Thursday morning, grudgingly up and grumpy at 10:30; and back to the old Daily Grind. I fix up a mean glass of Maxwell Instant “coffeine” to my liking— “strong as Hell and sweet as Love”— and then I’m out the door for another semester of principled negligence. Jen Reass spots me criss-crossing the lawn near Cabell Hall, and greets me with a warm hug:
“Brandon! Where ya headin’ bud?”
“Umm, not exactly sure, where are you heading?”
“To Dostoevski. Are you going this way?”
“Yes, I’m going to Dostoevski, too”
“Are you in that class?”
“…Nice, I see.”
Over the years, I’ve come to discover that no point or place in our entire universe is more open to transformative possibility than a university campus; and that goes double for the laissez-faire University of Virginia. After thirteen relentless years of busywork and vice-principal hotbreath, university life finally let me swim against the stream of Certainty, reversing all the damage done in my elementary and high-school socialization process. I also learned, after a few freshman-year life-games, that anyone can receive a well-rounded college education, from a prestigious American university, absolutely free of charge. The degree and diploma may cost you your left kidney, but the “education,”in the self-actualizing Bildung sense, is free for the taking. There’s little need to bother with audits and administrative redtape, when you can simply experiment and exploit Academia under false pretenses, as I am now, sitting in the outfield of RUTR 273 Dostoevski.
“You know, Kris is registered for this class,” Jen informs me.
“He is? Excellent, how fitting.”
A former housemate of mine, Kris was, like me, no stranger to the hills-and-valleys of academic discipline and living proof that the best minds are often the worst students… or so we like to think. True to form, Kris missed the rollcall on the first-day of an overfull RUTR 273. So, when the professor rang out “Caltagirone?,”I proudly raised my hand, more than happy to aid a fellow student-of-life in his quest for private perfection.
Ten minutes in, Kris enters with a stoneface and a raised eyebrow, and joins the rest of us knuckleheads in the backrow. Mr. Caltagirone and I share the rather unscholarly belief that there is far more to an “education”than the dust-dungeons of Alderman Library; like constructed experience, dubious life-philosophies, and practical jokes involving fake-blood and hospital scrubs. School, it seems, has never had anything to do with our education. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m a megalomaniacally ambitious young man, despite my grades and living conditions, I just don’t think I have much future as an Academic Superstar. So, I’ve learned not to take Academia as seriously as it takes itself. I’ve sacrificed Necessity for the benefit of extracurricular Freeplay. I played hookie, blew off homework assignments, voraciously read everything besides the readings, attended every class but my own, and occasionally provoked the wrath and red-ink of the class instructor (See Addendum: Brandon Joyce’s Guidelines to Free-Wheeling English Composition).
My college-career has been the slow, gradual build of a perfected Anticlimax. Trickier than it seems— competition is stiff under the 2.5 notch. And, unlike the grade-grubbers of the magna cum laude, a memorably poor performance is a delicate tightrope walk over the dark chasm of expulsion, growling deans, and parental ex-communication.
Here’s the thing: according to the computer, I now sit 34th from the bottom of my graduating class; impressive, but I know I can do better/worse. Many of my thirty-three competitors are currently on a “yearly sabbatical,” many will continue with a prestigious fifth and sixth year of study, and some will not even bother graduating at all. In my guesstimation, this drops me smackdab in the bottom ten of my graduating class— a very exclusive club, indeed. I had a positively fiendish plan for finishing dead last. With only one remaining requirement, I was going to take a full-course load and fail every single course but the requisite “Phil 331 Metaphysics.” This little maneuver would have chopped my cumulative average down to a 1.85, which would have been, in the words of Michael Lewis, “lower than whale shit on the bottom of the ocean.”Unfortunately, my father would have beaten me senseless; so I began to doubt the wisdom of my scheme and contented myself with the bronze.
However, I have promised Mr. Caltagirone and others that I would host a University-sponsored pizza-party for all students with cumulative averages under 2.25— the “counter-elite,” if you will. We’ll drink champagne out of paper cups, crown the lowest average with a tiara and sash, and generally celebrate the hidden rewards of academic suicide— “Man, we really fucked ourselves good, didn’t we? Ladies and gentlemen, a toast…to evil!”
Anway, after soaking up an hour of the Dostoevskian “suffering-as-consciousness”bit, I jaunt over to ARTH 102; then squeeze into an overfull PHIL 318; then onto an ed-school Exceptional Learners class, which is totally and mysteriously empty; then an intimate two-person discussion class, and finally I retreat home through the Thursday rain, supersaturated with classical knowledge. I spent my Friday in a handful of discussions, the golden moment of which was hearing a straight-laced professor refer to the Roman Asiaticus as a “douchebag,” spurring a few puzzled double-takes in the front rows.
But, lecture attendance alone hardly qualifies as “experimental”or “anticlimactic,”and you cannot stop this short of greatness. In order to assure your place in the Hall of Shame, the Pantheon of Underachievement, you must have plenty of free time, nimble bullshitting skills, and a certain fuzziness in the Play/Work distinction. What I mean by this is that you must transform the chores of academic Necessity into instances of Freeplay. Go the full distance, take the midterms, do the homework, write the papers, attend office hours, even if you have never stepped foot in the classroom. “Attention class, I have a situation here. There are thirty-two people enrolled in this class, but thirty-three finished exams on my desk…”I often take these duties ultraseriously; cramming the night before, sharpening skills dulled over time, neglecting the classes I’m actually enrolled in. At the same time, there is a distinct joy in taking tests without the slightest knowledge of the subject-matter—
“Hmmm, here we are: midterm in EE 564 Microelectronic Integrated Circuit Fabrication at five o’clock. Where’s my protractor?”— Or giving essay-length analyses of books which you have never even seen— “Question six. Explain the role and development of Christianity and Marxism in Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat, Petals of Blood, and Devil on the Cross.”—
“Yes, of course… in A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi tells the story of a poor Indianan farming community torn between its Midwestern values and heritage and the growing necessity to surrender their traditions to the rationalized-bureaucracy of nearby industrial giants. What Ngugi is essentially expressing is a socially-conscious outrage at the failure of either Christianity or Marxism to adequately amend this modern dilemma, especially in the context of Walbrook, Indiana. When the father is forced to slaughter the last remaining lamb for private consumption, as a symbol of sacrifice, the children all knew in their hearts that the farmhouse would soon be lost..,” and so on and so forth, filling the bluebook to the brim with deadpan Pulitzer-worthy bullshit. The grader will marvel at your persistence in delineating the Midwestern plotline of a modern African novel. If you really want to push your luck, bring textbooks and index cards and casually flip through them during the examination, to the nervous amazement of by-sitters. I’ve never actually done this one, but I’d be curious what sense the Honor Committee could make of it. It’s often impossible to guess the consequences of such cutting-edge transgressions, especially when the Honor Committee is involved. The key to true transgression is innovation, engaging in hijinks that defy everything we previously know about human motivation.
Luckily, I always have plenty of insider information; because, if you’ll notice, my name and hyperlink are conveniently listed on nearly half of all the class homepage rosters. I’ll often receive the time and location of Art History study groups, frantic requests about microbiology midterms, mass-emails from professors concerning fieldtrips and special celebrity guests, and, of course, syllabi. Because of class homepages, never again must the sham-student float adrift in a sea of syllabus-less-ness. They simply scan the syllabus until something piques their interest; then they’re front-row-center and ready-to-go the following morning. “Yes, doctor, your eloquence is legend. Could I please have the honor of sitting in on your ‘The pathophysiology of alopecia and mucositis in geriatric medicineâ€™.”
But, bear in mind, University Life is much more than just credit-hours, bluebooks, and burning your report-cards. It is an extended adolescence for pampered Ã©lites (like you and me) that provides numerous forms of abstruse entertainment for every day of the week. If you choose to exploit this resource, the University of Virginia homepage is your guide to excitement. For example, last summer, out of boredom and self-obsession, I scheduled an appointment with the university shrink, exploiting every service paid for by my “student activities fee.” I ambled down to Student Health to fill out the preliminary forms, and the hilarious psychological assessment tests with questions which were, at once, both obvious and impossible.
True or false: “My favorite sports event on television is the high jump”…”Sometimes I get ads in the mail that I don’t want”… “Sometimes it seems that my thoughts are broadcast so others can hear them”… “My favorite poet is Raymond Kertzec”… “Most people would rather win than lose”… “Sometimes it feels as if somebody is blocking my thoughts”"My favorite hobbies are archery and stamp-collecting.”After the psychosession, the therapist explained that I seemed to be a “bright, self-confident young man, who happens to have very little interest in schoolwork.”Nevertheless, he warned, I did evidence some clear symptoms of “hypomania.”This made my day.
I left Student Health swollen with delusions of grandeur “Yes, that’s it, I’m too cool for school. Academia simply cannot contain me!”—This wasn’t necessarily true, of course. I’ve never been able to discern whether Academia disappointed me, or the vice versa. After my freshman-year, after the meaning bottomed out, my only chance of redemption was using my undergraduate years as a holiday from the human excuse, a time for self-articulation, and as a drawing board for a very, very uncertain future. Sometimes, I’ll fantasize about becoming the next great historical exception— “You know, Timmy, Brandon Joyce was a terrible student before he was canonized.”But it offers little comfort.
So, I’ll wander around the academic buildings at night, crawl through ventilation systems, explore crannies and attics, trying to find the things the university failed to offer upfront. On hungry days, I’ll attend any number the university’s catered functions, shamelessly gorging myself on recycled hors d’oeuvres. I’ll student-charge a little pick-me-up, bathe in the fountains, sleep on the orange-route, spend the night in Alderman, make some mischief, or inwardly celebrate the reckless abandon of my youth. If I’m to believe the brochures, this is what the college-years are all about.