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Everything Has A Petroleum-Like Smell

By Jeremy Gulley

To the students of the 2010 American Literature class at Fort Scott Community College that ended Sept. 24 after meeting five straight Saturdays:

During the last five weeks of class, we studied the music and life of Bob Dylan, we read On The Road, by Jack Kerouac, A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean, poems by Langston Hughes, and many other stories, poems and essays by writers who had a significant impact on the face of American Literature.

I just finished reading your evaluations and feedback of the class. I always look forward to feedback and I take every comment seriously. Your comments were different from the typical feedback, however. For the most part, all you wrote was:

“Everything has a petroleum-like smell.”

To this, I say thank you.

A note for those who did not participate in this class:

Community colleges give students and teachers interesting opportunities to create learning environments. When students and teachers come together as strangers and end up sharing a common experience, the results can be life changing.

Over the last five Saturdays, I had the pleasure to teach a class on American Literature from 1945. We met from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and though that may seem like a long day, the students in this class made the experience one of the best I’ve ever had.

The fact that there were no negative attitudes helped, that is for sure. The food was also a nice touch; communities are formed more easily when food is involved. But the real secret to the class was the energy, imagination and engagement that each of these students brought with them.

So why did the students write this quote on the evaluations?

During one class I told a story about the philosopher William James. James experimented with hallucinogenic drugs in order to push the limits of the human mind. During one hallucination, he thought he had made a major philosophical breakthrough. When he sobered up, he looked at the phrase and found he had written, “Everything has a Petroleum-like smell.”

Rather than admit that the thoughts he had on drugs were meaningless, he concluded that the brilliance of the phrase could only be appreciated if one were in a drug induced state. Our class shared a laugh at the idea that a man can be so arrogant and stubborn that he won’t even admit that the phrase “Everything has a petroleum-like smell” is as meaningless as it sounds. But to us it became meaningful.

This phrase became a symbol of the community of learners we created during the last five weeks. It symbolized the idea that a shared experience is as educational as any textbook, and that real learning comes from interaction with other people, opening up to new ideas, exploring topics that seem distant and challenging, and engaging in a community focused on learning something new about the world and ourselves.

As I read the evaluations, I couldn’t help but laugh at the memories of a class that spent a lot of time on fairly bleak and depressing subjects and ended up continuing an inside joke that helped illustrate the importance of Community in the Community College.

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Posted by Jeremy on Sep 29 2010. Filed under Jeremy Gulley, Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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