Moving on after a disappointing first Lit Trad essay

Freshmen taking Lit Trad I may be disappointed with their grades on their first Lit Trad paper, however, this is not a career-defining paper. Photo by Paulina Martin.

Dear Freshmen,

I am a junior English major and I am still recovering from my first Literary Tradition I essay.

It’s that time of year again. As I stroll down the Mall with my backpack filled with Norton anthologies and books for Junior Poet, I see you freshmen eagerly walking with big smiles on your faces to your first Lit Trad I class, armed with your brand new copies of The Iliad.  It’s in these moments that I think back to my Lit Trad I days.

Now, you must understand, I had no intention of majoring in English when I applied to the University of Dallas. I debated all through high school whether I would major in art or philosophy. I ended up enrolling as an enthusiastic philosophy major and the thought of changing my major, especially to English, had never even crossed my mind. But the Fates decided otherwise in my Lit Trad I class with Dr. Crider, my Virgil.

Like every other freshman, I read The Iliad. And eventually, the official inauguration of a UD student was assigned: the first Lit Trad I essay.

I was confident. I had a 3.9 GPA in high school. I had written a 16-page research paper. I had read classical literature throughout my middle school and high school education and my reading SAT score was Harvard-worthy. I thought I knew the right thing to say and the right way to write. And so, I wrote. And I turned in my first Lit Trad I essay without blinking an eye. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, a big red D. That’s what went wrong.

I stared blankly at the paper for a moment as I stood in the English department next to Dr. Crider’s mailbox. I don’t remember how long I stood there, my eyes glued to that fat letter as if somehow the power of my gaze would change its significance.

A D? On my paper? At first I thought I’d gotten the wrong paper, but no. Mary Emily Johnson, my name, was printed at the top.

Maybe I should’ve pulled an Odysseus and signed it as “No Man” so I could be spared the shock of seeing that letter next to my name.

I stood there for a moment longer, still processing the glaring D. Writing was something with which I had never struggled before. Math, yes. Writing, no. What was I doing wrong? I had to figure this out.

“I must redeem myself,” I thought. “I didn’t realize that there was so much I didn’t know.”

Then I began walking, and I didn’t stop until I reached the registrar’s office.

“I’m the craziest person I know,” I thought to myself as I walked up to the desk.

“How can I help you?” asked the woman behind the desk.

“I’d like to change my major to English.” I said.

She handed me the yellow major change form without question. I filled the blank spaces, and ran right back up the stairs to Dr. Roper’s office to get it signed.

And, dear freshmen, here I am, a junior English major beginning Junior Poet and loving every single moment of it.

What I’m trying to tell you is this: no matter what you get on your first Lit Trad I essay, it’s going to be okay.  Do not be discouraged. It’s not the end of your academic career. You’ll probably laugh about it later, so don’t panic too much. As long as you work hard and pick yourself back up, you’ll find your ground again.

We are all learning. We all had to start somewhere, and, if you’re like me, the starting point may be a tad lower than you were expecting. But why would you pay tuition to go to a private school like this if it had nothing to teach you?

The biggest lesson I learned in my freshman year was to learn to love learning, and to take Keats’ idea of negative capability to heart by becoming comfortable with less-than-complete comprehension. My first Lit Trad I paper made me realize that there’s a lot that I need to learn, not just in English, but in everything.

I learned that there are mysteries in literature, but this is what makes literature beautiful. It is in these mysteries that we make discoveries that we would have never made before. In changing my major to English, I embarked on a journey of discovery.


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