In the fall of 1986 my first homework assignment in college was to find the word "spurious" used in context in any published work...except reference books. Few of us had our own computers (the university library barely had a few) and even if we did, most used computers for word processing--we knew nothing of the fledgling concept of internet.
We had the better part of two days and nights to pull this off.
No surprise, I could not find "spurious". My strategy was simple. Open as many books as I could, flip through them, scan, and hopefully find the needle in a haystack. I had no idea what the word meant, but I hunted it. For a few hours that first afternoon I rifled through books in the library, took a break for dinner, and then returned to the chore for several more hours. Occasionally, I recognized someone from this class of 300 who also went with this limpid method. No one I knew found it.
Spurious. Where the hell is it?
At the beginning of our next class a modest number of students held index cards in their hands. They'd found it.
I had nothing to pass to the front. Among many others, I'd failed my first college homework assignment miserably. I couldn't even submit anything.
Our professor, sort of a cross between a grouchy Warren Frost (George Costanza's father-in-law, Mr. Ross) and the current state of Jason Robards, collected them and just as quickly shuffled through the stack. He went on silent for several minutes.
When he finished he dropped the index cards into his briefcase, clapped it closed, and remained silent for another minute. Without lifting his head and hunched shoulders he groused that many cheated--merely copied the answer from another. I remember him adding, "These index cards are probably from the same goddamn box." He often colorfully spit the word "goddamn" into many statements which were not class-related. Catch him socially and you'd be certain to feel the spritz of some "goddamns" from his lips.
So, he punctuated his disgust with his "goddamn" and then he wandered free of the topic. Never addressed it again. Never. Just allowed his lecture to tumble onto something else and then something else and he never came back to it. Nevertheless, it is the one homework assignment in all of my years of education which I remember. And I'd failed at it. And I'm not free of it. Quite honestly, without the internet I still don't know how I'd attack the assignment differently today, a full 25 years later. Googling the assignment now is a piece of cake now and I wonder how poor Professor Grumblejowl adjusted the assignment when the internet infiltrated the university campus...
It makes me wonder what his purpose was behind the assignment. And I have wondered this on and off for 25 years: to have us open books? to learn to find a difficult answer? to have to use the tools which were around us? to have to get out of our dorm rooms and into the library? to actually learn the meaning of the word "spurious"? to see who cheated, who quit, and who already possessed the skills of a good researcher?
But he didn't tell us...and that makes me wonder as well. Why not tell us? If you are an educator or a coach I'm a firm believer that you have to tell young people why. Why they succeeded, failed, have to do something or even avoid something.
Twenty-five years later and I am a teacher myself reflecting on an assignment I'd failed when I was 18-years-old. I didn't care so much then as I was busy writing limericks with the cute girl next to me in the enormous lecture hall. I don't remember the professor's name, and I don't remember her name. But I remember the "goddamn" word of the homework assignment: spurious.
What I care about is what was (or was not) behind the assignment. I don't much matter where the word "spurious" is or isn't. It isn't my white whale. At the very least I took something away from that failed 25-year-old assignment and the older I get I'm beginning to suspect that what I've found is exactly the answer Professor Grumblejowl wanted us to find in the first place.
He didn't much care where the word "spurious" was either. He didn't believe we'd find the answer then anyway--we weren't supposed to. And I now understand they he couldn't tell us why and shouldn't have told us why.
I just wish I had the means to pass him an index card to let him know.