As readers of this blog know, I am working on editing Elwyn Robinson's Autobiography, A Professor's Story. So far, I've managed to read and annotate three chapters. These chapters cover Robinson's childhood on his grandparents farm in Ohio, his school age years in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and his college years at Oberlin College (1924-1928). Robinson's descriptions of his surroundings are particularly vivid. He has a sure knack for describing equipment, buildings, and places. He then fills these spaces with smartly drawn characters.
His sense of place and character provides the backdrop for his own reminiscences. Despite his eventual achievements in the scholarly realm (if you have not read his magisterial History of North Dakota, you should), he is nowhere above revealing his own struggles and failings in the academic realm. His transition from small town Ohio education to the demanding (if friendly) expectations at Oberlin was particularly difficult. As freshmen at the University of North Dakota, where Robinson taught for so many years, work to make this same transition, it is perhaps useful to excerpt a section from his autobiography:
I might have done better scholastically if I had not chosen English as a major. None of the "A's" I made were in my major. I think (I have no transcript to refer to though there is one somewhere in my papers in the manuscript division of the Chester Fritz Library) that I may have made an "A" in trigonometry, possibly one in one semester in zoology, and perhaps one in Latin American history. On examinations I believe that often I knew all or nearly all the answers, but I could not express them with the sharpness and grasp of their meaning and relevance that the best of the students could. So generally when I tried the hardest I ended up with a B+, not an A. And that was right. In such company I was not at the top. And I might very well have fared better in one of the sciences, mathematics, or history. But I came to Oberlin enamored with literature. And English was the most popular major at Oberlin. The department had a number of attractive professors. And so I selected it as a major without any hesitation or questioning.
I had some difficulty scholastically at the beginning of my freshman year. I was having difficulty, apparently, in freshman composition, so Brit Tenney [a friend of Robinson's from Chagrin Falls] helped me by reading over my compositions and making corrections before I recopied them and turned them in. I don't recall any trouble in French, English literature, or trigonometry, but on the first test in Ancient History (Greece) I received a"D" even though I had studied conscientiously. I was badly shaken by the "D" and went to talk to the instructor, Professor Alexander, a former Rhodes scholar. The problem was that I had not learned how to study in high school. Professor Alexander gave me suggestions on how to prepare the history material, and I rapidly improved, earning a "B" for the semester in History of Greece. [N.B. Leigh Alexander was a Princeton-trained Classicist and head of the department for years at Oberlin. His 1911 dissertation was on fragments of Nicholas of Damascus on the Lydian Kings and was written under William K. Prentice.]
Good lessons for anyone struggling in their first semester: have someone read your work before you turn it in, talk to your professors, and accept that studying in college is different from studying in high school.