Ask a Teacher: Have You Ever Taken a Pointless Class?
Q: When you were in school, did you ever take a class that you felt was utterly pointless to your life? If so, how did you get through it?
A: Yes, indeed. In my experience, the feeling that certain things are utterly pointless to my life is actually so recurrent that pointlessness would seem to be a defining characteristic. This often includes coursework, at every stage. And sometimes (but not always), I was right in this feeling: the classes turned out to be useless.
For example, gym always struck me as a questionable proposition. I am a fervent believer in exercise, and will not deny a vital link between physical and mental health. However, our gym units consisted of things like bowling (and even bumper-bowling, if you couldn’t quite hack it), square dancing, and golf. I’m sorry, but to this day, I can think of no way to justify spending school time on these activities. Perhaps some of you disagree, but I can only justify the existence of gym in general if it gets your heart rate up without relying on the music of Garth Brooks.
My sophomore year in college I took a required course in Astronomy. It was actually a very difficult class in terms of mathematical rigor. However, the actual class proceeded as follows: the professor turned off the lights, turned on PowerPoint, and then read lessons directly from the screen. These PowerPoint slides were then posted as-is on the course website, leading one to ask: what, exactly, is the point of attending this class? Every lesson was taught in exactly this way, and the class became some kind of strange undergraduate nap-time. I can’t fathom how little an instructor must care about the teaching experience if they are able to look out at an audience of sometimes-openly snoring students and not reconsider their pedagogy.
In both cases, I decided early on that either the class material or the classroom experience were pointless to my life, and muddled through the semester as a result. However, later on, I learned to distrust my instincts on this point. Although I had classes that I (correctly) predicted were pointless, I also had classes that I thought would be pointless, and ended up seriously loving. My conclusion was that since I was apparently incapable of accurately assessing whether something would ultimately be enjoyable or useful, it was best to just approach each class with an open mind, and reserve judgments for after the fact.
In terms of getting through classes that you are strongly inclined to consider pointless, I do recommend adopting this general optimism, because particularly in the earlier stages of the educational system, you never know exactly where your interests or skills will lie, and blocking yourself off from possible sources of satisfaction or even livelihood on the basis of self-assumed disinterest is only a self-fulfilling prophecy. As ever, if you can figure out a way to make the class work for you, it will inevitably be useful. To this end, I also advise you to talk candidly, but respectfully, with your teacher outside of class. Shelve your preconceptions and simply tell them that you are having a hard time connecting to the class material; ask them why they are interested in it, and why it might prove useful to you. This has the additional benefit of clueing the instructor in on ways that they might better reach the class. I teach a required writing course, and often work against students who shut out the material because they assume it is pointless (it doesn’t help having early morning sections, either). However, I can usually figure out a way to connect the content with those students who come to my office hours and talk with me, and this will also, usually, shift the way the class works as a whole.
And if we all end up agreeing that the venture is pointless, at least we can go bowling instead.
Have you ever taken a class you thought was pointless?
Mr. Jung teaches college writing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and their growing collection of street maps.
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