Political Pressure

Well readers, now that I have had a month away from school to decompress, I think it is time to start updating you on what a crazy semester it was. For starters, let’s just say that when your environmental science teacher sends everyone in the class an e-mail the Saturday before classes were supposed to start introducing herself and telling us to have chapter 1 read for the first class because there will be a quiz, that is not a good sign. Sure enough, when school actually did start, I was already in assignments up to my eyeballs. Of course, I realize that in college, you can expect a lot of work, but it seemed like the first three semesters of college would maybe have one demanding class that ran your life, and the other classes, while still having responsibilities and high expectations which kept me busy, were pretty manageable. But this semester, it seemed like every single class was demanding. In fact, a couple of times, I considered approaching the college board to suggest making each of my classes worth 16 credits so students could take one class a semester, and it probably would come out even in terms of the workload with the four class schedule I had the previous three semesters! I am joking of course, and I realize that more demanding classes are to be expected as I get farther along in my college years. But I don’t know if it was because I deceived myself in to thinking that since I survived a college math course, everything else would be a breeze, or because second semester goes right through January and February, the most cold, dreary and unmotivating months of the year where I live, but I think this semester just caught me off guard. As I mentioned in a previous entry, I cannot believe I achieved the awesome grades that I did, and I think once you read the following rundown of each of my classes in the next two entries, you will understand why. First, there was Politics 141, a class introducing the American Political system. Although I am majoring in Journalism, my advisor said that I should minor in something too because the classes required for my Journalism major alone would not give me enough credits to graduate, so as long as I had to take extra classes, I might as well get a minor. I have always thought all of the political stuff on the news was interesting, so second semester of freshman year, I took a class introducing the political systems of other countries because by understanding the political systems of other countries, especially countries the United States has conflicts with like Iran, I would have a better understanding of what is going on in the world, which might make me a better Journalist. Now this course I expected to be demanding because the course number was 201, and all of the courses I had taken up to that point were 100 level courses. Sure enough, it was demanding. There were lots of boring readings from Karl Marx, Lennon and John Locke, even a whole book written by a contemporary political columnist Farid Zakaria. We also had to write reflection papers about these readings as well as some videos watched in class frequently to show that we understood them, in addition to textbook readings. But this class was nothing compared to politics 141. In addition to the assigned textbook chapters, which are never brief, we had to read several of the federalist papers, which were editorials published in newspapers by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison trying to convince constituents to support the federal system that state delegates envisioned at the constitutional convention. We also had to read various other things like a letter written by Jefferson, and a couple famous court cases like Marbury Versus Madison. I will not torture readers with the details of this case, but let’s just say it was so complicated the professor spent a whole class period explaining it. Now as boring as these readings were, they could have been relatively manageable if it weren’t for the fact that for most of these readings, we had to go to a website called americansgoverning.com, purchase a $25 subscription and answer very specific questions about them. I understand the purpose of these questions was to make sure we were actually reading everything, and that we understood it, and maybe any other semester, answering these questions would not have been a big deal. But given how demanding all of my other classes were, these purposes could have been achieved through mandatory participation in class discussions, or even a pop quiz instead of adding to my mountain of homework.

But wait, there’s more! Every Thursday, we combined with a biology class for an interdisciplinary project where we were divided in to groups, and each group had to make a thirty minute video about a relevant issue that relates to biology and politics. This project was kind of fun, and while I don’t usually like to brag, I am proud to say that I came up with the idea for our topic! While perusing the New York Times, I found a really interesting editorial about how scientists figured out how to create a monkey that had DNA from two females and one male, so the monkey effectively has three biological parents. This hasn’t been done in humans yet, but if it can be done to monkeys, scientists say it could be done to humans in the not too distant future. Creating human babies with three biological parents could mean that one day, a mother who might be reluctant to have children if she is genetically prone to have a disease and does not want to pass it on to her baby would not have to worry because the parts of the DNA that cause the disease could be replaced with healthy DNA from another female. But the editorial pointed out that custody issues are messy as it is when only two biological parents are involved, so three biological parents would make this issue really complicated. So our group made a movie loosely based on this article about a court custody battle based in the future where a child finds out as a teenager that she has two mothers, and the mother who donated DNA to the birth mother wants to get back in to the child’s life. Our group worked extremely well together considering we were the first group to present so we didn’t have as much time as everyone else. Our movie ended up being awesome too. We earned fourteen out of fifteen possible points, and swept the mock academy award ceremony at the end of the year. Even Gilbert had a good time too since the group members who were designated to be the leaders made up a role for him. He was the family pet, and for his scene, to add comic effect, he is sleeping by the television, drooling on a biology book we used to represent the teenager’s textbook. But as fun as this video was to make, I cannot tell you how many hours we had to spend on this project outside of class, including evenings and weekends. And the sad thing is, I helped a little bit with the script and read some lines for the doctor testifying in court and a voiceover about how surrogacy contracts differ from state to state. But since much of the work was visual, like figuring out how to film and edit the scenes, I don’t feel like I contributed near as much as everyone else, so if I was overwhelmed by the project, I cannot imagine how overwhelmed my other group members must have been. Add to that the requirement to participate in an online discussion following each group’s video, and continually read national newspapers to prepare for weekly current events quizzes, and I think you would agree that I should have gotten at least eight credits for this class. But alas, all of that work was only worth four credits, and I still have twelve credits of work yet to explain.

Politics 141 accounted for only half of the political pressure I faced last semester because in November when I had to register for my second semester classes, my courses were just numbers in a catalog, so I was blissfully ignorant about how demanding they would be. Had I known how demanding Politics 141 would be, I might have used better judgment and not signed up for Politics 276 the same semester! But what’s done is done, and while I could have dropped the class, and thought about it several times since I didn’t understand half the stuff other students brought up in discussion, I decided to stick it out because I don’t want people to think I am a quitter, and because the disability services office has to go to so much trouble scanning my books that I would feel guilty dropping any class and making all of their effort a waste. I am glad I stuck it out with this class because it was kind of an interesting class. The title of this course was “Democracy, Globalization and International Governance”, and there were a lot of passionate and very thought provoking discussions about how people in developing countries are exploited by industrialized countries in global markets, and debates about whether institutional structures need to change, or the notion of state sovereignty abolished. And ultimately, I got a B in this course, which my parents and I both agree is not too bad. But earning that B was not easy. This was because this class was a discussion centered class. Discussion oriented classes are definitely more interesting than lecture classes in that instead of just listening to the teacher present a powerpoint and shove facts down your throat for fifty minutes, students get to talk and learn from each other since everyone comes from different backgrounds, and thus brings different viewpoints in to the discussion. But I have found that I get better grades in lecture classes because in lecture classes, it is easy to take notes because what you need to know is pretty concrete and well spelled out, whereas with discussion classes, I don’t really know what I should take away from each class for tests or papers because the topics are so abstract. And the combination of the fact that I often stayed up past 1:00 in the morning to finish homework leaving me in a constant state of sleepiness, and the fact that discussions were so abstract meant that without fail, about halfway through each class, the discussion would just become a swirl of meaningless chatter to me and I would inevitably zone out, which couldn’t have been good for my participation grade. The one awesome advantage to this class though was that on the first day of class when the professor went over the syllabus with us, he said there would never be any tests or final exams in this class because knowing how to take tests does not serve you well in the real world, a belief that I wish more educators would subscribe to, not just because it would make classes easier on us students (grin), but also because you never hear about adults taking tests as a routine part of their job, and when you have to teach to a test, creativity and passion for learning is lost. But I will save more indepth education philosophy questions for another entry. Anyway, the point I was getting to was that while the professor said knowing how to take a test is not a necessary skill to develop for the real world, he said that knowing how to take someone else’s argument, dissect it, critique it and write arguments of your own is a crucial skill to hone, and it was this professor’s quest to develop these skills in us that turned what I thought would be an interesting and relatively casual discussion format class in to another extremely demanding class. As I mentioned in my last entry, this class had almost daily sleep inducing readings from political philosophers like Charles Beitz, John Rawls and THOMAS pogge. But once again, just like in Politics 141, the professor wouldn’t let us get away with reading them on the honor system. Instead, he assigned a “ticket question” for each reading, meaning that a typed paragraph answering the assigned question was our ticket, without which we would be denied entrance in to the class. At first when the professor made this announcement, I wasn’t worried at all. In fact, I was confident that I could ace these ticket questions without any trouble. People have told me I am a good writer after all, and if I could write excellent six page papers, just one paragraph would be a breeze. And answering questions based on readings? I’ve been doing that since first grade! But when I read the first ticket question which said, “What question does the author ask, how does he answer it, and why does he answer it this way?” perhaps for the first time in my life, I was scared and clueless. The article was almost forty rambling pages full of questions, and by the time I finished reading, I was so sleepy and overwhelmed that I had no idea what the overall message of the article was. I really did try to think about the article, but like hopelessly scattered disorganized puzzle pieces, my mind was full of random questions and arguments that I had no idea how to put together, and I sure wasn’t up for reading it again, the standard advice of every teacher, including this professor, when a student doesn’t understand something. So I resorted to the old educated guess tactic which I figured would get me a good grade because most professors are pretty lenient graders until students get used to their teaching style, and a lot of teachers will give students a break if they see that students put some thought and effort in to trying to understand the reading, even if they were wrong. But when the first two ticket questions came back with a D, and the third gave me my first college F, it became clear that this professor took the philosophy of setting high expectations for students to a whole new level. For the first time, my confidence in myself and my academic ability wavered, and the realization that I might fail this course if something didn’t change fast scared me to death. Thus began a stretch of weeks where I devoted the whole evening to the ticket question, reading, and meticulously rereading paragraphs if I fell asleep, and gradually, my grades did improve and I was starting to understand what the professor expected in each ticket question. I even got an A on a couple of questions! But while my grades in this class improved, I was starting to fall behind in my other classes. I hate to confess to this, but in March, when it became clear I couldn’t devote all my time to one class, it dawned on me that there was a benefit in being blind and having all of your textbooks saved on a computer. That benefit is the “find” command. I think one of the first ticket questions I tried it on was the question “What is the overall moral outlook that best fits with the political conception of justice?” I opened the assigned article, did a keyword search for the words “moral outlook”, and bingo! It took me right to the section with the answer in it, so I only had to read that section of the article! I am a serious student, and still try to honor my wonderful teachers I had through school by upholding their high expectations for me and not cutting corners. But I had never been so overwhelmed with work in my life and I subscribe to that adage “desperate times call for desperate measures”. Actually, I even had my mom’s support with this new strategy. She pointed out that for so many years, I was at an unfair disadvantage in math because so much of it was visual, so it didn’t take sighted kids near as long to do the homework. Therefore, she viewed this find command, not as dishonesty, but a way of getting even with my sighted peers, since for once, I had the upper hand in saving homework time! And I quickly noticed that my grades on these questions improved dramatically too since by narrowing down my reading to the section with the answer in it, my mind was not overloaded with excess information, giving me a cleared head which allowed me to write more accurate answers for the questions.

But of course, as if all of this work wasn’t enough, no class would be complete without assigning full length papers, and for this class, there were four of them. Each of them had to be at least 2,000 words, which is about six double spaced print pages. Two of them required analysis of an article (whatever that means, I’m still not entirely sure), and the other two involved building our own arguments supporting or criticizing an article. I guess I did alright on these papers since I got a C on the first one and a B on the others. But while I can usually sit down and write a paper with no sweat at all, the expectation of this teacher, and the fact that these papers determined a large portion of our grade made me so nervous I didn’t know what to write, so that even if I tried to start the paper in advance, or get up early in the morning the day before it was due, I never seemed to be able to get it done until the very last minute. While I can usually meet or surpass word count requirements, writing papers for this class was like running a marathon where you were exhausted, and it seemed as though the finish line would never come. So with all of the complaining about my politics classes in this entry, you may be asking, “if politics is so demanding and causes you so much stress, why don’t you change your minor?” In fact, my dad and I argue about this all three semesters that I have taken politics courses. He hated political science when he majored in it in college and advised all four of us kids against studying it precisely because there is so much abstract philosophical stuff that we won’t ever need in the working world. But to his disappointment, me and both of my brothers decided to study it. My sister was the only smart one (smile).

My dad understands that a full fledged science major wouldn’t be a good fit for me because so much of science is visual, but he insists for some reason that I would enjoy taking an introductory psychology course, and maybe pursue psychology. Now don’t get me wrong. Knowing about psychology would be kind of interesting, and I have actually gotten a taste of it already in my communication courses. For example in my research methodology course when we were discussing ethical behavior when doing research, the textbook talked about a famous case where researchers wanted to know whether people would obey authority, even if it meant hurting someone else and they knew it was wrong. So subjects were put in to one room, and told to administer a quiz to the person on the other side of a window in a separate room. If the person got an answer wrong, the subject was to administer an electric shock, which increased in intensity with each wrong answer until the subject could hear the other person screaming in pain. This study was later deemed unethical because even though the electrical shocks were not really administered and the other person was just acting, the study still caused a great deal of psychological trauma to the subjects. This case, and a few others we have studied have occasionally inspired me to study psychology, and it really would be fascinating to learn more about human behavior. But I am a practical person who knows that psychology would involve more than just reading about fascinating case studies. It would certainly involve hard core science like learning about brain structure and composition and stuff like that, and since I would never understand that stuff well enough to become a psychologist, studying psychology would be a waste of time, and if I have to take boring classes, I would rather study something intellectual, than technical or worse, visual. On a side note, I also made a promise to myself that I would declare my major and minor, stick with it and be out of college in four years! If I am wrong, and psychology classes would be a perfect fit for me, changing my major or adding psychology as a second major could delay my graduation, so I think it’s better not to even go down that road.

Anyway, at the end of my politics 276 class, our hard work was rewarded with T-shirts the teacher gave to all of us. The back of the T-shirt says, “I get my kicks from POL276” and on the front of the shirt is Nelson Mandela’s prison number. He even gave Gilbert a bandanna so he wouldn’t feel left out since he came to class every day too after all, even though his “work” for the class was done once he got me to my desk (smile). A friend told me that she doesn’t wear her shirt in public because it is embarrassingly bright, but since I am blind, I don’t care what I wear, and the professor was interesting even if the work was demanding. So I love to wear this shirt and view it as a trophy from the teacher for all of our hard work. If I stick it out for just two more years, I will get the ultimate trophy of a degree, and although some view a degree as just a piece of paper, I like to believe it will mean more than that. It will be a certificate that I can display prominently to remind myself of the rewards of hard work and perseverance, and it will be my ticket that will increase my employability and career possibilities which will make all of the hard work now worthwhile. But again, I am getting ahead of myself. The political pressure only accounted for half the marathon of last semester, and it was only a minor. All I could say after the combined demands of my major and minor was “Thank God for summer vacation!” Stay tuned for my next entry, and I think you will agree.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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