My college (UNR) required that I take a set of three humanities courses. I’ll never forget the third course, which was focused on United States history, because of what I learned from the professor.
For context, this wasn’t a course strictly about events and memorization of facts. It was about concepts and ideas like manifest destiny and patriotism that played important roles in US history.
I remember turning in my first assignment. It was a typical writing assignment, or so I thought. I remember turning it in, confident I’d get an A like I did in all the other history and humanities assignments I had received in high school and college so far.
I remember the feeling of shock when I received the assignment back and saw the grade: C-. Impossible! My grammar was good, I summarized things correctly. What happened?
I saw the professor after class to ask him about it. I remember his feedback clearly: “there is no content”. Or at least that’s what I remember him saying. In any case, “there is no content” represents his meaning well. He told me that while the grammar was fine and filled out the word count, I didn’t say much. I described obvious conclusions and stretched those descriptions out over multiple sentences, but I wasn’t digging deeper to say anything interesting. At first, I was upset. My approach to these kinds of courses had worked so well for so many years, who is this professor to tell me I’m wrong?!
But a part of me knew he was right. So I tried thinking of more interesting things to say in each assignment. I tried to make my writing denser. I tried digging deeper into statements I was writing - why was that event important? What were its implications? What do we still not know with certainty? Initially, my motivation was, as you might have guessed, to get an A in the class. But eventually, as I engaged with the course and assignments differently, I found myself getting really interested in the course and what I was learning in a way I hadn’t with other humanities courses.
The very last assignment was a presentation of a topic of our choosing. He encouraged us to go for depth, not breadth, in our assignments. I had become really interested in how patriotism and nationalism have evolved over the course of American history. I wrote about the difference between patriotism and nationalism and how each shows up in good and bad ways in history. Growing up, I took at it face value that I should always be patriotic and had never thought deeply about the concept, so to me, the research for this presentation was the deepest I had ever engaged with a topic. The professor still marked me down for it being too broad of a topic, but he was much happier with my work by the end of the semester, and more importantly, I was too.
Over the course of the semester, I clawed my way up to an A- grade for the course, and unlike my other courses, it really felt earned. It was one of the toughest and most challenging courses I ever took, and I think it was my first real lesson in how to think.