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April 27, 2013

DODD: Making the grade

“Everywhere I go I am asked if the university stifles writers. My opinion is that it doesn’t stifle enough of them.” — Flanner O’Connor.



My old college writing instructor was a young man named Professor Nash. Each week, I had to present a written submission that concluded with a grade.

His grade on my paper always was the same: A-/B+. I never had a clue as to what that exactly meant, but every graded paper had the same grade designation.

At the end of the semester when I went to see the final grades posted outside of his door I had received a B+. I was a bit perplexed and admittedly not real happy as I was sure I should have gotten an A. We met in his office to discuss the difference of opinion as to my writing skills. He explained his grading philosophy to me.

“Mr. Dodd, you are as good a writer as I have ever had in one of my classes. An A means perfect and there is no such thing as a perfectly written piece of writing.”

I did not understand Professor Nash’s answer until about 18 years ago.

The second week of May, I will begin my 19th year of writing this newspaper column. I am still trying to write that perfect column. By now, I am perfectly convinced that Professor Nash is correct in his assumption. It is impossible to write anything resembling a newspaper column and be universally accepted as the perfect piece of writing.

Writing a weekly column is a bit like being continuously assigned a term paper in college that has a weekly deadline. Although I do sometimes have planned pieces, most weeks as a columnist you simply fly by the seat of your pants. It’s like walking a tightrope without a net.

While I know I have regular weekly readers, it is impossible to know exactly who the reading audience will be in its totality on any given weekend. For a guy like me, that’s kind of an exciting rush of adrenaline.

Depending upon the column, I am sure with some people on some weeks I have been assigned a grade lower than a B +.

I loved most college classes because so many of them had essay tests. I knew I would pass any essay test with some minimal study. If you gave me more than 1,000 words, I could convey enough to earn a passing grade. It was different in classes that involved math or science.

Stephen Hawking is widely, if not universally, considered the most brilliant mind on the face of the earth during my lifetime. If you don’t know the name, he is the guy in a wheelchair whose body is ravaged by ALS, a disease also named after baseball legend Lou Gehrig.

He wrote a book called “A Brief History of Time,” which attempted to explain the creation of the universe using a combination of logic and the laws of science. I have attempted to read the book on three different occasions. Even though Hawking has broken down his theory of creation in the absolute most basic way humanly possible, I have never completed his book.

I might add at this point that as a younger man, I took physics courses at an advanced level and studied nuclear engineering. By the way, learning nuclear physics is not like riding a bike. I can only recall a few formulas that I taught myself by using memory aids, like that for the average acceleration; S+ (Vo) t +1/2 at ^2. I memorized it by using the sentence that the Soviet team could be beat by _ of the American team twice.

Hey, I studied this during the Cold War.

I use this only as a preface to explain that even with some fairly advanced science and math background study, the most brilliant man on the planet was not a good enough writer to make me understand his explanation of the creation of the universe. I am not only no Einstein, but apparently I am no Stephen Hawking as well.

I never became a nuclear engineer nor did I ever get an A from Professor Nash.

When I really want to go out on a limb, I will do what I did when I sat down to write this column. I really had no preconceived notion as to what I would be writing this week until I had a conversation with a local newspaper journalist about a recent survey which concluded that newspaper writing was the worst on a list of 200 professions in this country.

I have to always explain to people who are not enamored with a column that I have written that I am not a journalist. A journalist is in a profession where theoretically one must gather facts and present them in the form of an unbiased news story. I have dabbled in a few journalistic assignments over the years, but primarily have written either feature stories or columns. In other words, I have never claimed to be a professional.

Columns are usually of one of the following genres; entertaining, informative, opinionated or creative little bits of writing. There is a reason that mine appears on the editorial page.

The lesson that I have learned from doing this venture over all of the many years is simply this: I once thought of him as the most obnoxious, arrogant, opinionated man who ever taught a college class and the most unfair and harsh critic of writing I would ever encounter. I was wrong as a young college student.

Like most really effective teachers, Professor Nash used his classroom forum to teach me a lesson relating to real life. When often compared to the critical feedback I have gotten from the general newspaper reading public, old professor Nash’s was an easy grade.

— Lindon Dodd is a freelance writer who can be reached at lindon.dodd@hotmail.com

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