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Monday, July 25, 2011

The Only Course I Ever Flunked

Microbes
I was always a good student, but until law school (where my splendid academic performance resulted from an alphabetical accident, as described in "How I Became a Law Professor," see "Related Posts" below), I never worked hard at making good grades.  Mostly I succeeded as a student at all levels because I was genuinely interested in the courses, and/or was good at studying and taking exams.  I didn't do well in courses like physical education, while I made "B" sorts of grades in science or math courses, where I cared less about the subject matter.

In college at the University of Maryland my grade point average was an almost perfect 3.0.  But there was one major blot on my record that pulled it down to that level: the course in microbiology.
I flunked it.  And in addition to it being the only course I've ever flunked, I damn near flunked it twice.  This was very hard to explain to my father, Robert Whaley, who was paying a lot of money for my education.  I should say that I'm much embarrassed by the whole incident, and do not recommend following my wretched example, described in agonizing detail below.
I was an English major at Maryland, and those courses were all snaps.  But I was required to take two science courses in order to graduate, so I chose Basic Astronomy (which was interesting) and Microbiology.  The reason the latter came to be my undoing had nothing to do with the subject matter, but much to do with the fact that I'm a night owl and not a morning person.  All my life I've typically stayed up until one a.m., risen at late as possible, and done my best work in the afternoon and evening.  But the course in Microbiology met twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a two hour lab session starting at eight in the morning each of those days, followed by a one hour lecture.  EIGHT O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING!!!  I'm afraid that's a time that doesn't exist for me, not in 1966 when I took the course, and not in 2011 as I write this.  When I eventually became a fulltime law professor, I just couldn't handle classes that started at, say, nine o'clock.  No matter how much coffee I drank or how early I got up, I couldn't put nouns with verbs in a coherent order until ten a.m. or later.  I finally told the law school's academic dean (in charge of scheduling) that I was a wasted resource teaching a class before ten in the morning, and thereafter that became my earliest scheduled class time for the rest of my career.  (See "The Summer Bar Review Tours" below, for a horror story in which I woke up teaching.)
Growth in a Petri Dish
For that eight a.m. science lab twice a week, I really, really tried hard to be there and do the assigned tasks.  But dragging myself from bed in time to make it to class was difficult to do, and I frequently was late or failed altogether.  When I did make it to the lab, my eyes (nearsighted and in need of heavy glasses) would have trouble focusing the microscopes and reading the results of the various experiments we did with petri dishes and test tubes.  I would sometimes wakeup doing these trials, and would be amazed by the results of the various assigned tasks.  They were horrifying!  Microbes can grow at incredible speeds and contaminate everything.  When I was awake enough to appreciate what was going on, I was, well, shocked.  But as the semester made it to the halfway point, I wasn't attending enough lab classes to pass that segment of the course, and my instructor so warned me.  Depressed, I quit going to labs altogether, and only attended the ten o'clock lectures (which I made about half the time).  Since the final grade was calculated with one third being lab work and two thirds written exams based on the lectures, I ended up flunking Microbiology, and then—horror of horrors—having to explain all this to Dad.  My explanation, it was made clear by him, was nothing but a confession of failure, and he was very disappointed in me.  I felt terrible.  Over my strong protests, he made me promise to take the course again the following semester.

I did do that, but then I had the same problem.  The scheduling was identical, and, try as I might, I couldn't get to the labs at eight in the morning twice a week and do the assigned work in a credible fashion.  I did go to all the lectures, and I paid careful attention when there.  By getting a "A" on all the written exams, I made a "C" for the course even though I failed the lab segment.  Dad wasn't pleased with a grade of "C" either, but I was relieved I hadn't flunked the course a second time.
Food in the Open Air
The only happy thing to come out of this miserable experience was that thereafter I learned not to schedule early morning classes either in college or law school.  Oh, and I suppose I should mention that to this very day I still know a good deal about microbiology.  For example, I never leave jars uncovered or food sitting out where the evil microbes floating through the air can contaminate items I'm planning on eating later.  Even though I flunked the course, I've retained a rare appreciation of microbes and the damage they can do in very short periods of time, so I suppose that in spite of the bad grades, I did in fact receive the necessary education.  Surely that counts for something even if it doesn't show up on my U of M transcript. 
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Related Posts:
“How I Became a Law Professor,” January 27, 2010
“The Socratic Dialogue in Law School,” January 31, 2010
“Clickers,” March 17, 2010
"The Many Faults of Douglas Whaley," March 31, 2010
“The Summer Bar Review Tours,” June 15, 2010
"Women in My Law School Classroom," January 8, 2011
"The Exploding Alarm Clock," February 19, 2011
"One More Story From Law School," February 27, 2011
"Chaucer, the Miller's Tale, and Me," August 16, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013
 

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