School is no fun
School shouldn’t have the power to make you feel like less of a human being just because you took part in it, but that’s how I feel. The anticipation I’ve had pretty much all my life, the excitement of getting down to my coursework, learning new skills, “self-betterment,” all that is gone this year, and after four decades of experience going to school I can now relate to the problem child, the delinquent, the “flunkie.” I feel a sense of apprehension, even dread, about the upcoming quarter at Rochester Institute of Technology. I haven’t started yet. Already I feel shame and failure. Clearly, my problem is letting faculty assess my worth, but when you enroll in school, there’s no escaping it.
“In this program, you get one chance to screw up and then you’re out,” said Malcolm the Department Chair in a surprise May meeting just before inexplicably asking me if I wanted to teach in the SoFA department. I had been directed into his office for a stern talking-to when I went in to chart my course with the Department Head I worked with when the program began. He pointed to a course I earned a “C” in and insisted I retake it immediately upon my re-enrollment. Not all my C courses, just that one. And that was how I, a solid 3.0 MFA student who earned my BA magna, returned to campus after a one year Leave Of Absence that turned out to be for some pretty significant health reasons. As Jedi’s go, I’m now in Yoda’s age grouping, and I’ve always been a good student. One grade had changed all that; I am now returning on Academic Probation over a single “F” grade. But was it the grade the school was concerned about, or the teacher?
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Woke up from a dream this morning that I had built an armature of clay. It looked pretty good to me at the time, until my teacher came to see it. The contemptuous look on his face gave me a fresh perspective. Suddenly I hated the thing I had made. I put it down and walked away. The teacher is one of my former instructors at Rochester Institute of Technology.
In 2009, I was accepted into RIT’s School of Film and Animation. It was quite a transition from a liberal arts college to a technical school, complicated by another student in my class who decided I shouldn’t have any friends. Being 20 years older than the other kids, I was the oddball anyway, but this girl made sure I was almost entirely ignored except by the Chinese students. It took weeks for the teachers to realize what was going on, and eventually she faced some disciplinary action for her bullying, but by then, I had been effectively isolated from my peers. I watched the younger students help each other out in study groups for exams and with homework, wondering if their behavior was pushing the boundaries of Academic Integrity the way it appeared to be, or if I was just feeling left out and resentful. After briefly working with cut paper animation techniques with which I was familiar, I settled in to the 3D computer animation major I had “chosen” from the two possible options of 3D or 2D computer animation. Giving the situation time and space and trying to take my required classes “out of sync” with the other 2nd-year MFA students, I began to find common ground with other 3D majors, some of them undergraduates.
I started out on good terms with the 3D teacher. I’ve been a steady A-B student. Things started to get a lot harder in the Fall of my second year in the program. Some of the students really understood how to model in Maya, and they became the class gurus for the others. Or maybe it was that the teacher stepped back and let those who could explain things better do his job for him. The courses went from Beginning Animation to Intermediate Animation to Advanced Modeling, which made no logical sense, but I tried to play along. With my background in stop-motion, I didn’t have the basic skills the younger students seemed to have in computer modeling, but I began to be aware of a double standard when I asked my teacher if I could get help from another student with a class assignment. I had seen him giving other students in his class permission to work together, but when I asked him if I could, he flew into a rage: “that’s ACADEMIC DISHONESTY!” he yelled. He suggested I withdraw from the class, and I did. I withdrew from all my classes that quarter.
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Before my Leave Of Absence and the prednisone treatments the following year, I was slim and pretty. Nonetheless, I felt demeaned by the sexual politics that began to transpire around this same young man who was teacher’s assistant for the Special Topics 3D Maya modeling class I wound up flunking. It was one of the undergrad student gurus, who had seen me struggling in the Advanced Modeling class in the Fall and suggested I take the course he had designed for the teacher in the Spring Quarter. No longer limited by my original peer group, I felt I could finally get the help other students seemed to take for granted. Plus, he was amazing at explaining Maya in such a way that I could visualize it precisely in my head. Then all the tools I was learning made sense.
Unfortunately his willingness to explain things lasted until roughly halfway through the quarter, and then suddenly this snot-nosed little punk caught an attitude. To be fair, the kid had a lot of demands placed on him, so many he had to withdraw from one of his own classes. Plus, his girlfriend had just gone to New York City apparently and was seeing older men, and somehow that became my problem. Having to sleep with a teacher to get a good grade if you’re pretty sounds like a predicament straight out of the 1970s. But having to sleep with a student teacher’s assistant, who isn’t even getting paid to do the teacher’s job and is half your age is downright demeaning. It’s not like he wasn’t a reasonably attractive young man or I didn’t like him, it was just highly inappropriate. My tastes run to older men anyway.
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There’s no getting around using AfterEffects in my new 2D major, and I should be thrilled to brush up on my skills. Though I really tried to do what the Department Chair told me, the 2D Computer Animation class he wanted me to retake just isn’t being offered this Fall (in fact, it’s become obsolete: I discussed auditing it with the instructor a year ago, and it will never be offered again because he’s not teaching Flash anymore). So I’m taking a course in the Design Department that I hope will be its equivalent. I already know what my 2Q project will be this time around and that I’ll be using AfterEffects for it. No more ridiculous clay models. Maybe that’s what the dream was about, my first attempt at the 2Q, which I’d rather forget. Different teacher, same look of contempt.
My real challenge this year will be to stay motivated to finish my 2Q project in her class after what I went through with her 2 years ago. I’ll try to keep an open mind; we’ll see.