Campus Dispatches

In honor of the start of the academic year, Darryl Campbell shares some of the more interesting things he learned in college.

Photo by Kevin Dooley

I. The Risks of Plagiarism

A group of four roommates each took the same course, an introduction to marine biology, in four consecutive years. It was taught by an old professor who was nearing retirement, and was known campus-wide for being what we called a “gut class” — in other words, an easy pass. Not only was the professor an easy grader, he also never changed his syllabus, the required textbooks, or even the assignment prompts. Cheap, unchallenging, and easily gamed: what more could anyone ask for?

The first of the roommates took the course their freshman year. He attended class faithfully (and even remained awake for most of them), did decently on exams, and wrote a final paper at the last minute that earned him a B in the class.

The next year, the second roommate took the same class. He skipped a few classes, borrowed the books to study, and, when it came time to do the final paper, simply copied his roommate’s old paper wholesale, with one minor change: he added a cover sheet. He earned a B+ in the class.

Their junior year, the third roommate took the class. He only showed up to the first and last classes and on exam days, he read his roommate’s notes but didn’t bother with the books at all. He submitted the exact same paper as his previous two roommates had done — except this time, he added a picture of a whale to the front cover. He got an A in the class.

The last roommate, figuring that he couldn’t argue with three years of success, and having been afflicted with a particularly bad case of senioritis, took the class, at least on paper: despite being on the official enrollment, he never showed up, never bothered with the reading, and memorized the answers from past exams without learning any of the concepts. But he balked at the prospect of turning in the same final paper for the fourth year in a row. Surely, he figured, if the writing didn’t tip off the professor, the cover sheet would. So he went back to the original: no picture, no title page.

But when the last roommate got his paper back, he was shocked — he’d received an F on the paper, and consequently an F in the class. The professor had left him only one comment:

“Still a good paper, but what happened to the whale?”

II. Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

During dinner one evening, one of my friends started to tell us about a recent class he’d taken on genetic diversity in plants, and its consequences for agriculture — specifically, the plight of the modern banana. Wild bananas are full of hard, inedible seeds, so in order to make bananas palatable, commercial banana growers have developed cultivars that have no seeds. This makes the bananas sterile, so in order to produce more banana trees, farmers cut part of the banana’s underground stem and transplant it in a new location.

However, this also means that most bananas are genetically identical to each other, and are susceptible to the same diseases. And recently, a mutation of Panama disease has started attacking the poor Cavendish, which, like the Gros Michel, has little genetic diversity and can’t stand up to this new, improved blight. We may be on the verge of another great banana shortage.

Now, all of this is true: you can find out about it on Wikipedia, or in the pages of Popular Science, or The New York Times. And because our friend was both a reliable source of science news and not given to hyperbole, bathos, or absurdity in any form, we of course took him at his word.

But then he said, in complete seriousness, “The professor said that’s why NASA is going to try to save bananas by launching them into space.”

III. Rules of Thumb

Life lessons are abundant at the beginning and the end of the year, and a lot of them are pretty much the same. For instance, remember that if a school newspaper interviews you, always ask to double-check your quotes before they go to print. Remember that they are students like you, and their budding sense of journalistic integrity has to compete with things like alcohol, laziness, and sloppy note-taking. Sometimes, it makes for harmless nonsense. Other times, you can find yourself with an undeserved reputation for libertarian nutjobbery or promiscuity.Other, pithier advice:

  • It is possible to create an ersatz lava lamp with a glass of water, some olive oil, and a few shakes of table salt.
  • For one week only, you may take a seat next to a totally random person in the dining hall, talk about the committees you were on in high school, or share your SAT scores. After that, most people will mistake your eager freshman solicitousness for smug nosiness, and will also probably be right.
  • If a lot of your peers are going on to Wall Street, it probably means the market is probably on the verge of a major correction.
  • Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear. Beer before liquor, also great.

Photo by Kevin Dooley

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.