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About Jon
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1) using profanity or any euphemisms for profanity
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The Tristram Shandy Nightmare
2004-03-25 08:24
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

I was about a 3.5 student in my four years in college. That number would have been higher if not for 18th-Century Victorian Literature.

That class was to me what the 2004 season is about to be to the Dodgers.

You understand this intuitively, but we might as state it for the record. The Dodgers are living the nightmare: arriving woefully unprepared for their final exam, desperate for a burst of divine energy. Or at least an easy test.

I lived that nightmare once, just a few months after the Dodgers' last World Series title.

I declared English as my major early in my sophomore year, but by the end I switched to American Studies. I switched because although there were some classes in English that I completely adored, there were others that offered me no love. The trigger was a class on literary theory, taught by Shirley Brice Heath, that at the time held less interest to me than 10 weeks of traffic school.

American Studies was a flexible major that fit in basically any subject at the university as long as America was somewhere in the title. "Sport in American Life" was one of them, and in fact, I never took a class I didn't like in that major. But afraid of becoming too culturally ethnocentric, I would continue to venture outside the box for electives. Which led me, in my senior year, to 18th-Century Victorian Literature.

More than 15 years have passed, but my memories of the class are these: 1) one boring 800-page book after another like Tom Jones, of which I would read about 100 pages before giving up, 2) my least favorite book of all time, Tristram Shandy, which I did manage to finish because it was so mesmerizingly dreadful, and 3) resignation and defeat as I would do the Stanford Daily crossword puzzle in class while my well-intentioned professor lectured, on those days that I could force myself to attend.

To translate this into relevancy, my 18th-Century Victorian Literature classroom experience was as satisfying as the 2003-04 Dodger offseason.

Finals approached, and I had holes in my knowledge of 18th-Century Victorian Literature as gaping as the Dodgers' offensive holes at first base, second base, shortstop, and if Adrian Beltre doesn't heal on schedule, third base. I went over my meager notes and borrowed those of classmates, but little penetrated. My brain wanted Vladimir Guerrero, but all it got was Olmedo Saenz.

I sat down in a classroom on a March day not unlike today, and hoped for the best.

The exam had two parts. Part 1, worth 50 percent of the test, was a list of short excerpts from the texts we (were supposed to have) read, excerpts you had to indentify and contextualize. I only recognized half of them, and gave answers of dubious worth to the rest.

That meant I had about a 15 or 20 out of 50 going into the second half of the exam, the essay. If I scored perfectly on that section, I might reach a 70, or about a C-.

I saw the essay question, and I knew that wasn't going to happen.

At that time, Stanford did not give students Fs. Rather, if you didn't earn at least a C- in the class, you simply got no credit - no units. It was as if you didn't take the class at all. Many people, with grade-point averages and grad-school applications on their minds, actually preferred getting no credit than getting a C- or a C+ or whatever, and would drop a class during the final exam by not turning it in (or by turning in a piece of paper that said, "I drop this class.").

Much of my time writing my essay that day was spent deliberating whether I should turn in my test or not. I had about a B in the class going into the final, so even if I flunked the exam, I probably had a good-enough flunk - an F+, so to speak - to earn a C- for the quarter. Did I want that on my otherwise A-/B+ record?

The Dodgers don't have this choice. The Dodgers have a 2004 season ahead of them, and as much as some might like them to, they can't just drop the class. They're going to have to live with their failure to prepare, a failure born partly of nature and partly of nurture, and just hope for the best. Hope that the season isn't as hard as it looks, hope that it somehow caters to their strengths, hope that they aren't as unprepared as they seem, hope that they can suddenly grow smarter in the final moments.

And ultimately, learn from it all and do better next time.

I didn't drop 18th-Century Victorian Literature. I turned in my exam. Even in the doomed reality of the moment, I wanted the record to show that I took the class. I didn't go through all that tedium and low self-esteem to end up with no testimony of it. Better to finish poorly than not finish at all.

D on the final, C+ in the class.

Postscript: Three years later, I found myself in a graduate school program - in English. And I found myself taking literary theory. And I found on the syllabus a book written by a most vaguely familiar name. Shirley Brice Heath. I looked at her bio, and she had taught at Stanford. And then it clicked. Ah, we meet again, my enemy.

Actually, I don't want to give the wrong impression: She was a very nice person and certainly worlds smarter than me. But it was amusing, as her book was lionized in grad school class discussions, for me to chirp up and say, "Shirley Brice Heath was the reason I abandoned English as a major."

No regrets. You don't have to follow the conventional path to be happy. But your alternative had better be good. I do hope that Paul DePodesta finds the path away from the A's rewarding, and that he doesn't regret switching majors.

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