Should I tell my professor why I dropped his course?
January 13, 2018 1:46 PM   Subscribe

I just dropped a on-line course at my university called History & Contemporary Issues in Photography. Until now, I have enjoyed art history courses and excelled in them. However, by the time I had finished the first week's readings and completed the first assignment, I realized that the course would revolve around Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. I came to the conclusion that a)I was out of my depth; and b) that Barthes' work is profoundly inaccessible and quite possibly nonsensical, so I exited the class. Should I email the prof and explain why I decided to leave?

I am a nontraditional post-bac student pursing a Spanish degree at a highly nonselective public university (~70 percent acceptance rate).

Along the way, I am taking courses in other fields, including art history. Two years ago, I was one of several students who received the art history department's term paper prize for the best term papers of the year. I wrote a 40+ page paper that challenged the current interpretation of a Spanish colonial painting from Peru of an Inca princess. One of the reviewers on the panel opined that it was written at the level of a master's thesis. Later, I presented the paper at a Latin American Studies conference at which I was the only presenter who was not either a Ph.D. or a doctoral candidate.

Photography is one of my avocational passions. I have over 16,000 photos on Flickr, and my photos have appeared in the conservation journal of the British Museum, in a television commercial during the World Series, and on the covers of several books.

When I introduced myself to the class (it's an on-line course), my posting said that while I knew how to use my camera, I had no background in photographic theory and criticism and I had not studied the works of notable photographers, and I was hoping to remedy that. Be careful what you ask for!

(Oddly, the course had no prerequisites, such as a background in the work of the generation of French theorists to which Barthes belonged or in theoretical schools such as structuralism, semiotics, and post-structuralism.)

In the first week we plunged into Camera Lucida and were asked to say in our first discussion post whether we agreed with Barthes that photography "evades us" and is "unclassifiable."

To do that, I first had to turn to Camera Lucida in order to understand what Barthes' means by "unclassifiable" and why Barthes believes photography evades us. Immediately I found myself lost in a labyrinth of unfamiliar jargon, concepts, terminologies and allusions. I'm no lightweight, having studied and passed constitutional law, administrative law, law and psychiatry, contracts law, consumer law and so on in law school and had a successful (if short) career interpreting and applying federal and state banking law and regulations in a highly volatile business environment. Separately, I've taken part in six archaeological field schools and have successfully tackled projects such as excavating and interpreting a thousand-year-old burial at Tiwanaku, Bolivia.

But none of the seemingly endless hoary judicial opinions I had to wade through in law school prepared me for the sheer impenetrability of Barthes' thinking. I came up empty-handed when I searched for intelligible interpretations of Barthes' writings on photography. At best, the articles consist of strung-together quotations from Barthes own work, or unhelpful gloss written in the same high academic style, e.g.,

"Semiologically, Barthes prefers to speak of some 'unclassifiable' quality short of the semiotic qualification of the sign proper; the photograph 'aspires, perhaps, to become as crude, as certain, as noble which would afford it access to the dignity of language: but for there to be a sign there must be a mark; deprived of a principle of marking, photographs are signs which don't take , which turn, as milk does.' (Camera Lucida 6). However, this quality, by refusing to semiotically manifest, remains invisible; it renders every photograph as such invisible: 'Whatever it grants to vision . . . it is not it that we see.' "

Suffice it to say that this is light years removed from the type of relatively accessible academic writing I encountered when studying the art of Spanish colonial America.

If I were to tell the professor why I dropped the course, I would tell him:

1. I dropped the course because I lack the necessary academic background to understand Barthes. I am not versed in the specialized terminology and concepts Barthes wields with such ease, and I do not possess sufficient erudition to understand his many allusions. Hence, his discussion of photography confounds rather than enlightens.

2. As a consequence, I found that I had developed an oppositional attitude towards Barthes that placed me in the shoes of the little boy in the story of the emperor's new clothes.

For example, it was clear that we'd be asked to interpret photographs in terms of Barthes' concepts of studium and punctum, which I'm quite convinced are utterly subjective, and treat them with the same degree of seriousness as if they were a Law of Nature on the same order as the elements of Newtonian physics. I couldn't face doing that without also voicing my dissent. It seems that would make me an academic pioneer, as I have had a difficult time finding any scholarly articles that take Barthes apart and offer alternative ways of understanding and writing about photography.

I do not believe that would be healthy for me or productive for the other students.

3. Based on the other students' responses to the first week's assignment described above, I doubted that I would learn much from their contributions to the class.

For example, there were two parts to the question (above, I omitted the second part) but only one of the students touched on the second part despite the fact it was not optional. Moreover, none of the dozen or so students who tackled the question sought to do so on the basis of the Barthesian definition of "unclassifiable." It was as if none of them had started to read Camera Lucida. Whether they thought photography was classifiable or not, their superficial answers had nothing to do with the text.

I would end my note by recommending that the professor include a fairly accessible overview of the French theorists in the first week's readings. The piece titled "A Gentle Introduction to Structuralism, Postmodernism And All That" in Philosophy Now would be a good place to start.



To conclude, why am I posing this question here instead of simply using the same amount of time to compose an email note to the professor himself?

It's simple. I want to avoid angering the professor and causing him to respond to me in the heat of the moment with hurtful statements of an ad hominem nature. Fortunately, I am not entertaining any notions of an academic career, so I'm not concerned about my reputation in the department.
posted by A. Davey to Education (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
No.

I think the odds of the professor taking this feedback seriously is small and the effort (time and emotion) you'll expend on this and the small but nonzero chance of blowback makes this just not worth it.
posted by Jahaza at 1:53 PM on January 13 [19 favorites]


A: No, you shouldn’t, because he probably doesn’t care and your attitude is hostile to art theory in general, which is unlikely to yield a productive discussion.

This is a huge overreaction and you sound pretty insecure due to not understanding Barthes. People who resent theory often assume it’s easy; it’s not! Go easy on yourself, and if you actually want to understand keep grappling with it. If you’re just out to say it’s nonsense, no one will miss you.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:55 PM on January 13 [73 favorites]


It sounds like you correctly decided that this wasn't an appropriate course for you, based on your goals and background. That's a very good reason to drop the course, but I don't think it requires any more detailed explanation.
posted by mbrubeck at 1:55 PM on January 13 [14 favorites]


...no. Definitely don't do this. College* is all about working with texts that initially feel inaccessible. Also, you are definitely 100% not going to convince your professor that Barthes is "nonsensical." Art/media theory is clearly not your thing and it does not need to be.

* the humanities
posted by goodbyewaffles at 1:55 PM on January 13 [27 favorites]


Serious question: what do you hope to achieve? Do you think that an email from a non-major undergraduate after only one reading will cause him to alter his syllabus? Quite honestly, if it did, he'd be a terrible professor. It seems to me that the only real point is to express a childish "I'm better than you", in which case: you've read a few pages of Barthes; he probably wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Barthes. You are unlikely to know more or understand better. Just let it go.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:16 PM on January 13 [32 favorites]


Think about what you want the impact of the email to me -
1. You think the professor cares why dropped out of the class and you want to answer the unasked question - I don't think this is what you want and, especially since you have no personal relationship, it very unlikely that the prof cares about that fact that a student who was not prepared for the class participated in one session and then dropped.
2. You think the lack of prerequisites and/or the course description that you relied on for signing up are misleading and you would like to spare future students from signing up for a class for which they are unprepared. Maybe useful information but only if it is actually true for most students and not just you. My sense is that there is not much to be gained from sharing this and the possibility of unpleasant response makes it not worth it
3. You don't like his whole syllabus and teaching approach and you believe he should re-think it and offer a different (more accessible) course. You are basically telling him that he is doing his job all wrong. No way that will be received from a student who dropped after one session. If it's true, that feedback needs to come from (hopefully multiple) students are actually taking the class.

Bottom line - the email is unlikely to produce any benefit for you or future students and has the possibility of antagonizing a faculty member. Let it go.
posted by metahawk at 2:25 PM on January 13 [6 favorites]


It was as if none of them had started to read Camera Lucida. Whether they thought photography was classifiable or not, their superficial answers had nothing to do with the text.

They probably haven't read it. It sounds like the professor may have overfaced the class as a whole. These things happen. But sometimes it's not wholly the professor's fault. Example: I've signed on to teach courses that were meant to be mid or advanced level, only to find out, last-minute, that the school had dropped all prerequisites for the course. These courses had graduating majors alongside freshmen who'd never taken a single course in the subject, let alone heard of most of the theorists our readings were building upon. I can't say for sure that happened here, but regardless, given the level of student response you're describing, trust me when I say the professor knows that the students are either not doing or not understanding the readings. You don't need to email and point that out. It's very possible that your professor is at this moment scrambling to find a way to salvage the syllabus and make it workable for the students who have enrolled.

I'm no lightweight, having studied and passed constitutional law, administrative law, law and psychiatry, contracts law, consumer law and so on in law school and had a successful (if short) career interpreting and applying federal and state banking law and regulations in a highly volatile business environment. Separately, I've taken part in six archaeological field schools and have successfully tackled projects such as excavating and interpreting a thousand-year-old burial at Tiwanaku, Bolivia.

These experiences could certainly assist you in tackling Barthes, provided you felt willing to extend to Barthes the same level of intellectual openness you presumably brought to the subjects and experiences you list above. Learning to accept disciplines on their own terms, jargon and theory and all, is a useful skill, and this skill has broad applications across disciplines.

For example, it was clear that we'd be asked to interpret photographs in terms of Barthes' concepts of studium and punctum, which I'm quite convinced are utterly subjective, and treat them with the same degree of seriousness as if they were a Law of Nature on the same order as the elements of Newtonian physics.

This suggests you are not willing to take Barthes on his own terms. Which is fine. (Even if it is a bit strange, given that you include 'psychiatry' on your list and there's a fair bit of cross-pollination of capital-T-Theory, there, historically at least, and it's certainly a part of Barthes' work.) But it's not clear to me that a change in the professor's syllabus, regardless of whether it's otherwise warranted, would or could have led you, individually, to feel differently about Barthes.

frankly, i'm an academic in the humanities and there are plenty of theorists i feel this way about; even those of us who teach theory for a living have theorists we like and theorists we... don't. barthes is pretty foundational, though -- for many disciplines, not just art history -- so if you're not willing to tolerate studium and punctum, or at least accept that regardless of your feelings the theory is not necessarily 'nonsensical,' you're gonna have a bad time.
posted by halation at 2:27 PM on January 13 [31 favorites]


There's a reason why most college classes have an add/drop period at the start of the semester. It's so that students can bow out gracefully if they find they are unprepared for the course. Sending an unsolicited email to the professor saying you think Barthes is nonsensical ... that would be the opposite of grace.

FWIW, I don't think you would anger the professor. You might turn into one of the "and then the student said THIS" stories that get told at academic conferences after a beer or three, though.
posted by basalganglia at 2:36 PM on January 13 [15 favorites]


"Should" you depends on what your goals would be, I suppose. But I can't imagine any goal you might have that would be achieved here. Most professors do not care why any individual student drops their class in the first few weeks - there are a million reasons why that might happen, it's exactly what the add/drop period is designed for, everything is working as it should if you have figured out early that it is not a class for you. This is not a bad outcome in the professor's mind. If their students begin to drop like flies they will care, but in that case if they want your feedback about why you left, they will ask for it. Otherwise, a note from a single student is not likely to make any difference in how they choose to teach their class in future.

I don't think that you're likely to get negative pushback if you send such an email, other than the possible reputational hit that you don't care about. But it's unlikely to accomplish anything useful either, and there are probably better uses of your time and energy.
posted by Stacey at 2:42 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


At risk of sounding uncharitable, it kinda sounds like you want the chance to tell the professor that you were too clever for his course, in case he thinks you were not clever enough.

You've told us, be content with that and move on to study something you'll enjoy.
posted by penguin pie at 2:45 PM on January 13 [87 favorites]


What goodbyewaffles said: College* is all about working with texts that initially feel inaccessible.

I took a course in philosophy ages ago, where the key text* was famously difficult, inscrutable, or nonsensical, depending on point of view. The professor's approach was to perform a close reading (with the goal of setting aside facile skepticism, assume the author was intelligent, etc.) and try to construct a meaningful 'translation' of it into something that made sense on its terms and we could appreciate in modern philosophical setting. Much of it was over my head, but I did learn a valuable intellectual lesson about really trying to understand things with open minded generosity before starting in on the criticism.

I have read Barthes with appreciation (A Lover's Discourse) -- so I counsel patience.

* Course: 19th century European philosophy; text: Hegel, 1807, Phenomenology of Mind
posted by lathrop at 2:53 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Professor's perspective:
Professors often even lack the time to pay special attention to such students who actually are on board with the course's content but are asking for extra attention. It's sad, but that's just how it is.

There's certainly no time to engage with students who have abandoned ship, and the reasons are unlikely to matter much in that framework.

Your perspective:
As others mentioned, it may be upsetting to have to deal with complex or obscure theory. We've all been there. I read a book on actor-network theory in its entirety three times while making annotations, and I still have difficulties with some of its parts. The way you're recounting all your academic achievements, it sure seems like you're a little, let's say, miffed about the whole thing. But not being able to penetrate a difficult book on the first go is really nobody's fault at all. There's nothing of consequence you'll be able to tell your professor.
posted by Namlit at 3:23 PM on January 13 [8 favorites]


As you say, you have "no background in photographic theory and criticism." Your professor does -- which is why they set the reading list for this course, not you. Do not send that email.

For what it's worth, Barthes's Camera Lucida is a foundational text, assigned all the time in college courses, and was immediately considered to be an important work -- reviewed, even, in the New York Times -- when it was first published. That reviewer had many of the same issues you had with it, actually.

I would encourage you to do research on titles you find difficult in the future; finding out what other people have said about a reading selection (both how they've summarized it and what they've thought about it) will help you not only better understand but also respond to a challenging text.

Moreover, I get the sense that it's maybe important for you, especially, to realize that getting an education is a lot about learning how to find and listen to the insights other experts may have to offer.
posted by pinkacademic at 3:30 PM on January 13 [17 favorites]


As a professor myself, I will say two things:
1) You are not the first person to disagree with Barthes and you are not an "academic pioneer" on this subject;
2) Your professor is a literal expert in this and you are not. Maybe they know what they are doing. Any reason you might be quick to discredit them and their expertise? Might be worth thinking about.
posted by sockermom at 3:33 PM on January 13 [29 favorites]


If it makes you feel better, go ahead. It's a basically harmless thing to do. But don't expect it to have any effect. IAAP too, and I don't care why people drop a course I'm teaching. Likewise, I don't care very much what any one student think about a course. I would care about what the course as a whole thought, but I wouldn't need your feedback to have a good sense of that.

want to avoid angering the professor and causing him to respond to me in the heat of the moment with hurtful statements of an ad hominem nature

I won't say that would never happen, but whether or not that happens will be more or less unaffected by anything you do or don't do. Someone who's enough of a dysfunctional asshole to do that because you criticized their course is also enough of a dysfunctional asshole to do that because you dropped the course, or because you were walking too slowly in the corridor, or because the sky is blue.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 4:13 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


For example, it was clear that we'd be asked to interpret photographs in terms of Barthes' concepts of studium and punctum, which I'm quite convinced are utterly subjective, and treat them with the same degree of seriousness as if they were a Law of Nature on the same order as the elements of Newtonian physics. I couldn't face doing that without also voicing my dissent. It seems that would make me an academic pioneer

1. Disagreeing with Barthes, or with anyone else you're asked to read on a college syllabus, would not make you an academic pioneer.

2. Demonstrating your mastery of a conceptual framework, by not only describing it adequately on a written test but by actively applying it to new content not already analyzed by the theorist, is an excellent intellectual exercise. It does not require believing in the framework and it is a very basic error to think that it does. If you must believe in a concept in order to understand it, rhetorically manipulate it, and apply as if it were valid, you will be seriously limited in the classes you can take and the points of view you can understand.

2. 5. You say it yourself: as if. That is exactly correct.

3. If you took a different tone and scaled the length of your complaints way down, your professor might have been very pleased to receive essentially this question as your discussion response. Professors are usually beaten down enough by mid-career to be happy when someone cares enough about the material to dispute it, as it proves they've read it.

4. but it's too late now. The time to bring up your Barthes issues was when you were enrolled in the course.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:20 PM on January 13 [33 favorites]


Barthes was standard fare at my college and he's not especially esoteric. But I also audited classes for fun, and enjoyed learning about Wittgenstein.

I almost took organic chemistry, but dropped out because it was above my depth. It never crossed my mind to convey my dissatisfaction - academic standards should always be higher, not lower. The solution is to check out the syllabus and do your homework before enrolling. Graduate school/life will not spoon feed you.
posted by thesockpuppet at 4:25 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


No, don’t email the professor. Dropping the class is a strong enough message. Also, you seem to have set parameters for his response, so the likelihood you’d be satisfied with his response is low.

If you send him what you’ve written here, it would be disrespectful of his time— it’s long, and he should be spending time on students in the class. Next, it comes across as insulting to his expertise, and to the other students.

You’re also making the typical criticisms of Barthes (humanities/theory in general) but presenting them as though they’re novel. In general, you sound defensive about your own intelligence and skill— to me, it sounds defensive, to others, it might come across pompous—but you have nothing to prove.

While in the course, you certainly had the option of telling the professor you don’t quite know what to make of something (even in the essay.) This was hard for me to accept in my schooling, as I was the sort to drop something at which I didn’t immediately, effortlessly excel. I wonder if you have a bit of that as well.
posted by kapers at 5:44 PM on January 13 [7 favorites]


No, for the reasons above, don't send that email.

Just to clarify - by "pioneer", did you mean to type "pariah"?
I can only make sense of that sentence if I make that substitution.
posted by Acari at 6:35 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


OK, I'm a humanities professor, and I want to add another bit of something here --not necessarily just for you, OP, since by now you have the general consensus, and you either agree with it or you don't; but maybe for another reader of this post who comes into this conversation at this moment in our society when the liberal arts are generally under such widely scorching attack for being what you seem to think here -- some kind of ruse.
1. Sometimes, the kind of initial irritation or even rage you seem to feel towards this text is itself a good clue that there's a spark, if you don't dismiss the text out of hand -- a clue that something in the book is going to ignite exciting, disquieting ideas you can't quite get to yet. If this were a romantic comedy, you and the book would have just bumped into each other in the supermarket and spilled the contents of its purse and starting arguing and think you hate each other. You know what happens next, but only if the characters keep meeting.
2. About Camera Lucida: I love this book very much, and I will tell you that the concept of the punctum specifically has changed my life, deepened my joy in the capacity of the world to surprise me and made me appreciate the limits of my own interpretive mastery of the world, and the world will always have the final word.
3. There are a few texts in my life that, after first thinking they were nonsense, I gave myself over to reading again and again, until they suddenly shook my foundations in a way that basically felt like an intellectual version of geomagnetic pole reversal. One was a book by Foucault, which made no sense until suddenly I saw the world in a reverse background/foreground -- and I disagreed with a lot of it and still think there is a hell of a lot wrong with it, but I can't unsee his vision, and it's completely deepened my own. The other was a long Wallace Stevens poem, and reading it about 80 times one night for an assignment when I was an undergraduate meant that suddenly it clicked -- even though yes, it doesn't actually "make sense" -- it has become a key piece of furniture in my internal living room. If I'd just looked at it and thought "this makes no sense," I would not have that piece of furniture, and my living room would be a little bit more bare.
4. It's said you sometimes have to knock three times at the door of a book before it opens. This has happened to me many times. Three is the charm.
Anyway, you certainly don't have to like Barthes, and you will probably be happier dropping the class, and this thread made it clear you shouldn't tell your professor that Barthes is an imposter. But these days, I'd like to take the opportunities as they arise to defend theory, not because it thinks it's natural science, which it doesn't, but because there is value in passionate human thinking that's been developed, circulated, and shared, and to see its influence on other things, and yes, to rigorously debate it.
posted by flourpot at 6:41 PM on January 13 [88 favorites]


also, in case it hasn't been said enough, humanities classes don't tell you what to think unless something is really wrong with the institution or the professor is incompetent. They tell you what to think about. (For the duration of the class.) They take a bunch of related things, put them in an order and a relation to each other, and ask you to think about them.

something has given you the idea that dropping the course was the right thing to do not just for you, but for the rest of the class, as if arguing with texts isn't what humanities classes are fundamentally for. but that is what they are for. you have to do it in the idiom of the discipline, and you have to get the timing and duration of the argument right, and you have to engage with texts that you might consider beneath your notice, you can't just discard them. but you are supposed to form your own opinions and express them cogently. Including the opinion that certain terms or theories are incoherent or incorrect, if that's what you think. that doesn't make you a rebel or a troublemaker, it makes you a good student if you do it right.

if you were writing a first response that wasn't meant to be as long or as formal as a paper, it would be completely acceptable and a good idea to say that you find such and such a term difficult to understand and work with because of the imprecision of....&c. it is a danger sign if you position yourself as the only person to have noticed a flaw, because you almost never will be. but you can certainly talk about what you think are flaws.

You don't sound like Barthes etc. is actually beyond you, just like you're easily annoyed and smart enough to understand there's a lot of context that you don't have. but a fresh reaction unspoiled by prepackaged intros and guides is useful to have; dropping students into primary texts before giving them that information -- inevitably biased by whoever's summarizing it for them -- is not everybody's favorite thing but it is a worthwhile pedagogical technique. (and it is my favorite thing.)

traditionally aged undergrads are terrific bullshitters, traditionally, because they don't care that much about what they're reading and because they think the correct way to write an assignment is to pretend you know whatever you're supposed to know. Highlighting the things you don't understand, if done thoughtfully and in good faith, is better. not only that, but professors often like it more. you can do that in any other classes you enroll in.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:41 PM on January 13 [17 favorites]


this thread made it clear you shouldn't tell your professor that Barthes is an imposter

Asking your professor why Barthes isn't an imposter would be an excellent beginning to your understanding if you are open to/intrigued by the answers in good faith. Some of the posters above have come down on you quite hard and I wonder if this has something to do with current campus-based right wing attacks on the humanities and expertise in general. But an enquiring student who engages with the text is a great thing, as queenofbithynia is kindly informing you. By the way, why didn't you ask the professor about 'intelligible interpretations of Barthes' writings on photography?'

Not to be unkind but why would you study something if you already know all there is to know about it?
posted by glasseyes at 7:41 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


I couldn't face doing that without also voicing my dissent. It seems that would make me an academic pioneer, as I have had a difficult time finding any scholarly articles that take Barthes apart and offer alternative ways of understanding and writing about photography.

No offence, but hardly a pioneer. You might find the discussion of photography in analytic philosophy confounding or annoying for its own reasons, but not because it engages too heavily with Barthes or other theorists in the so-called Continental tradition. Here's a recent example.

In fact, with your law background, you may find the intellectual temperament operating in analytic philosophy congenial.
posted by Beardman at 2:02 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


If the responses in this thread are any guide, your chances of not "causing him to respond to me in the heat of the moment with hurtful statements of an ad hominem nature" are poor indeed.
posted by thelonius at 1:46 AM on January 16


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