him clarifying questions when I don’t understand what’s expected of me?

5. Am I sitting like a crash test dummy in my seat, unwilling to contribute to class discussions, waiting for others to set the tone and the agenda every day? Am I getting my money’s worth out of this course, this school? Have I defined my goals for the course? Do I know why I’m here? What can I put into my education in order to get out of it what I want? Do I subscribe to the notion that I should “keep my mouth shut and let others assume I’m stupid, rather than opening it and removing all doubt”? If so, am I getting the most out of this education for which I’m PAYING?

6. Is something fundamentally lacking in my skills and/or my motivation, preventing me from handling the material? What can I do to nip the problem in the bud now so that it doesn’t get worse as the semester goes on? To whom should I reveal this secret and ask for support?

7. Did I assume this course would be a cake-walk, with little reading and even less critical analysis? If so, what can I do to adjust my attitude?

8. Do others seem to be handling the course better than I? Why? Might I have a quick chat with them and find out their “secret”?

9. Have I been coming to every class and coming on time? When I miss time, do I make it my responsibility to find out what happened?

10. Is Newhem poorly organized? Is he communicating properly, structuring the class sensibly? Is he knowledgeable and passionate about the material? How can he serve me better as a teacher for this course? Or should I suffer silently and just give him a bad review later? What am I waiting for? Do I think Newhem’s going to be insulted or grateful for my contribution, and (as long as I’m respectful) shouldn’t I try regardless?

So you want an “A” in a Newhem course? Here are the directions (each is equally important). Follow these and you cannot fail:

Speak up in class. Sit up front. Participate. Argue with others. Agree with others. Keep an open mind to other’s ideas but put your ideas out into the marketplace and be prepared to back them up. When you can’t figure out what to contribute, ask a question. Examine why you think what you think and then explain.

Never doubt the value of your own experience, the particular baggage of your background, heritage, affiliations, etc. Recognize them, love them, admit them, and use them to your advantage, even as you grow to understand others and remain open to your own evolution. Say: “As a woman who grew up living on a dirt floor shack in Mexico, I object to the character of the rich lady in Babar because …” Say: “Because I’m fascinated by math, I can’t get over how Perec managed to structure the apartments (which make up the settings of his book, Life, A User’s Manual) like a chess board …” Say: “When I was a kid I lost my best friend to a tragedy, so the love between the boy and the Velveteen Rabbit is poignant for me …” Say, I was once married to an abusive man, and for that reason Poe gives me the creeps. It seems like he’s a little sick, vengeful and possessive in a way that’s very familiar to me.”

At the same time, use the language of literary criticism whenever possible; show that you know the rules of the game, even when you abandon them. Say: “How can Dr. Seuss’s rhymes and use of nonsense language not be an allusion to the classic nursery rhymes?” Say, “Bettelheim is a rabid socialist, which is evident in his theory about …” Say: “I just found this book which says Lewis Carroll molested the real life Alice Liddel, the little girl on whom he based Alice in Wonderland.” Say: “This poem stinks because the meter is off and it’s a rip-off of an ABBA song and it’s full of mixed-metaphors which prevent me from honing-in on a particular image. For example …” Say, “We’ve seen in the Gilman story, the Faulkner stories, and the Creech story images of women that span the spectrum from the stereotypical to the wildly progressive; for example …” Say, “Carver is rife with metaphors.”

Decide your goals for the course (to be a better writer, to learn how to choose appropriate reading material for your kid, to concentrate better while reading, to get an A for your GPA, whatever) and make it work for you. Tell your teacher and ask him to help you achieve your goal while you fulfill the requirements of the course.

Read like crazy and bring examples from your reading into discussions and papers in a way that shows you can make connections.

Do all the assignments to the best of your ability and on time. Tailor the assignments whenever possible to serve your goals, not to tell me what you think I want to hear. I’ve already told you what I want to hear.

Take responsibility for yourself, your obligations, your time, your attitude, your responses to challenges. For example, this seems vague and touchy-feely and a little too California for you? DEAL WITH IT. That’s the way it is. Good luck! Godspeed. Make it so.

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