As God is my witness, I’ll arrange this glass [microscope] so that you see cells through it or I’ll give up teaching…
James Thurber writes about his struggles to survive his college stint at Ohio State University in his humorous essay “University Days.” Thurber does not mind laughing at himself while recounting his frustrating classes that kept him from graduating. His narration is first person with his wry sense of humor shining through.
The first absurd class situation was his botany class. In order to graduate, Thurber had to pass a science class. Both he and his professor struggled through two attempts of Thurber trying to make the grade. The problem lay in Thurber’s inability to see anything through a microscope. Without his glasses, Thurber was unable to see anything. Looking through a microscope with thick glasses made it impossible for Thurber to see a cell and draw it:
So we tried every adjustment of the microscope known to man. With one of them I saw a constellation of flecks, specks, and dots. These I hastily drew. The instructor came back. He looked at my cell drawing. ‘What’s that?’ he demanded, with a squeal in his voice. ‘That’s what I saw,’ I said. ‘You didn’t, you didn’t, and you didn’t!’ he screamed, losing control instantly, and squinted into the microscope. His head snapped up. ‘That’s your eye!’ he shouted. ‘You’ve fixed the lens so that it reflects! You’ve drawn your eye!’
Unfortunately, the professor survived, but Thurber did not pass the class.
Another humorous narrative comes from gymnasium class. The day that the class began, the students had to take off their clothes. Thurber’s displeasure came from stripping and trying to answer questions at the same time. He found it hard to do both at the same time and stay focused.
Another problem again surrounded his inability to see without his glasses. The rules for the games stated that a student could not wear glasses and participate in the activities. Apparently, the school was factory like to the point of disregarding individual student needs. Thurber ran into everything and everyone:
I bumped into professors, horizontal bars, agricultural students, and swinging iron rings.
The swimming nearly drove Thurber over the edge. He did not like to swim nor did he like the instructor. The gym class was so depersonalized that identification was a matter of number. Cleverly, Thurber beat the impersonal system by getting another student to assume his number.
The students at OSU had to participate in two years of military drills. Thurber was so poor at the drills that the commandant of the school, General Littlefield, a stereotypical military man, stood in front of him and snapped: “You are the main trouble with this university!”
However, after four years of a two year course, Thurber’s drill participation earns him an award, though the general cannot remember who he is or why he has come to his office.
Although intended to be humorous, the incidences add up to create a rather harsh indictment of Thurber's college days. His classes often depicted students struggling in a rather demoralizing university setting with instructors unable to relate to their students.