From: Dr. Jeremy Johnson
Subject: Your first assignment
Hello, my name is Jeremy.
I suppose that doesn't tell you much about who I am or what matters to me, but doesn't it make you feel as though you know something personal about me? Perhaps as if the imagined version you have of me in your mind approached you on the street, you'd, depending on the type of person you are, think to yourself Oh, hey, that's Jeremy or wave at me and say hello. If it makes you feel any better, I'm the type of person who would wave hello back, so feel free to do so.
I want to express at the beginning of things that I do not prefer to be called Dr. Johnson. I know some of you will insist on calling me so out of an obligation to be polite. A few of you will refuse to call me Jeremy because you’re paranoid that I’ve laid some sort of trap where only my most respectful students will receive the grades they’re after. In any case, I understand your motivation. If you're the kind of person who will call me nothing other than Dr. Johnson (or maybe even "professor" or "sir,” to change things up), there's no point in my telling you that you can call me nearly anything you'd like and it will not affect your grade. At any rate, I can clear my conscience any time I wonder if I’ve let you know my preferred name.
I'd like that you not call me Dr. Johnson because I earned the title of "doctor" no different than many of you will. I was raised with the impression that attending college was not an option. My parents (if you care to know their names, they're Joseph and Sue) never really asked if college was something that interested me. Neither were they forceful about the matter because, frankly, the idea of going to college was one that I resigned myself to early in life. After I graduated — yes, the day will come for you too — I was shocked to find that my philosophy degree wasn't well versed in the art of finding and landing me “the job" my school had promised. In all fairness, I didn't know what this job would have been anyway. After all, I finally accomplished what I had in my mind since middle school that I was going to do and I hadn't adequately prepared for what would follow. And so I did what any bored and confused young adult would do. What many of you will end up doing. I went to grad school.
After obtaining my master's degree and realizing that this world of academia was as familiar as anything I was going to experience, I went for my PhD. That's not to downplay the amount of work that many dedicated students put into their graduate degrees or undermine the benefits of higher education. But even now I remember my freshman year classmate, Rose, who scrubbed bathrooms at the city hotel on the weekends and was otherwise glued to her computer to input stacks' worth of data in order to pay tuition and earn her associate degree. There's also my old roommate, Ben, who secretly found no greater joy than indulging in the stress and anxiety of pursuing his law degree and consequently sabotaged every romantic relationship of his drawn out college years. Had I kept in touch with any of my fellow students, I would ask that you refer to them as doctors. As for me, I fear you associating that term with my name would give you a false and unfair perception of who I am. In all likelihood, if I were taking this class with you, I'd be the one that's consistently late (if there at all) and the one whose ripped jeans and torn jacket you'd examine as I asked you to share your notes from last period.
So please just call me Jeremy.
I decided to send you this email two weeks before class starts to tell you about your first assignment (and to give your mind a break from the mason jars of quinoa protein power smoothies and #ootd posts you’ve either been sharing or liking on Instagram all summer). On the first day you can rest assured that I won't be reading you the syllabus. I believe you're perfectly capable of reading it yourself. In fact, I've added it to the course documents on Blackboard. You're welcome to read it now if you so choose. You can also opt out of reading it. I know I'm supposed to express some sort of opinion on this, but I prefer honesty over social etiquette, so I'll happily tell you now that I don't give two shits if you read the syllabus start to finish with highlighter in hand or if you never even open the file. You know yourself better than I do; you're welcome to do what makes you happiest. You’re the one who has to live with your decisions in life.
What you will probably notice about me is that I ask the question "Why?" all too often. I'm like that annoying brother you had who, either because he had nothing better to do than cause your eyebrows to wrinkle or he genuinely wanted to be your friend but had no idea how to go about doing so, punctuated each of your sentences with a whiny "Why?" until you tattled to your mom and she told you both to hush because she had a headache. Well, now you're faced with the unique situation where the obnoxiously inquisitive brother and the annoyingly disinterested mom are one in the same. I can tell you now that this truth is going to annoy the hell out of some of you. If you find that this becomes true for you, I encourage you to take your own approach in your assignments and disregard my outlandish requests. You may also tell me that I annoy the hell out of you if you'd like, but it's not going to change the way I approach my class. Those of you who enjoy (or at least humored by) this course are welcome to indulge me in my intrusive questions. I suspect you'll discover something about yourself or about your writing that maybe, just maybe, will last beyond finals week. If that matters to you at all.
About that assignment.
I'd like for you to conduct some observations. Don’t worry; your response isn’t due until the second week of class. But I encourage you to at least start thinking about it now. Here's what you need to do: Take note of the next time someone hurts your feelings. It can be anyone who does it and it can be about anything. Maybe it was unintentional (or this person claims it was unintentional), or maybe you did something to this person long ago that he or she used as justification to slight you. A pretty woman at my most frequented coffee shop turned me down for a date. That hurt my feelings. She probably didn't mean to make me feel bad as she rolled her eyes and suddenly found the most interesting story ever on her phone, but it was a consequence of what she did mean to do, and that was avoid spending more time with a creepy dude like me, who's been repeatedly instructed by his friends to muster up the courage to ask a girl out after finalizing his divorce three years ago. These are the kinds of events I want you to stop and take notice of. So the next time your dad tells you your new blouse looks "nice" instead of "beautiful" or the next time your friend passes out drunk on your floor without thanking you for dragging his sorry ass across campus while he puked on your favorite shoes, write down what happened in great detail.
Describing the event is the first step. If you want to include in your description why this specific thing happened to hurt your feelings so much, you can do so. But I don't expect it. Next, what I want you to do is explain what kind of person this person is. A man named James Altucher wrote an article about how to deal with crappy people. To summarize the part I find most interesting, he claims that there are four categories every person in your life fits into:
There are happy people, who seem genuinely joyful about their circumstances and you sometimes resent them for it.
There are people in pain, who are unhappy and need your compassion but may infect you with their unhappiness if you aren't careful.
There are good people, who make your life better with no hidden motives and you sometimes resent them for it.
There are crappy people, who are both bent on making your life worse and convinced they're doing the right thing.
This post is your compass for the second step of the assignment. Which category does your inflictor, in your opinion, fit into? Choose one and expand on your answer. Why should I believe you? This should go without saying, but even though this person is the subject of your assignment because he or she hurt your feelings, they can fit into any of these four categories from a general perspective. If you don't know the person well enough to say, I want you to figure it out. Remember things they said leading up to the event and take note of any incriminating evidence (your co-worker is always smiling so clearly she's in pain or that stranger had Nickelback blasting through his headphones so obviously he's a crappy person. I kid.) You can lie if you want. You'll be making your own share of assumptions anyway. Accuracy is not the point. It's the analysis that matters.
The third thing I want you to do involves a separate event. This time, I want you to tell me about the next time you hurt someone's feelings (or as far as you can believe that you hurt someone’s feelings). The same rules apply: it can be justified, random, unintentional, or rewarding. It may even be retaliation immediately after your first event of someone hurting you. I know what you're thinking: Will I categorize myself next? No. You'd all lie anyway. All I want you to do is explain this event in as much detail as you did your first. Use a word counter if you have to. Got it? Remember, there are three parts to this assignment:
Take note the next time someone in your life hurts your feelings and describe the event at great length. Be as descriptive as possible, please.
Place this person into a category according to the list above: a happy person, a person in pain, a good person, or a crappy person. Convince me that you're right.
Tell me about a time that you believe you hurt someone else's feelings in as much detail as you did in point one. Make sure this section is as long as the first.
I don’t imagine it’s happened yet for all of you, but I like to think that these prompts have at least some of you begging my favorite question: Why the hell are we doing this?
After making it through the short period when some of you insist that these events didn’t really affect you all that much, you will each have your own way of processing the thoughts I ask you to expend. When instructed to think about situations where pain and other people are involved, some of you will idealize. As you ruminate on the events from your assignment, you’ll compare how things are with how they ought to be. Others of you will believe yourselves to be the victims of your events. Perhaps even the victim in both scenarios.
A smaller portion of you will take a darker turn with this assignment, making sweeping observations about the flawed nature of the human race. You may ponder on how you would cause more pain to your inflictor if provided a circumstance where your politeness didn’t overcome you and your biting words flew freely from your mouth rather than bubbling up as a lingering sting in the back of your throat.
Then there are those of you who will internalize your events and slowly unravel the steps you can take moving forward. You’ll decide that there’s something to be learned about yourself or about the categories you assign people to and you’ll make your own connections between the past that you can’t change and the future that has yet to happen.
But the main reason I’ve chosen the assignment I have is that I’m determined to make you better writers. Given that you have to spend three hours with me each week, that seems like something worth pursuing. Don’t you agree? This first response is meant to make you think about what causes involuntary feelings in you and in others. In order to complete your analysis sufficiently, you’ll also have to draw ties between people and decide for yourself why they do what they do, providing the drive behind your stories and serving as a foundation for authentic writing.
The fact that you’ve enrolled in a sophomore-level writing class leads me to hold a few assumptions about you. First, the majority of degree programs at our university require only a freshman-level composition course, and here you are in English 251. While some of you will have no more interest for my course than you would in microbiology, I believe that most of you either think you’re decent writers or have at least determined composition as a lesser of evils in the scheme of general education requirements.
Second, the fact that you’re in a writing course at all reveals that there are a few of you who are dreamers, likely carrying bundles of notebooks in your backpacks — not to take diligent notes in political science, but to sketch, draft, and question the world around you. Some of you have been hurt and, though you perhaps weren’t aware of it, gravitate toward the arts to find solace. No matter where you fall in the assumptions I've made of you, you're welcome here.
Throughout our class, I'll be training you to indulge in these thought processes. Or to at least cooperate with them. Right now I’m in the rare position where I can categorize each one of you according to my own whims. I can place you in any box I like with no repercussions. However, once we begin discussions and your classmates help you confront each and every choice you make in your pieces, your individuality will detangle before your very eyes and you will start asking these questions as life happens around you. It’s at that point that any worthwhile writing can begin.
The first step is to start observing.
I will provide office hours on Mondays and Wednesdays from 11 to 2 until class begins. Feel free to drop in with questions. In the meantime, I look forward to meeting you in two weeks.