Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Karma’s knife-twist: I have to take freshman comp

Wikimedia Commons/AlexiusHoratiu
When I made up my mind to return, I’d decided I could accept any indignity as karmic retribution for my sins.

First, thanks to all you non-graduates and late-late-graduates who responded to “Confession,” the inaugural column in the “Return to the U” series. It was refreshing to learn how many journalists ditched! But several had the same question: “Just how do I go about going back?”

I can only speak for one guy at one school, but the biggest hurdle is in the space between your ears.

Once my conscience and wife prodded enough, it took a single phone call to the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts. They ask your major, and forward you to the phone answerer in the department’s advising group.

“Could I have your University email address?” she began.

I paused a beat — one of the cheap thrills of the aged student. “When I was at the U, they didn’t have email addresses.”

Ironically, if you’ve been out of school for awhile, the most important thing you can give yourself going back is time. Advisers need to do archeology on your college days, and this is not a speedy process.

I first called the U in mid-September for a spring semester return. On Sept. 28, I met my truly delightful political science adviser, Margaret Rodgers, who explained that at some point in the past 32 years, the U decided that students needed to write more. As a guy who’d spoken to countless U classes, I wholeheartedly supported this. But as a student, I was now facing six “writing-intensive” classes instead of the Spanish-language culture class and elective I lacked in ‘85.

Tough to take

When I made up my mind to return, I’d decided I could accept any indignity as karmic retribution for my sins. But this was tough to take. I’d cherished that elective, hoping to take something that didn’t involve lots of writing for once. But instead of a single part-time semester, I was looking at a nearly full-time year — plus an extra 7 grand in tuition and fees on top of the 4 grand my kids’ college fund deserved.

Then karma twisted the knife. Peering at my transcript on her computer monitor, Margaret said: “I don’t see anything that looks like freshman comp.”

Blood rushed to my head. “Freshman comp?”

I’d transferred into the U, and 33 years later, it was impossible for Margaret to decipher from my former school’s course titles whether I’d fulfilled the two-quarter requirement.

“You may have been exempt from it,” she said. “That record would be in your paper file. They’re digitizing those. But if yours haven’t been scanned, it will take me awhile to find.”

Then she added forebodingly, “I have to tell you, some of those files have been destroyed.”

On my way out, with a bit of gallows humor, I asked if I was her oldest returnee. She chuckled. “Nope. Had a guy once from the class of 1940. Back then, they had to take a marriage class to graduate.”

Return to the U: David BrauerOn Oct. 26, an email from Margaret popped up. “Since your file was destroyed, there is no record of any exemption.”

There was only one hope now. She would support a waiver request to the Academic vice-provost, since I was so close to graduation.

My waiver was shameless; I dropped practically every nameplate in my long, unstoried journalism career.

“I left because I was offered a paying job in my chosen field, journalism,” I wrote. “That developed into a nearly three-decade career working for Twin Cities alt-weeklies City Pages and the Twin Cities Reader, KSTP and KFAN radio, Minneapolis community papers Southwest Journal and Downtown Journal and my current job as a political and media reporter. I’ve also appeared in Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and, as well as commenter slots on Minnesota Public Radio and TPT’s ‘Almanac.’”

Margaret filed the request Nov. 1. By Nov. 9, nothing. “Your request has been forwarded to another faculty member,” she explained.

Another week passed. Then two. I began imagining the academic vice-provost’s office with the “wah-wah” voice of the Charlie Brown cartoon teachers.

Registration day

My registration day arrived. It wasn’t excruciating like the old days, when a double-file line snaked from Fraser Hall’s massive top floor hall to Washington Avenue. Still, the keystrokes were bittersweet as I grabbed the first spot in WRIT 1401.

Finally, on Dec. 4, white smoke. “We have a decision,” Margaret emailed. “You will be allowed to graduate under previous requirements.”

Yay to the U! Yay to underappreciated bureaucrats!

Then: “For the freshman writing requirement, you must take Writ 1301 or 1401. As I explained before, everyone is required to take freshmen writing these days.”

Completely in character, my family roared when they heard this. The only sympathy I got was — of all places — on Twitter, where a couple of U instructors and staffers had the decency to be appalled. “You could teach that class,” one quipped.

By this point, I’d made peace with the developments; a teeny part of me even admired the U for sticking to its standards. I’d long since gotten over the idea my writing was hammered on gold leaf; there was always something to learn.

Besides, what other chance would I get to re-experience 18-year-old inner lives as something other than an authority figure?  How better to demonstrate humility and wisdom than to expose a lifetime of experience to their critiques? One way or another, there’d be a story worth telling.

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Bob Collins on 02/11/2013 - 09:17 am.

    Let me see if I have this right: It took a month — a month? — for the underappreciated bureaucrats to make this decision? How long does it take them for ones that actually involve thinking?

    • Submitted by Mark Snyder on 02/12/2013 - 04:17 pm.

      I’m going to be nice and guess the reason it took a month to make this decision is because they were looking under every rock to find a way to not require someone in David’s position to take a class like freshman comp.

  2. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 02/11/2013 - 09:27 am.

    You’re going to blow the curve.


    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 02/11/2013 - 12:41 pm.


      Do it! Throw the curve. The prof will probably be delighted to be able to read actual writing. I have little doubt that they have to deal with everything from near illiteracy to txt spk on a daily basis. Make the young ‘uns work for it.

      When I had to teach a junior-level microbiology lab, I told the students straight up that there’s little excuse for typos in the day and age of spell-checkers, and I demanded full sentences instead of bullet point lists. Many of the students resented me for this, one even complaining that “this wasn’t listed as a writing intensive course.” (I remember thinking, “they TELL you what’s writing intensive?”) Yeah, well, I don’t like that so many scientists come out of college barely able to write their name, let alone communicate complex scientific principles and discoveries to the general public. I was glad that one of my students told me nearly a year later that she appreciated that I made them actually write. She found her higher level classes much easier and was doing better than many of her peers.

  3. Submitted by Monte Bute on 02/11/2013 - 10:29 am.

    Welcome to the New World Order

    Hi David,
    Just to reassure you, others have died before completing this crisis of the middle ages. I had taught at colleges and universities for nine years before genuflecting low enough to get a B.A. and an M.A. Perhaps you may end up a journalism prof in your old age–no longer capable of constructing a zippy punchline. See David Denby’s, New Yorker film critic, tale of returning to Columbia–“Great Books.” For some late night reading, here is a twisted tale of an unconventional route through academic perdition.

  4. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 02/11/2013 - 10:47 am.

    The University of Iowa

    did the same thing to me when I went back to school a decade after leaving Iowa State. I was able to substitute independent studies courses for some pre-reqs, allowing me to get an education instead of in-class nap time.

  5. Submitted by Doug Gray on 02/11/2013 - 11:07 am.

    Make sure to learn the difference…

    …between “there,” “their” and “they’re”… 😉

  6. Submitted by John Reinan on 02/11/2013 - 11:36 am.

    Pretty damn funny

    And astonishing that no waiver is possible. Still, it will provide nice fodder for your column!

  7. Submitted by Dave Eldred on 02/11/2013 - 11:52 am.


    I was half hoping for a typo in this column so we could start a fresh round of knife-twisting. 🙂

    Although obviously silly to be forced into the class in your case, it also sounds kinda fun, frankly.

  8. Submitted by cw sims on 02/11/2013 - 12:35 pm.


    Can’t live w/ it, can’t live w/o it, but sometimes it finds the appropriate response. Maybe I’ll give them another chance now.

  9. Submitted by Davis Hal on 02/11/2013 - 12:42 pm.


    I am 2 credits short of a BA, by my calculations. (I have an incomplete in Modern American Drama, but I figure that subject is still developing).

    So far, that has not hampered my journalism career.

    I’m thinking, Better you than me.

    Break a leg.

  10. Submitted by Sylvia Burgos Toftness on 02/11/2013 - 01:21 pm.

    Having taught Freshman Comp at the U

    Hi David,
    I taught this class at the U of M – Duluth 30 years ago and can tell you that my favorite students – by far – were returning students. They actually had something to write about, and they had grown up as readers, a habit that had molded them into lifelong users of complete sentences and paragraphs. Hat’s off to you. I bet you’ll be teacher’s pet. An old pet, but hey.

  11. Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 02/11/2013 - 02:16 pm.

    teachers pet

    In 2010 I graduated from the U of M, and turned 50, so sure, it can be done. Four semesters was all I needed to complete my degree started so long ago, but what a great four semesters.

    I was a teachers pet, forever raising my hand, and imparting my “wisdom” on those young minds. My professors, many of who I became friends with, all told me they appreciated my input, and perspective, even in 1001 Biology (my freshmen comp).

    Have fun and get to know your classmates – these young kids are pretty interesting and have such great outlook on life – oh the enthusiasm of youth.

  12. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 02/11/2013 - 05:41 pm.

    Freshman comp

    Hey, they’re telling you to take a class you could ace in your sleep. Think how much better this is than if they had discovered you needed Remedial Calculus or Particle Physics.

  13. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 02/11/2013 - 06:59 pm.


    I agree with Sylvia. This should be fun for you and the prof.

    Freshman comp is wasted on freshmen.

  14. Submitted by Melissa Hansen on 02/11/2013 - 11:26 pm.


    I took Freshman Comp at the U as a Post-Secondary Enrollment Option student, I was a high school senior from a cush suburb. A gentleman in my class, and my work group, was taking Freshman Comp as his final course for his 30 year bumpy road to a BA. His pieces turned my small, self-obsessed world upside down; he had lived through decades of self-exploration and happenstance. The starts and stops in the Academy made me reassess the luxury of my education. The events in his wondrous first person essays drove me to think further outside of the box in my writing. To top it all off, he invited the class to his graduation bash.

    I am glad that your requirements were paired down; I am even more excited to read about your experience.

  15. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 02/12/2013 - 04:25 pm.

    All education is a new beginning in or out of the institution…

    This is an interesting journey and sharing it is great to read…however it seems like life credits and your vast professional experience should put you far ahead of a B.A…working on your M.A. at this point. Don’t they credit your professional background as worth a pretty sum of credits?

    My mother went back to college when she was 40 in the 40’s… and church basement ladies from the Martha Circle of the local Ladies Aid Society ; Lutheran Church of Petrified Piety assumed she was going through change-of-life; an archaic term, but never mind;not to worry,eh…and then too,times have changed?

    You will be a fine mentor/student/ teacher in whatever you choose and support of your family is a beautiful bonus…I respect and envy your youth and determination…yes,indeed

  16. Submitted by Susan Herridge on 02/13/2013 - 04:16 pm.


    I’m with your family, this is pretty darned funny. Consider that the bureaucrats are MinnPost readers and just wanted to look forward to more interesting columns.

  17. Submitted by Mary Kirk on 02/15/2013 - 11:50 am.

    Metropolitan State University’s Individualized B.A. program

    At Metropolitan State–the “other public university” in the Twin Cities–we offer multiple strategies for returning adult students to either waive or get credit for freshman writing. In fact, our university was founded upon the Individualized B.A. program which allows students to design their own degree based on their unique life goals. In the 70s, we were also national leaders in developing systems for assessing knowledge gained via experience for college credit that are now used nationwide. Today, the Individualized B.A. remains the largest program at Metro State, and prior learning assessment still thrives here. When you’re ready to transfer (no offense to the Gophers, but our largest transfer student population is from the U of MN), email me at — Dr. Mary Kirk, Professor and Department Chair of Individualized, Interdisciplinary and Lifelong Learning.

  18. Submitted by Michael Skillrud on 02/16/2013 - 07:29 am.

    toh-GAH! toh-GAH! toh-GAH!

    Sounds like Ms. Hansen has come up with a great fundraiser: The David Brauer Grad Party!

    Don’t forget the run to Hudson for Everclear for the punch.

  19. Submitted by on 11/03/2014 - 08:55 pm.

    Like you said, the most important thing you can give yourself going back is time. I think patience is important too. Things weren’t easy for you the whole time, but atleast in the end you got the news that you wanted. It’s kinda funny how they acted though but irritating at the same time.

Leave a Reply