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

How does an aging student go about going back to school? With shamelessness and a rueful appreciation of fate.

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

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.

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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.”

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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 MinnPost.com political and media reporter. I’ve also appeared in Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Salon.com and Slate.com, 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!

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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.