24 August 2008

Memory Lane

Recently, I had to provide my college transcript to a foreign client, to prove my credentials. Since I was ordering a transcript for them, I requested a second copy for myself, for a refresher on an experience that continues to recede in time and memory.

Hampshire College provides written evaluations instead of grades; thus what arrived was a 17-page packet, with copies of the core evaluations from my time there. (Thankfully, certain things – like my self-evaluations – were not included.) I have not read the whole package cover to cover, but scanning snippets has been a good reminder of the pleasures of my experiences there, and of how much I learned.

One paragraph in particular jumped out at me, because it relates so directly to aspects of my current life. In the evaluation for the completion of my Division II, the Committee wrote (in part) the following:

The substantial body of written work that Sascha included in his Division II portfolio documents his fine intellectual growth and the development of his academic skills. ... His short papers were particularly sharp and perceptive. His longer research papers at this first stage of his Division II were also promising ... but they also tended to need more systematic development. It seemed that once Sascha conceived of his thesis or interpretation, that he preferred to present it quickly and journalistically, rather than developing a mass of evidence in support of his conclusion. It is to his credit that Sascha recognized this characteristic of his work and sought to redress it.

Here I am, years later – and this analysis of my writing still rings some bells. I am certainly a better, more confident, careful, and fluid writer than I was then; my style, language, and tone have all evolved (as one would hope and expect). But in pinpointing my approach to “quickly and journalistically” articulating my thesis, the evaluation reminded me of two things in particular.

The first is the importance of intellectual flexibility, in writing as in most things. It was undoubtedly true at the time that I tended to punch out my thesis at the beginning of a paper, and it was also true (as the evaluators noted) that I tried to self-correct for this “problem.” (A problem in the social sciences, anyway.) Now, as an adult for whom writing is so much a part of my life, my approach varies according to the situation. What Hampshire helped me learn was the application of different styles for different settings, a set of skills that make it possible for me to move easily between writing reports for clients, writing for a publication like The Art Newspaper, and writing about politics or other elements of contemporary society.

The second reminder from this packet of evaluations is about the tremendous value of Hampshire’s structure. The professor(s) writing the evaluation I quoted knew me – well. At the time they wrote those words, we had spent three years working together, reviewing my progress and my intellectual and academic development, and with their encouragement I learned, I challenged myself, and I learned some more. Had my transcript consisted principally of a listing of courses and grades, I would not have had the same opportunity for reflection all these years later. In turn, I might be less aware of the evolution of my own writing, an awareness that helps me be a better writer now and will continue to help me in the future.

I have written about Hampshire before, and I continue to believe it is the right school for some people – and definitely not the right school for everyone. For those lucky enough to attend, I highly recommend a similar trip down memory lane. Not too soon after graduation; wait just long enough for some transformational event to help put a new perspective on the world. Then take a peek back at the person you once were, and might still be today, and see how it feels.


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